Magazine Article | July 27, 2012

Should Android Be Your OS Of Choice?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Cindy Dubin, Field Technologies magazine

Software providers say that Android’s openness and app offerings give it an advantage in the rugged handheld space.

Mobile devices are increasingly prevalent in the rugged arena where they are becoming the primary means of communicating with both the customer and the office. As a result, the mobile OS is no longer an afterthought, but an important part of a business’s IT strategy.

The three main OSs are Google Android, Apple iOS, and Microsoft Windows. But Android is the OS that analysts and hardware providers are watching most closely. Poised for increased adoption, according to analyst IDC, the Android platform should command 52.9% of the OS market share by 2016.

“Android’s wide adoption and appeal is growing because it has more applications, can run on a multitude of mobile devices, and is improving at a rapid rate,” says Steve Phillips, CEO of Swyft Mobile. “And Google is constantly adding features to its suite of software, which enhances the functionality of Android devices.”

OEMs in the rugged space are offering Android on handheld devices (Honeywell) and tablets (Motorola and Panasonic), catering to the growing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) environment. These products are relatively low cost, marketed by all the carriers, and easy to use for email, voice, text, and apps.

One challenge, however, is fragmentation in the Android market caused by the various OEM versions. “This is very similar to the early days of Windows Mobile or Pocket PC,” says Chris Johnson, director of software sales, Stratix Corp. “This can be challenging for enterprises that are considering BYOD, as it is difficult to ensure the applications deployed will behave and operate the same across the myriad versions of Android.”

He adds, however, that the new version of Android (4.0), known as Ice Cream Sandwich, does address standardization shortcomings as it covers two generations of smartphones and tablets as well as future models. And Google’s newest Android OS 4.1, affectionately called Jelly Bean, will soon be introduced as an incremental update, featuring OS upgradability.

Nevertheless, some people are not convinced that Android can overcome the risk that users see in fragmentation. Dan Matthews, CTO at IFS, says, “While there is a better availability of rugged devices and more options for how to provision enterprise apps to the devices and users, many people perceive risk with incompatibility and difficulty getting support for Android devices.”

Android Proves Rugged And App-Rich

Lack of fragmentation is why Apple’s iOS has been attractive to users. Enterprises like the iPad for field service operations because of its user interface and single operating system in the iOS. With the introduction of Apple’s iOS 6 — and some 200 new features — due out this fall, the OS is expected to capture 19% of market share in 2016, explains IDC. But while Apple is always updating its software, that OS only works on Apple devices. This exclusivity limits the use of Apple iOS in environments that require specialty devices, such as in the rugged workplace. “Android is emerging much more rapidly in the rugged mobile handheld device market, and for good reason,” says Phillips. “Google has been investing large amounts of money, time, and resources to expand the platform’s capability and is constantly pushing revisions that are allowing developers to take advantage of features.”

Also scheduled to make its debut this fall, despite a release preview in mid-June, is Windows 8 from Microsoft. Windows still dominates as the “business OS,” which is why IDC expects Windows to eke out the number two spot for market share in 2016 at 19.2%. Windows 8 is expected to contain features that allow for easy syncing and communication between computers and phones, which will be important for users of rugged handheld work devices. “Enterprise organizations have invested heavily in Microsoft applications for field service, particularly for back office functionality and laptop deployments,” says Johnson. “Some 99% of deployed laptops (consumer or rugged) run Windows, and we see the majority of field service organizations still preferring a laptop as the device of choice. For the instances when a rugged handheld is desired, Windows Mobile has been the predominant OS. With Windows 8 on the horizon and its promise to deliver on the user interface, we think field service organizations will look at this option first.”

But Android mobile phones could have an advantage in terms of functionality and compatibility because there are only about 100,000 apps in the Windows market compared to 500,000 in the Android market. “There is also the fact that Android rugged devices are less expensive than Windows-based counterparts, and for many, cost is always the deciding factor, not an attraction to a specific OS,” says Mary Brittain-White, CEO, Retriever Communications, a mobile solutions provider.

Hybrid OS Deployments On The Rise

Businesses’ key interests in the needs of the office environment are what guides IT infrastructure. The infrastructure used in the office, in turn, dictates which products are used in the field. For example, if the business has a primarily Apple infrastructure (e.g. using Apple servers and workstations), it would make sense with regards to ease of compatibility, integration, and maintenance to use Apple phones. “The essential element of a business mobility strategy is to select a single platform that will allow an app to be developed once but deployed natively on any mainstream OS,” says Brittain-White.

While choosing an OS depends on the requirements of the office and the field workers, your company should also determine if a particular OS is needed, where the solution will be used, how it will connect to back office systems, how data entry will be performed, and if another OS is already in use. Additionally, consider the security of the OS. Because Android is younger than Windows, some believe the OS is more vulnerable to security threats. But, Google has taken measures to enhance security, such as implementing extensive mobile tracking and monitoring capabilities. Additionally, a two-step verification process forces users to log in with a unique code that has been texted to the mobile app or generated from Google. Phillips warns, however, that if the apps running on the Android OS are not secure, the insecurity of the device has nothing to do with the OS.

Comparing the security of Android to Apple or Windows is like comparing apples to oranges. Android is a mobile operating system limited to specific mobile handsets, while Windows is a full operating system running on laptops and tablets to create multiple layers of security.

While this information can help narrow down the decision for the best OS, some pros see a trend toward hybrid OS deployment. Techs will carry a rugged device in the field, and managers and supervisors will use consumer devices to access the same applications and data.

“We will still recommend Windows mobile/handheld for rugged devices and Android for consumer or semirugged consumer devices,” says Matthews. “Windows offers a wider choice of devices in the rugged space, and Android presents more device types (with/without keyboard, semirugged or not), price choices, and a more open development/deployment platform.”

Will Android Emerge The Winner?

If a hybrid isn’t an option and there is desire to switch to Android from an existing OS, such as Windows, users need to realize they will be leaving the Windows world for an eclipse-based Java environment. Other factors to consider will be how the Android application is going to communicate to back end services, how much of the Android application will be native to the application code, and how much data is going to be presented within the application.

It is important to understand that most any legacy application written for Windows (Windows Mobile or full OS) cannot be migrated. These solutions require a rewrite as the platforms, tools, and operating systems are radically different. And understand that internal development teams focused on Windows applications will require an additional investment of talent to begin migrating applications to the Android platform.

And migrate they will, say the industry experts. Android is expected to emerge and remain the leader in the rugged handheld device market. Windows Mobile has not been as widely adopted compared to Android and Apple iOS. And iOS can only operate on Apple devices. “All of this creates a clear advantage for Android in the market for rugged handheld devices,” says Phillips.