Android has been oft-criticized for not being secure enough — it's why Apple's more locked-down approach has made iOS a success in business, and it's the reason that BlackBerry still manages to sell phones at all. Google's Android OEM partners have attempted to shore things up on their end through things like Samsung Knox, but now Google is taking matters into its own hands in a big way with Android for Work.
Google first introduced the initiative last summer at its I/O developer conference, and today the company is formally launching the program and releasing plenty of details on how exactly it'll work. The basic goal is to make it a lot easier for businesses to deploy Android devices to their employees — and to make the Android devices that employees are already bringing to work on their own more secure.
Enterprise mobility has come "from a few people that have Blackberrys to more than 100 million managed devices," said product manager Rajen Sheth, "but that's just scratching the surface." Android for Work consists of two parts: a set of new technologies that Google has built into Android 5.0 Lollipop and a wide-ranging set of partnerships with hardware makers, software developers, enterprise mobility management companies, and more.
Google is getting serious about having Android in as many businesses as possible
The first core technology Google will deploy is the concept of work profiles. "We've separated out your work life and personal life as complete separate users on the device," said project manager Rajen Sheth. That keeps all apps, data, and communications separate and manageable by a company's IT team. Sheth noted then that Google made sure to build its profiles in a way that won't require users to actually jump back and forth between profiles — instead, apps that are provisioned by your company for work usage have a work "badge" identifying them as such. Companies can manage those apps as they see fit without touching any of the personal data or apps a user might have on their phone.
Work profiles are built right into Android Lollipop, but Google said that it'll support older devices with a downloadable Android for Work app that will provide a very similar experience (and corresponding control by corporate IT) for devices running Android 4.0 or later. As far as managing apps goes, Google Play for Work will let any app in the Play Store be deployed by an IT department without the need for it to be provisioned or "wrapped" so that a corporation can control it.
You don't have to be a Google Apps customer to use Android for Work
Instead, users will be able to install any app from the Play Store if approved by their company, and the company can delete or push out apps at will. Companies will also be able to bulk purchase apps if they want to deploy out to their users. Of course, it's still up to companies to make sure the apps they are pushing out to users are safe and secure, but companies can be as restrictive as they want when it comes to what apps their users can download.
The last core piece of Google's Android for Work offering is its built-in set of productivity tools — but instead of keeping people in Google's own ecosystem, Sheth said that "we're making it easy for people to use a variety of email and calendar systems on Android." Essentially, Google is offering work-specific mail, calendar, and contacts app for companies not using Google Apps. Exchange is naturally supported, and a variety of document types beyond Google Docs will work, as well.
Samsung, Sony, HTC, Motorola, and many more are on board
Google's not doing this alone, either. The company has a pretty serious slate of partners to start with across four different categories: devices, applications, networking, and management. The partner list is long and includes such heavyweights as Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Adobe, Box, Salesforce, Cisco, Citrix, BlackBerry, and many more. Indeed, these partnerships are part of the reason we haven't heard much about Android for Work since Google I/O — Sheth said that Google didn't want to have an "empty launch." Instead, the company has been able to test with customers and build partnerships so that it can hit the ground running.
BlackBerry's partnership with Google is particularly notable, as the company's BlackBerry Exchange Server is still seen as a leader in the security space, even as its devices are less and less relevant to consumers. Working with Google could be an important step to keeping BES a leader, and it's not entirely surprising — BlackBerry partnered with Samsung late last year to help beef up Knox security. Now, all Android at Work users could benefit from the new partnership, not just Samsung users (assuming their company users BES).
How widely adopted Android for Work will be remains to be seen, but Google is right that the opportunity in front of it is huge — and both the partner list and the technology that the company is putting behind the initiative should serve notice that the company is taking the opportunity seriously. At the very least, it looks a lot better than using that old BlackBerry your company makes you carry around.