Will Android 3.0 Gingerbread Solve Google's Fragmentation Issue?

The creeping consumerization of enterprise handsets that started a couple of years back might be good news for users, but it's likely to cause major headaches for those responsible for mobile security and mobile management in the enterprise. That's because it's resulting in phones that look nice but don't necessarily offer a high level of security.

If you've been dealing with enterprise-grade phones for any length of time, chances are you've had experience with Blackberry OS, Windows Mobile, or -- if you are outside North America -- Nokia's Symbian. All three mobile operating systems are suitable for enterprise use, yet each sports a user interface (UI)that's fairly pedestrian.

In the past, poor UIs didn't seem to harm enterprise sales: users had little choice but to accept whatever Research in Motion (RIM), Microsoft or Nokia cared to throw at them for their mobile computing needs. Hardware and enterprise functionality was what mattered, and a phone's UI was more or less irrelevant.

When you compare these mobile operating systems' UIs with the touch-screeny goodness of Apple's iPhone OS (now iOS), Android (or the Motoblur or Sense user interfaces for Android provided by Motorola and HTC) or even the up and coming Windows Phone 7 from Microsoft, they seem like the mobile equivalent of an old fashioned DOS prompt.

So it's not surprising that many enterprise users are clamoring to be allowed to introduce their personal iPhones, Android-powered Evos and other consumer devices into the workplace. They've tasted the delights of a good UI, and now they don't want to give it up.

A good UI is now seen as so important that Microsoft has all but abandoned Windows Mobile with its preposterous mini-desktop interface as a lost cause, in favor of its all-singing, all-dancing Windows Phone 7 OS which is due later in the year. And to emphasize the point that it's the UI that rules, Microsoft has imposed strict controls over the hardware that manufacturers must produce if they want their phones to run Windows Phone 7. These controls tell its manufacturers that they are not designing phones so much as churning out devices for running its Windows Phone 7 UI.

When it comes to Android, something similar appears to be happening. Of course Google is not in a position to impose strict conditions on the hardware that runs its mobile system in the way that Microsoft is, nor on the interfaces that manufacturers place on top of the operating system. But according to The Register, Google has plans afoot to try to impose Android's default UI as the standard: Citing "multiple sources close to Google," bloggers at TechCrunch report that the top priority for the next Android update 3.0, codenamed Gingerbread and due out in October, is to homogenize the user experience and address criticisms of Android fragmentation. This could severely curtail the freedom of licensees to create their own user interface overlays -- most famously, Motorola's Motoblur and HTC's Sense." (It's also interesting to note that many industry watchers were calling on Android 2.2 to resolve the fragmentation issue.)

Although many users talk about Android as if it were a single mobile operating system, it currently exists in three main versions: 1.5 and 1.6 which each account for about a quarter of the Android phones out there, and 2.1, which accounts for the other half, according to statistics from Google's Android developer site.

Of the most well known handsets, the HTC Aria, Desire, Hero, Incredible, Legend and Evo, the Motorola Droid and some Motos, and the Samsung Galaxies are currently on Android 2.1. The HTC Dream, Magic, most other Motorola handsets, Samsung's I7500 and I5700 and the SonyEricsson's Xperia X10i are on Android 1.5 or 1.6, while only a few handsets such as the Google Nexus One, made by HTC, and the Motorola Droid X, are running Android 2.2.

Whether the rest will be updated to 2.2 depends on each individual handset maker, but Motorola said recently that the Droid would be updated "in the near future" while HTC will update the Desire soon. However things develop, Google will certainly have its work cut out trying to get all these phones, plus all the future ones, running on a unified UI under Gingerbread. But since the UI is all important these days, it wouldn't be surprising if it tried.

What about Apple? The company, as we all know, controls its iPhone OS (now iOS) mobile operating system and its hardware with a rod of iron -- all its phones run the same OS, with the same UI. (The only exception to this is the obsolete original iPhone, which doesn't run the latest iOS 4.) Buy an iPhone and you are buying the iPhone UI experience, regardless of the model of iPhone you run. The only way to modify the UI is to jailbreak your iPhone, and we all know how hard Apple tries to prevent jailbreaking.

What's most interesting about this obsession with the UI is the lack of emphasis on the needs of the enterprise. Windows Phone 7 sure looks nice, but very few enterprise security features beyond basic Exchange controls have been announced.

Android is also cute, but it has been designed to attract iPhone users, not enterprise users. Android apps are more important than security features. And as for the iPhone UI, you either love it or hate it, but whichever way you lean the fact remains that its enterprise-level credentials are poor, though it has made significant gains to become enterprise-friendly with the latest release of iOS. So poor, in fact, that the iPhone has been banned by at least one government, in favor of the more secure RIM Blackberry devices.

RIM and Nokia are the two enterprise vendors that don't seem to have put the UI before the needs of the enterprise -- yet. But both are losing market share because of that, and both are planning to consumerize their handsets as quickly as they can. BlackBerry OS 6 -- due towards the end of the year -- will be RIM's attempt at updating its UI, while Nokia's mobile operating system plans currently involve the open source MeeGo project.

Enterprise users are demanding -- and in many cases getting -- the latest and prettiest smartphones. And while there's nothing wrong with a phone with a nice looking UI, it's wise to remember that consumer phones are just that: phones designed to be used by consumers, not enterprise users.

TAGS:

Android, IOS, BlackBerry OS, mobile os, mobile UI

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