Is Android in the business world to stay?

Why has Android's dominance taken such a long time to translate into broader uptake in the business world?

It's official, and it's been official for a while -- Android is far and away the most popular smartphone OS in America. Ever since January 2011, when the platform surpassed RIM to take the top spot for the first time in comScore's monthly market share rankings, Google's operating system has continued to grow its user base, which accounts for 52% of the market as of this January.

This growth has been created on the back of substantial software upgrades, in the form of Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean (Android 4.0 and 4.1, respectively), as well as increasingly impressive hardware from OEMs like Samsung, HTC, Sony, Motorola and LG. Last year's Samsung Galaxy S III was the first phone to dethrone the iPhone in total quarterly sales in years, according to research from Strategy Analytics, though the subsequent release of the iPhone 5 saw Apple retake the top spot quickly thereafter.

[ DO'S AND DON'TS: Using Android in business ]

It's easy to find a host of reasons for Android's ascendance among consumers -- a wide variety of devices offers more choice to prospective buyers, stronger hardware and bigger screens appeal to fans of the latest and greatest, and as of Android 4.0 and 4.1, the interface is arguably more impressive than the latest version of Apple iOS.

What's less simple, however, is figuring out why that dominance has taken such a long time to translate into broader uptake in the business world -- the conventional wisdom is that the iPhone supplanted the BlackBerry as the enterprise smartphone of choice thanks to its own wave of popularity with the consumer, which gave rise to the bring-your-own-device phenomenon.

In contrast, Android has only recently begun to become a popular option for business users, despite its ballooning overall sales numbers. So what gives?

New management, new use cases

For starters, the perception of security issues in the Android platform have limited its appeal to businesses and made IT departments jumpy about a large number of Android devices accessing the network.

However, the past year or so has seen big changes in that state of affairs, says Morten Grauballe, an executive vice president in charge of corporate development and strategy at Red Bend Software, which provides over-the-air firmware update capability to many top Android OEMs.

"Android had a disadvantage in the enterprise compared to iOS because iOS was just more secure," Grauballe says. "What's happened over the last 12 months is that the mobile device management solutions that evolved around both iOS and Android ... [have] grown in functionality when it comes to supporting the devices, so I think CIOs in enterprises are feeling more comfortable letting Android devices on their network."

Along with improved manageability, Forrester analyst David Johnson says that a new crop of use cases is helping broaden Android adoption in the business world. One such new application is what he calls "Android-on-a-stick," which is designed to provide a full desktop experience for highly mobile users like college students and consultants.

"Basically it's a headless Android device -- complete with quad-core CPU, but it's on a stick that has an HDMI end on it," Johnson explains. "[Users] can plug it into most any monitor or television that has an HDMI port and it works, but is powered by a USB port. Embedded Bluetooth and Wi-Fi allow it to connect to a keyboard and mouse, and gain access to a network."

Moreover, the idea of dedicated-use consumer devices running Android is beginning to get more popular, he says.

"There is significant interest in using low-cost, consumer-grade tablets and smartphones for a whole host of new uses, from movie ticket scanning at the theater front door, to electronic on-board recorders (EOBR) for truckers," according to Johnson. "In applications where the device needs to be fully ruggedized, Android is preferred because manufacturers can build the devices precisely to suit the need."

Custom devices aside, the cost advantages of Android are substantial for this type of bespoke application, particularly in the tablet sector. To give an example: A Google Nexus 7 tablet, as of this writing, retails for $200. That buys a 7-inch, 216ppi display, 16GB of storage and 1GB of RAM. By contrast, the cheapest iPad option available, at $329, is the basic version of the iPad Mini, which has a larger but lower-resolution screen and half as much available RAM with the same amount of storage.

Android popular now, but plenty of future demand for Apple

A recent survey of nearly 10,000 global IT workers performed by Forrester Research offers a clear indication that Android adoption in the enterprise has grown -- along with several statistics that could mean that growth will be short-lived.

According to the February Mobile Workforce Adoption Survey, Android has actually surpassed Apple as the most-used type of business smartphone, as shown below:

While that's clearly an important milestone, particularly in light of the fact that nearly half of respondents said they used smartphones in the course of their duties, the study also found that one-third of those wanted an iPhone for their next work device, compared to just 22% who wanted an Android phone.

Despite the aforementioned economic advantages for Android tablets, the business tablet world still appears to be Apple's. The iPad's usage share among Forrester's respondents is more than double the size of Android's.

The numbers also show that Apple tablets are more desired by the IT workers surveyed, by a ratio of about 2:1. (As a side note, there's a surprisingly large amount of interest in Windows tablets, outstripping both Android and Apple.)

Clearly, while Google's platform has made progress in the business world, there are major hurdles to overcome.

iOS users dipping toes into Android

The case of one user, who primarily uses iOS but has taken baby steps toward Android adoption, is illustrative. Banner Engineering is a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of industrial equipment like sensors, machine safety systems and wireless controllers. The company's enormous selection of available products -- more than 30,000 individual SKUs -- means that providing detailed information on each one is a challenge for sales representatives in the field.

"The old story was our sales reps and distributors would travel around in their cars with trunk loads full of literature and product material," says IT Director Kellie Christensen. "If you go to a customer and they ask about a certain product application opportunity, you may or may not have that material handy."

Obviously, this was far from an optimal solution, so Banner embarked on a project that brought these reams of documentation to the digital realm. The company now issues iPads to sales staff, who can use them as a reference and presentation tool.

"One of our specialties is [working] with our customer to specialize products -- so we'll have a standard product ... and if they need a slight modification to that product, or even an extensive one, we work with that customer to create what we call product specials," Christensen says.

With just one device manufacturer to support, iOS seemed like the logical choice.

"Internally, we chose iOS because it's a lot more predictable, a lot more secure. It's really been quite easy for us to support," she says. "We're a smaller shop, we have a smaller IT group here, and [Android] would just be too much for us to support."

However, Banner works with channel partners as well as its own sales staff. And not all of those partners wanted to use the iPad. Christensen says that the company used a third-party developer to translate the app over to Android.

The process was pleasantly straightforward, she notes.

"It actually was fairly easy to port [the app] over to Android devices. The biggest thing that we were dealing with from a design standpoint was that the screen was different ... and making sure that those buttons were still friendly to use and that everything could be seen on the screen," Christensen says.

Mobility vets: Don't sweat security, fragmentation too much

CompanionLink Software Marketing Director Rushang Shah says that this multi-platform environment has its own appeal to businesses, complexity issues aside.

"The business audience we've always catered to is one that values options more than being tied into one system like Apple," he argues. "That is one of the major drivers of Android's growth in the business market -- business users want options."

CompanionLink has made mobile device sync software since the days of Palm OS. Shah says CEO Wayland Bruns was one of about 30 people present at Palm's first developer conference, 18 years ago.

While the conventional wisdom holds that the two main factors holding back Android growth are security and platform fragmentation, Bruns and Shah say they question how valid those concerns still are.

According to Bruns, the issues caused by the complexity of the Android environment -- different devices, different software versions, etc. -- have been evaporating of late.

The credit for this goes to Google, he says. Ever since Android versions 2.2 and 2.3 (Froyo and Gingerbread), the company has been energetically attacking fragmentation problems.

"The API functions are better than ever at allowing us to add a new feature for new phones, and still be able to run the same software on older phones. Two years ago, we were bombarded by bugs and incompatibilities related to obscure phone models," Bruns says. "It has now been months since we have had such problems, even though we support the older phones as well as the newest Jelly Bean phones and tablets."

As to security, Shah says, there's nothing intrinsically less secure about the Android platform than iOS.

"Inherently, I don't think there's anything about the Android platform that's more risky than iOS. Yeah, Apple has this aura of 'we lock down things' but ... it's just as risky," he says.

Android/Chrome?

But will Android still be Android tomorrow? Rumors that Google would merge the mobile OS with its growing Chrome ecosystem started in earnest after the news in mid-March that longtime Android chief Andy Rubin would be making way for Sundar Pichai, who heads up Chrome and Google Apps.

The answer, for the moment, is yes, according to Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who said that the two products would remain separate during a recent trip to India.

That said, tight integration with Google's existing product infrastructure -- from Gmail to Google + to any number of other offerings -- has long been a hallmark of Android, and further blurring of the lines between Chrome and Android is far from impossible.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

Tags MotorolaStrategy AnalyticsBlackBerry smartphoneiPadAndroid tabletsComScoresamsungAppleGooglehtcapple iphoneconsumer electronicsGoogle AndroidsmartphonestabletsAndroid smartphonessoftwaresonyNetworkingAndroid enterprisehardware systemsRIMwireless

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Jon Gold

Network World

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