The news seems to be all Android, all the time these days, and various analysts have recently revealed predictions that Android will soon be the leading mobile platform. Despite the popularity of the Google Android platform, though, there are some critical elements of Android that make it unsuitable for business use.
Just in the past couple of weeks data has emerged that Android is quickly gaining on Apple's iOS in terms of mobile web usage, and analysts have predicted that Android will leapfrog RIM and Symbian to become the dominant mobile platform globally by 2014. But, IT admins might have a slightly different view of the Android platform.
Some cite Android's open source roots as an advantage. However, while open source platforms and applications have many theoretical benefits and advantages, they haven't been able to make much of a dent in the business world.
To be fair, open source software has managed to achieve some credibility, but a quick look at market share numbers will show you that even after decades of availability and countless assertions of its technical superiority, Linux has less than one percent of the operating system market, while Microsoft Windows enjoys greater than 90 percent. After only three years, Apple's iOS mobile platform already leapfrogged the venerable Linux in market share.
Businesses want software vendors they can work with - and point fingers at. Many companies have close relationships with the hardware and software vendors they work with, and those relationships enable more efficient and effective operation. When an issue arises, the IT department knows who to call to address and resolve it as quickly as possible. With open source, the question of "who you gonna call?" gets murky.
Too Much Diversity
Android is a capable platform and it deserves the praise it receives. But, the primary key to the success of the Android platform has been volume, and that volume is achieved through the diverse array of Android-based devices available.
The fact that you can choose from a wide variety of smartphone form factors, and select any of the major wireless carriers creates a pool of potential Android users that is significantly larger than say the subset of customers who prefer the iPhone form factor and happen to be AT&T customers. It doesn't hurt that there are frequently buy-one-get-one-free deals, or that many Android smartphones are available from Amazon for one penny.
That is great for consumers, and for the Android platform, but it is a potential nightmare for IT admins trying to manage a mobile infrastructure. One user might have a Motorola Droid 2 with Android 2.2 and the Motorola application platform, while the next has a Samsung Fascinate with Android 2.1 and the TouchWiz UI, and another has a Motorola Devour with Android 1.6 and MotoBlur.
The different hardware form factors have unique capabilities, the different Android platforms deliver unique features and functions, and the proprietary interfaces create scenarios unique to the specific device, and the IT admin has to be familiar with them all and find a way to manage and maintain them all. When a new release of Android comes along, the ability to embrace or deploy it is limited by which Android smartphones will even receive the update, and the scattered timing of the releases depending on the vendor and model.
Somewhere in the Middle
Before the zealots jump in and make this an Android v. iOS debate, the iPhone is not an ideal smartphone platform for business either. Apple takes closed source to a draconian extreme with its dummy proof "walled garden" approach, and the singular iPhone 4 (or dual if you also consider the iPhone 3GS a separate device) smartphone form factor may not be for everyone.
However, RIM has been able to dominate mobile business communications with a proprietary platform, focused on delivering tools IT admins need to monitor and manage devices remotely, and with a diverse collection of BlackBerry handsets. When Windows Phone 7 launches this fall, Microsoft should be in a similar position to deliver a smartphone platform that lies somewhere between too open and diverse, and not open and diverse enough.
All hope is not lost for Android as a business tool, though. For companies that can get past the open source issue, Android offers a powerful mobile platform and is worth consideration. IT admins can remove some of the complexity and make it more manageable by offering a single Android smartphone, or at least narrowing the options to a designated list of supported Android smartphones.
See also: Group test: what's the best smartphone?