Even IT leaders who are not gadget lovers had better understand the implications of Google's recently unveiled "gPhone"—which turns out not to be one phone but a software platform called Android. And Google hopes it will power many, many phones.
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"If CIOs are not planning for mobility now, they better start," says Bill Hughes, principal analyst with market research firm In-Stat.
Consider the changes in 2007 alone, both for the mobile phone industry and the IT workers who support corporate smartphones and other mobile devices.
First, in June, Apple released its revolutionary iPhone, bringing high-end smartphones to the consumer masses and proving that such devices can be both beautiful and a joy to use. Then Google in early November ended months of speculation with its announcement of the upcoming open-source Android mobile platform, slated for release in the second half of 2008, along with an Android software development kit (SDK). Google also struck up an alliance of major handset makers, cellular carriers, software companies, semiconductor manufacturers and commercialization firms, dubbed the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), which jointly developed Android.
The Apple iPhone's potential to shake the industry to its core—pun shamefully intended—was obvious the day Steve Jobs first showed it off in January at the company's annual Macworld expo. The gadget's unique and innovative user interface spoke for itself. IT departments with any degree of foresight knew immediately that they'd soon be asked to support employees ranging from sales representatives to chief executives looking to access corporate networks with their shiny new iPhones.
Whether Android will similarly change the jobs of IT support folks is unclear. But one thing is for certain: Google intends to roil the mobile market.
Like Apple, Google has deep pockets, seemingly infinite resources and brainpower to dedicate to the endeavor, and a track record of success in entering new markets. (Think online advertising.) And the search giant sees the mobile space as a crucial part of its success strategy for the coming years.
"We think mobile is an incredibly important market," said Douglas Merrill, Google's CIO, at a conference in San Diego just days before the Android announcement. "We spend a lot of time on mobile."
Why Enterprises Could Benefit from Android
Android is built on the open Linux kernel, and it includes an operating system (OS), middleware and a number of mobile applications. These include an e-mail client, short-message service (SMS) program, calendar and maps applications, and a browser.
What makes Android truly valuable to developers and users is that the entire software stack is open source, says Tom Kelly, CEO of MontaVista, which offers its own flavor of mobile Linux, as well as related development tools. To date, MontaVista has provided an open-source mobile OS, but the upper-layer functionality has been provided by a number of closed, proprietary software stacks, Kelly says. (MontaVista is not currently a member of the OHA but it plans to join, according to Kelly.)
"Enterprises will benefit [from Android] because the availability of open-source code for the entire software stack will allow the existing army of Linux developers to create special-purpose applications that will run on a variety of mobile devices," Kelly said.
Many of those applications could target specific business needs, and thanks to the open software stack, corporate smartphone users could employ a variety of devices to access the apps.
In-Stat's Hughes notes that devices built for use with a completely open platform like Android could also help companies offer a wider variety of mobile devices to their employees.
Android's Rivals See Challenges
On the other hand, Hughes, along with various critics of Android and the Open Handset Alliance, suggests that the group and its platform may not be much different than the wide array of existing consortiums working to specify a Linux-based platform for mobile devices, like the Limo Foundation, the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum and the Open Mobile Alliance.
"The Android announcement is just another flavor of Linux for mobile phones," Hughes says.
Not surprisingly, Nigel Clifford, CEO of Symbian, which makes the world's most widely used mobile OS, downplays the significance of Android.
"There's 10, 15, 20, maybe 25 different Linux platforms out there. It sometimes appears that Linux is fragmenting faster than it unifies," Clifford said at a recent news conference in Tokyo.
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, refused to comment on specifics about Android at another Tokyo conference, saying only that OHA's efforts are just "some words on paper" right now. Microsoft is pushing its own rival, the Windows Mobile OS.
Android's Route to the Enterprise: Consumer Pockets
Compared to current devices including the iPhone, Android doesn't pose any clear device management advantages for IT, Hughes says.
"There's nothing inherent in Android that will make the efforts of IT easier or harder," he says.
And like Apple, Google is targeting consumers first. When Android phones come into the enterprise, they will be consumer-purchased instead of enterprise-issued, analysts say.
"The Android platform is a consumer platform," says Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst who covers mobile and wireless technologies. "There are a lot more consumers [than business users], and that's where Google's aiming." As with the iPhone, many enterprises will either ban the use of Android devices or offer specialized support to certain high-level users, Dulaney predicts.
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When and if Android makes it into phones designed specifically for the enterprise, Dulaney says, those products will have to include technology from the likes of Sybase, Intellisync or another such company to enable security features like remote data wipe functionality and forced password changes.
Due to the power of Google to morph a market, smart CIOs had better keep their eyes on Android, in any case. CIOs who aren't already preparing for the IT implications of the ever-changing mobile space could be swept behind the curve, Kelly says: "The CIO who does not learn how to touch mobile customers and employees will risk losing both."