Recently quite a few people enquired from me whether I believe that Android is any good as an Enterprise level OS in order to tool Field-based Enterprise Mobility projects. In the past, this had been quite a contentious issue. As Android is leaving its teenage years and entering adulthood as a true contender in the mobility market this is becoming less and less so.
Previously, Android has been seen by many as a consumer driven OS. It was purpose made to perform primarily consumer driven functions. Compatibility with social platforms like Facebook and Twitter and ability to effortlessly and anywhere browse the web or quickly look up the answer to anything, stood central to their share in the market.
Many enterprise professionals and mobility deployment specialists, our firm included, were very apprehensive about supporting earlier versions of Android natively in our mobility offers. For us, a firm that is widely known as the leaders in Enterprise level mobility deployments for harsh, hazardous and outdoor environments, the most prominent reasons to do so include:
The lack of truly Ultra-Rugged Hardware to empower field workers in less than soft environments - Soft devices didn’t before and still don’t quite perform within the same cost-of ownership parameters as their ultra-rugged counterparts.
The lack of security and control over what is being executed, downloaded and utilised on an ongoing basis on these devices – Access to a familiar operating system allows people to download games, social media and other things that are not “work” related.
Lack of physical keyboards and ease of data entry – Many of us are very familiar with the level of mistakes or “autocorrect” issues that exist specifically with using a touchscreen. It is a measured fact that accuracy and speed of accurate data entry decrease with the use of a touch screen instead of a physical keyboard and that even speed of entry is impacted substantially on applications relying heavily on continuous data capturing in the field once the physical keyboard is no longer available.
The inclusion of touch screen keyboards, as a result, brought with it the need for larger screens. The softest point on most devices is its screen. The crack resistance of a screen decreases exponentially as the screen size increases. As such it follows that regardless of whether the device is deemed ultra-rugged or not, the inclusion of a touch based keyboard inadvertently decreases the device’s ruggedness by increasing its screen size.
One of the most prominent needs of mobility users is for the device to consistently last an entire shift. If the device cannot last a full shift and need to be supplemented with paper later on during the day it defeats the digitization goals of the mobility exercise. Larger screens imply more power drain and the ever increasing need for higher capacity batteries or field replaceable batteries. With this comes an increased risk of diminishing the IP sealing level associated with these devices.
For enterprise level deployment there had always been the need to create easy to use enterprise level peripherals. Forklift and vehicle-based docks with integrated charging solutions, mass deployment cradles for neat deployments in office and warehouse environments as well as communications solutions that do not require a USB cable to be plugged into the device is a necessity. In addition said solutions needed to cater for and accommodate receiving and sending data to a multitude of deployed units all at once. Such deployments were not readily available for earlier versions of Android based devices.
The above issues, over time, have now largely been alleviated. The development and re-development of the underlying Android operating system to be ever more capable and secure than before contributed massively in this quest. In addition hardware manufacturers have been embroiled in a race to provide ultra-rugged solutions for enterprise not typically plagued with the same ruggedness issues as before. Battery sizes have become more supportive of long shifts and in some ways, enterprise level charging and communications solutions have been re-designed.
Since many so called enterprise level deployments did not require an ultra-rugged device and could support BYOD for environments like financial advisors and insurance sales people these innovators are the ones that drove the industry to realise that Android provides easy and cheap access to mobility and digitization of paper based processes for large groups of distributed employees.
With Android and Web software engineering for enterprise becoming increasingly more mainstream, as well as the deployment of multiple Rapid Application development platforms such as OutSystems, SalesForce, Appian, Mendix, Agilepoint and K2 to name but a few, the cost of developing applications for Android Enterprise deployment has decreased consistently. The speed at which changes can be made for an ever changing enterprise deployment is also increased resulting in giving the customer what he really wants quicker.
With the re-development of Android, many realised the need for increased security and control over devices that may or may not natively form part of your distributed corporate network. The need for virus protection and usage control drove the development of endpoint security platforms and corporate anti-virus for industry on mobile. With these solutions, it would be possible to secure a corporate network whilst simultaneously allowing a user complete access and freedom on his personal device which happens to be connected to the same corporate network. In other deployments, users could be limited to only utilise those functions authorised for their shift/job function on the corporately issued device on the corporate network or VPN.
With all of the above in mind, we are still skittish to recommend Android as the OS of choice for all deployments as some mobility needs still require rapid data entry through a physical keyboard for increased accuracy. As a mobility organization carrying over 27 years of trust bestowed on us by loyal customers it is imperative that we continue to act as we have always done in the best long term interest of the customer when devices and OS’s are recommended for specific deployments and purposes. This results in the need to evaluate carefully the needs and long term prospects for each of our customers as it pertains to flexibility, usage, upgrade paths and size of deployment at each site.
This having been said there most definitely are even outdoor, hazardous and harsh environments and purposes for which Android solutions in both software and hardware currently represent the best possible solution - keeping in mind, cost of development, the speed of changes and deployment and suitability of devices.