Android in business? Don't be fooled

The newest Android OS's claims over Exchange support obscure a key fact: It's not really there

As Google and its carriers begin to make the Android 2.2 OS (aka Froyo) available to the slew of devices from Motorola, HTC, LG, and so on, one repeatedly trumpeted claim is that it has better Microsoft Exchange support, making it usable in many businesses that heretofore would have blocked it.

This support, Android fan boys say, mean that Google's mobile OS is finally ready to take on the iPhone and even BlackBerry in the corporate world.

No such luck.

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The sad truth is that Android 2.2, like its predecessors, supports only unsecured Exchange accounts, which pretty much rules out any business accounts. Froyo does add some nice features for users of unsecured Exchange, namely autodiscovery of Exchange settings and new APIs that let software developers create Android mobile management tools. But when you try to connect to a secured Exchange account, you get the message, "This server requires security features your phone does not support." It's better than the blank screen in previous versions of the Android OS, but you're still unable to use the phone for corporate email.

Now the devil in the details is that Froyo does support some Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies, so you could relax your security permissions at the Exchange server -- but that risks not conforming to regulations or security standards your business established for presumably good reason. If you're able to lower your standards, the easiest way to let Android devices onto Exchange is to enable the "allow nonprovisioned devices" policy -- which really means "allow noncompliant devices," and not just Android ones.

Or you could spend $20 to get NitroDesk's TouchDown email client, which does support EAS policies. There's a free trial version so you can test it. The TouchDown client works, though it's separate from the rest of your email and doesn't let you navigate through your mail folders; you can see all messages or just inbox messages, but you can move messages into your folders.

(If you use IBM's Lotus Notes, TouchDown also works with version 8.5.1 of that email server, using the Notes Traveler capabilities. IBM promises to release a native Lotus Notes client for Android OS 2.x some time this year.)

Despite these workarounds, the bottom line is that Android OS can't do the job in a corporate Exchange environment, unlike Windows Mobile and BlackBerry (which have supported these policies for years) and even the iPhone (which has supported them for a year). And I don't mean high-security policies -- at InfoWorld, our Exchange administrators require only two basic EAS policies to be adhered to, and Android 2.2 can't even do that.

Last fall, I criticized Apple for not letting users know a bug in iPhone OS 3.0 caused its smartphones to lie to Exchange about the EAS policies it supported, allowing some devices onto corporate networks that shouldn't have been granted access. Apple's sin was of not owning up to the flaw so that users could take remedial action until the software was fixed. That was passively dishonest.

Google's sin is much worse: Google, its carriers, and its hardware makers claim without qualification that Android supports Exchange, knowing that it in fact does not fully do so. The Android developer forum on Google.com is full of complaints about this unmet support and has been for some time. Google's staff replies basically amount to "We hear you and have it on our list." This is actively dishonest. Shame on them all.

If you're looking for a smartphone to use at work, forget the advertising and marketing claims. The truth is that you have three viable options: a BlackBerry, an iPhone (though not for highest-level security needs), and a Windows Mobile device. Although Google and its Android allies talk up Exchange support, the truth is that Android is a couple years behind Apple and a decade behind Microsoft and RIM in corporate Exchange support. That means Android is fine for personal use -- and for personal use only.

This article, "Android in business? Don't be fooled," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

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