Android desktops. Sounds like something out of science fiction. Yet they've quickly become a reality, and with Hewlett-Packard's release of Android-based PCs, it's clear that vendors are setting their sights on the enterprise frontier.
This should come as no surprise. An Android PC offers a number of advantages, such as affordability and a mobility-centric platform. Questions remain, however, about whether those advantages outweigh concerns about bringing Android desktops into the enterprise. Decision makers should think twice before drawing conclusions one way or the other.
The changing face of computing
We live in a new universe. Worlds that once seemed light-years apart have come together in smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. We've shifted away from hardware-centric computing to data-centric administration, and in the process, changed the way we conduct business.
Add to this mix Microsoft's less-than-stellar sales of Windows 8, along with the end of Windows XP support, and we have a world primed for alternative operating systems and other approaches to desktop computing.
Enter Android. With its anticipated 1.1 billion users by the end of 2014, according to a recent Gartner report, Android already boasts a user base that is familiar with mobile computing and the Android ecosystem. Compare that with the estimated 360 million Windows users in 2014, and it's not much of a leap to imagine a good number of people embracing Android desktops.
In fact, PC manufacturers are betting on this. Companies such as Acer, Lenovo, HP, Samsung and Asus have released or are developing their own versions of the Android desktop. HP in particular has done so with the enterprise in mind, offering a line of products that merge desktop and mobile computing into a unified, all-in-one environment.
The Slate 21 Pro, for example, HP's first desktop to run Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean), offers a 21.5-inch LED touchscreen, a 720p webcam, three USB ports, one HDMI port, Wi-Fi and Ethernet support, and a number of other enterprise-friendly features.
The Android advantage
Android runs on more mobile devices around the world than any other operating system, including Apple's iOS. Android has been at the forefront of mobile computing and the consumerization of IT, as well as the integration of cloud-based services such as Box, Office 365, Salesforce.com and SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) products.
Android users are well-versed in Web-based approaches to service delivery, touchscreen components, app management and multi-device integration. Moving from Windows to Android could prove to be easy for many workers. Those already using Android -- or even iOS devices, to a lesser degree -- will require little training.
Another benefit of Android is the number and variety of apps already supported. Sure, that includes an abundance of gaming and social networking distractions, but you'll also find business and productivity apps such as Evernote or Cloud Print or the Kingsoft Office suite, a Microsoft Office substitute that comes preinstalled on HP's Slate 21 Pro. In fact, there are more alternatives to traditional desktop applications than ever before, and those numbers will only keep growing.
Desktop manufacturers can also offer Android PCs at a lower cost than Windows desktops because they don't have to shell out those pricey licensing fees. This alone can drop the price a couple hundred dollars, if not more. For example, the Slate 21 Pro retails at just under $400.
It's already easy to see where Android desktops could make inroads into the enterprise. For example, they could serve as Web kiosks for workers who don't need dedicated machines, such as those in hotels or factories.
Android desktops can also be used as dedicated terminals running a specific app, such as an ERP interface. Plus, they can support multiple users, each with their own desktops. In fact, the Slate 21 Pro supports up to five individual users.
The trouble with Android for PC
As good as this all sounds, IT should not run out and start purchasing Android desktops without taking into account other considerations. How invested do you want to be in the Google infrastructure? Will users be downloading apps from Google Play? Will your company be using Google Apps for Business, for Education and for Government? An organization might have a difficult time extracting its workers from the Google ecosystem, particularly with the unrelenting Google+ push.
Keep in mind, too, that the traditional Windows desktop supports features not provided by the Android operating system, windowing capabilities among them. An Android device might offer certain productivity advantages in some areas, but a Windows desktop, with its multi-window, multitasking capabilities, remains the optimal choice for many workers.
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Then how do you explain Microsoft's sagging Windows 8 sales? With the demise of XP, numbers are improving, but desktop users are still turning away in droves. Part of the reason might be the ill-conceived integration of Modern apps and the invasive nature of Microsoft accounts.
Microsoft's attempt to push a mobility-centric model onto desktop users is partly responsible for the slow adoption of Windows 8. An Android device might be fine for those who spend most of their time messaging and browsing the Web, but many users cannot do their jobs without the applications that more traditional desktops provide, whether Windows, Linux or Mac OS.
Another challenge for IT shops considering Android desktops is the business community's continued reliance on complex Windows-based programs. Of course, as the Android app ecosystem continues to evolve, comparable services and products will likely become available. But until that happens, fixes will be needed to make those apps work.
One of the most commonly proposed approaches is to virtualize Windows applications and deliver them to the Android PC via a thin client. But virtualization is not without its downside. It needs the infrastructure to support it, which means a reliable network and continuously running servers and services.
For example, if a server running multiple virtual machines (VMs) goes down, all users connecting to that server are affected. The same goes for an overloaded network or disruption to the Internet connection. Like a cloud service, virtualization relies on a number of vital dependencies.
In addition, not all apps virtualize well. Even if they do, the Android desktop might not fully support the features necessary to make device emulation or clipboard sharing work effectively.
For many organizations, the bigger concern is security. Proponents of Android desktops are quick to point out improvements made in the operating system. But the fact remains that only Android devices produced by Samsung and configured with Knox are considered safe enough to meet government security standards, and many companies want that same level of assurance on their desktops.
Also, the Android desktop model relies heavily on the Internet and cloud-based services, which many organizations do not consider safe enough for their needs.
More questions than answers
Despite the limitations of the Android desktop, it is a technology still in its infancy, and we can expect many improvements to the operating system and its apps that will make them better suited to the enterprise. In addition, as technologies such as virtualization and cloud-based services continue to improve, the Android desktop may become a more viable alternative.
What we don't know, however, is whether the opportunities that have opened the door for Android will also open the door for other solutions. We might see an influx of Linux desktops into the enterprise, for example, or the Mac OS making a bigger splash. We might even see an iOS desktop before long. Who knows what other solutions are lurking out there?
Step back and question whether the one-size-fits-all approach to the enterprise desktop is realistic or useful. Windows 8 certainly hasn't had much success. Maybe other alternatives are worth considering. For instance, you can run Android in a VM.
Products such as VirtualBox already let you set up Android in a VM, and Intel is doing something similar with PC Plus, which uses virtualization technologies to run Android inside a Windows setup.
People can use all sorts of devices for emails, texts and tweets, but for many operations, it's hard to beat the processing power and multitasking capabilities of a Windows desktop or laptop. That's not likely to change anytime soon.
Still, the Android PC could become a force to reckon with, for a number of good reasons. The choice between Android desktops and traditional Windows devices is not as black and white as it might first appear. And that choice could become more difficult before enterprises reach their final frontier.
This was first published in May 2014