With Android L, Google means business

Google's assertion of platform control could make Android an equal to iOS in functionality and business fit

androids everywhere
Credit: Jake Maymar

It's a weird dichotomy: Android has soared into popularity, though it's much less capable than iOS -- among individual users, anyhow. In business, iOS far dominates because of its capability and security. You can use an iPad or iPhone safely to do real business work, but not so with an Android tablet or smartphone.

Lots of reasons come into play: Google has never taken security or device management seriously, a big fraction of the world's Android devices are cheap, barely capable devices running a subset of Android called AOSP, and Google's data-mining model has trained users to not pay for apps (thus limiting developer investment).

Apple's business model has encouraged the opposite values: It makes money by selling actual stuff and by getting a cut from what its developers sell. This encourages development of stuff that, well, is valuable enough for users to pay for.

Apple also understood early that neutralizing IT's security concerns and providing compelling apps like iWork, iMovie, and Exchange-compatible Mail and Calendars meant it could get entrenched where the big money is. Then it acted accordingly.

Google seems to have finally decided that Android should take a similar approach, while also playing to its data-mining strength, which is the core of Google's whole business (knowing a lot about you to sell you to advertisers).

So in the upcoming Android L we see two key shifts that should improve Android's depth and appeal for "serious," iOS-like usage outside Android's historic social networking, media, and gaming areas of focus.

When Android becomes consistently secure, business adoption will follow

The first shift is that Android L will enable device encryption by default, so Android devices are IT-compliant out of the box.

That's only the start. At its I/O conference in June, Google made big if vague promises to step up its security and management game as well. It showed some seriousness by acquiring several security providers, such as Divide, in the last year -- a big reversal of when it jettisoned the solid 3LM security technology that came with the Motorola Mobility acquisition a few years back.

iOS has proven that security and usability need not be contradictory attributes -- as long as the capabilities are consistent and broadly supported through APIs. Android is not as insecure as many in IT fear; its big issues are the broad inconsistency across devices and its Windows-like susceptibility to traditional malware. My take is that IT is willing to risk the malware issue if the Android platform can be managed consistently. I hear the "let's look beyond iOS" notion increasingly from IT folks.

By neutralizing Samsung's market-splitting and troubled Knox, Google seems to be on track to create a similarly consistent, dependable security and management ecosystem for Android that would allow IT to accept Android more broadly. If that happens, the apps should follow. Microsoft has already said it's working on Office for Android, which would for the first time put a serious office productivity suite on Android; that's a core business area supported by only iOS so far.

When Android is managed like an ecosystem, users, developers, and IT all win

The second shift is a rationalization of the Android platform itself.

Google will reportedly force Android device makers to include more of its services and restrict the custom services that many providers have offered. If true (I believe it is), that's not good for Samsung, HTC, and so forth, but it should make Android devices more consistent and equally capable. That's more data-mining revenue for Google, but it could also lead to an easier world for users, developers, and IT to work in.

By treating Android more as an ecosystem and less as the foundation for others to build on, Google might get the high network-effect benefits iOS enjoys. Developers could create complex apps with less worry that they'll break across popular devices. If Android apps could do what iOS apps can, Android would truly threaten iOS in business.

Consistency across the platform and greater assurance of app compatibility would make it much easier for both business users and IT to adopt Android as more than a communications and browsing tool.

Google needs to find a way to make money from Android beyond data mining, because companies will not accept their internal communications and data being used that way. Google dropped the data-mining model from its its enterprise version of Google Apps some time ago, and it could do so again.

It'd be great for everyone but Apple if Android was a serious platform for business usage. It might finally happen with Android L.

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