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Google's OEMConfig could propel Android in business

If more EMM platforms support more types of Android devices, IT departments and business users are set to benefit.

A new initiative from Google aims to make Android more appealing to the enterprise.

Currently, enterprise mobility management (EMM) providers build different APIs into their platforms for each Android OEM's unique features, which creates a hassle to fully support all manufacturers. With OEMConfig, the manufacturers themselves will provide the APIs in an application that EMM providers can support. That means IT pros can more easily manage and update various Android devices through their EMM, and incorporate OEM-specific features for their users.

"This looks like an enormous step forward," said Willem Bagchus, a messaging and collaboration specialist at United Bank based in Parkersburg, W.Va. "Google is more serious about getting a deeper penetration into the business marketplace, and I look forward to it."

What needs to change

Each Android OEM builds different features into its devices through APIs that augment what Google builds into the OS, such as capabilities that optimize bandwidth for field service workers. Android Enterprise helped expand API standards for Android in business settings, but there are still plenty of OEM-specific APIs.

That means EMM and unified endpoint management (UEM) providers must write, test and maintain different sets of code for different APIs, and repeat that process each time the OEM updates the OS. It also means the EMM provider is forced to make choices about where to dedicate its resources to support OEMs.

"This put a huge burden on the UEM providers," said Ojas Rege, chief strategy officer at MobileIron. "The APIs wouldn't necessarily be supported by many of the providers. The model doesn't scale, and it takes away the manufacturer's practical ability to differentiate."

Some IT shops jump through hoops to manage Android in business because of the OS' many varieties.

United Bank has used Microsoft Intune for the past two years to manage Apple iOS and Android devices. Only tech services employees get Android devices, and they're Google phones rather than another manufacturer because Google's own devices receive OS updates most often, Bagchus said.

"The frequency of OS updates -- it's the Wild West," he said. "Everybody has their own flavor of Android, which is good on the one hand, but it's hard to have a standard management approach to it."

How OEMConfig could help

With Android Enterprise and AppConfig, EMM and UEM providers can send configurations to an application on a device. OEMConfig, which Google announced at its Android Enterprise Summit for Partners in London in May, will extend this capability.

With OEMConfig, an OEM builds its APIs into a configuration app and makes that app available in the Google Play store. EMM providers then support the OEMConfig app in their platform, and customers distribute the app to end users' devices through the EMM. The app then configures a device to take advantage of the specific features in that OEM's version of Android.

The more value-add a device can bring to an enterprise, the more likely they are to be bought.
Jason Baytonconsultant, CWSI

"It's going to speed up the time to market on any new functionality," said Jason Bayton, senior enterprise mobility consultant at CWSI based in the U.K. "We no longer have to wait on the EMM. It's in [the OEMs'] best interest really because the more value-add a device can bring to an enterprise, the more likely they are to be bought."

An extra benefit for IT is that the OEMConfig app can provide more consistent updates through Google Play automatically, and push new features to devices as soon as they're available, Bayton said. IT admins can send new, vendor-specific calls to devices as soon as the OEM updates the app, without waiting for the EMM provider to build custom code, according to Sean Ginevan, head of global strategy and market enablement for Android Enterprise.

EMM providers will need to adjust their user interfaces to render OEMConfig's more robust schema and properly display hardware management groupings for IT to configure, Ginevan said.

The future of Android in business

OEMConfig mainly benefits smaller OEMs that don't have support from all EMM vendors, experts said. That benefits IT at smaller businesses, which tend to have more mixed device environments than large enterprise organizations, said Eric Klein, director of mobile software at VDC Research.

"This can make EMM make a lot more sense for them because you're going to be able to support any type of Android device," he said. "It's a way for Google to really make themselves a much more easily integrated platform."

If OEMConfig simplifies EMM support and device updates, that's a big reason for more highly regulated companies to adopt Android in business, Bagchus said.

"I think it will finally make Android devices more palatable," he said. "We're under a lot more scrutiny because of the regulators, which is why we had to steer clear of Android before."

Still, Google will need OEMs and EMM providers to rally around this initiative to boost Android in business. Google has worked with hardware partner Zebra to develop the OEMConfig framework, and is "actively bringing our OEM and EMM partners together to incorporate OEMConfig into their solutions," Ginevan said, but declined to say when OEMConfig will be officially available.

EMM vendors likely will get on board in the last quarter of 2018, VDC's Klein said.

MobileIron's Rege said the company plans to support OEMConfig when it is available.

"It means that all these new capabilities can be supported by us without having to create custom code," he said.

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