While Google's much-hyped Android platform debuted in late 2008, the smartphone operating system didn't hit its stride until the recent launch of the Motorola Droid and Google's own phone, the Nexus One.
But do these new Android devices outshine competitors -- including handsets powered by BlackBerry, iPhone OS, or Windows Mobile -- when it comes to a mobile device for small and mid-sized businesses? And does the Google phone amount to the reputed "iPhone killer" many had hoped for?
The answer, according to industry analysts, seems to be yes and no.
Google's Nexus One came up short of being the groundbreaking device that would halt the trajectory of the iPhone, but the Android-based smartphone does have its share of benefits.
"The ubiquity of Google and its integration across devices -- PCs and mobile devices -- as well as applications, voice calling and Internet search, as well as its mobile platform, give it a unique position over its competition," says Tim Doherty, associate research analyst for the small and mid-sized business markets at IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm.
"However, taking that unique position and applying it to the mobile market will be the true test as it explores the various segments and finds a place where its complete 'package' can resonate," Doherty adds.
Doherty says IDC has been looking for Android to emerge as a player in the small business space for some time. "Google has already made a name for itself through Google Apps, its hosted suite of e-mail, messaging, and collaboration solutions," maintains Doherty. "The hosted nature, scalable and predictable pricing, and lack of need for IT hardware investment make Google Apps a natural fit for small businesses, and so this may have an impact on adoption of Android mobile devices."
Chris Silva, an analyst at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester technology research company, also believes Android has a promising future for businesses. "IT's constituents are, at the end of the day, consumers and, as consumers, they're likely going to be exploring how and whether they can use the newest smartphones on the market with their enterprise e-mail and other services," says Silva.
"Statistically speaking, if a user is going after the newest smartphone, it's very likely to be an Android device, so IT had better have a plan," Silva adds.
While Doherty believes the Android platform is beginning to "gain a footing in the small business space," a few obstacles still exist for Google.
"RIM [Research in Motion], Apple, and Palm have an advantage by virtue of controlling both their hardware and proprietary platforms, which can allow for a tighter user experience," Doherty believes. "Google is exploring new models for deploying mobile devices, as we saw with the Nexus One, but there will be hiccups -- in the case of Nexus One, Google was not prepared to handle customer troubleshooting."
"The Nexus One received a great deal of press upon its release, however, the growing pains that Google has had in supporting a hardware platform that it is selling directly are evidence that this is early days for Google playing a major role in the smartphone space," adds Silva. "We saw Apple getting dinged for this a lot when the iPhone came out -- the prospect of IT sending its users to the nearest Apple Store for hardware support has been a hard sell."
Silva says the ownership model in the business space is changing, however, as we're now seeing companies enter into agreements with users to support personal devices. "Many companies are still paying for the device and service and treating the smartphone as a corporate IT asset, but this model is giving way to others in which IT can satisfy users' demand for the newest platforms while not having to take on the cost of the device and, in some cases, service, if the user supplies the device and IT supplies the tools to manage it," explains Silva.
Not (yet) for big business
But replacing the BlackBerry as the de facto mobile operating system for enterprise-level companies might be more of a challenge.
"Certainly, Android devices are being brought unofficially into enterprises by individuals in the same way that the iPhone has been since launch, buy it will be a challenge for any vendor, however, to displace incumbent RIM in the enterprise from a corporate-adoption standpoint, especially with the crucial need for information security," says Doherty.
Silva agrees: "At present, I don't see the Android OS as better than BlackBerry or iPhone for enterprise users." One of the reasons is the lack of support for features of ActiveSync, the data synchronization program developed by Microsoft for use the Microsoft Windows operating systems. While Android supports ActiveSync though some smartphone maker's tools, such as HTC's work e-mail application, and some third-party applications, such as Nitro Desk's TouchDown, as a native feature to the operating system, there's no support for ActiveSync policies, Silva adds
Currently, there are nearly 30 policies that IT can choose from natively in the Exchange Server architecture. "For example, limitations of the Android OS make full device encryption tricky to impossible today," adds Doherty. "These ActiveSync-based security features are table stakes for most enterprise devices and, lacking them, Android is going to have a tough time in the enterprise."