Don't read too much into Google's embrace of Samsung KNOX

Credit: Eric Kilby via Flickr

Details are scarce, and there are plenty of other barriers to Android adoption in the enterprise.

Android L is the latest and arguably most ambitious move by Google to crack the enterprise mobile market, which continues to show a strong preference for Apple’s iOS platform even as Android dominates the consumer market. But Google’s success in the enterprise with Android will rest largely on the integration of Samsung’s KNOX security platform for enterprises, which itself has not exactly met with overwhelming success since its introduction a year ago.

Google's enterprise and platforms boss Sundar Pichai touted the "contribution" of security features from KNOX into the next version of Android -- code-named Android L and available in a developer preview -- during his keynote speech at Google's I/O conference yesterday. He touted KNOX’s container technology that allows enterprise IT mobile managers to separate personal data from work data on BYOD devices.

While containerization is mobile device management 101, it hasn’t yet been integrated into the Android core, so that’s a positive change which should be welcomed by IT pros already supporting or considering support for Android.

However, details of the integration are nowhere to be found in the Android L API documentation, although there are some new features for enterprise management mentioned. When we asked Google representatives for more information, they told us to stay tuned.

Complicating matters, Samsung has positioned itself as a direct competitor to Google with its Tizen mobile operating system, even as it remains by far the world’s biggest seller of Android devices. The two companies also fought earlier this year over a user interface developed by Samsung, which prompted Google Android and Chrome head Sundar Pichai to threaten to “walk away” from Samsung, according to The Information

Google also seemed to have intentions on creating its own Android security platform when it acquired MDM provider Divide (formerly Enterproid) earlier this year.

This being an uneasy alliance at best, it’s hard to see how this will all play out, but Google and Samsung are sticking together -- at least through the launch of Android 5.0.

Which gets to the fundamental problem facing Android in the enterprise: Everything always appears to be in flux. There are multiple versions of the open source mobile OS. There are hundreds of different devices. And there are several manufacturers, all overlaying their own UI and apps on Android devices. The BYOD and cloud eras are challenging enough for most IT pros without extra confusion and complexity, most of which can be avoided by sticking with Apple and iOS.

The "f" word -- fragmentation

Another huge question is not when Android 5.0 will be released, but when it will be available. Since the release of the last version, KitKat, last October 31 -- that’s nearly eight months ago -- KitKat has been installed on less than 14% of Android devices. Thanks to Google’s many licensing deals with manufacturers and carriers, any new version of Android faces a long and slow adoption curve.

Google is trying to mitigate that delay by releasing an app with KNOX functionality that can work on older versions of Android, according to Android Police. We’ll have to wait to see how far back KNOX functionality can go.

The KNOX announcement isn’t the first time Google has attempted to court the enterprise market with Android, though it’s arguably the highest profile. Several times last year, the Android maker announced significant security upgrades, including the release of Android Device Manager (which enables users to remotely locate, lock down and wipe their missing devices from a desktop or another mobile device) and the addition of restricted user profiles. KitKat itself came with enhanced security, including a feature that can thwart rootkits and a reinforced sandbox.

Google’s incremental approach to security upgrades has fueled the reluctance of IT professionals to support Android. I’m not sure that a tenuous partnership with a high-profile frenemy is going to turn the tide anytime soon.

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