Google innovate in every corner of the web, so why is Android Device Manager so late in arriving?
Articles and musings on mobile security seem to pop up daily around the web. Whether hackers have figured out a new method to crack iPhones, a spate of illegitimate apps have found their way onto Google Play or Microsoft are furiously patching a widely reported vulnerability in Windows, security scares seem to be everywhere and everyone’s got an opinion. Security is definitely one of the biggest buzz words in the tech industry at the moment and with an ever growing amount of people completing more work on their personal devices, be it simple emails and communication, to the possibility of working on company documents, locking down your device has never been more important.
One thing that strikes me as odd then, is how Google, or to put it more correctly ‘stock Android’, hasn’t offered more security functionality for the end user until right now. It’s something that is available on all the competition, be that iOS, Windows Phone or BlackBerry. Each competing operating system has a suite of dedicated device applications and also web apps that allow you to track your device, ring it, message it and if possible hit the big red button to wipe it and clear out any personal data.
Apple have also recently promoted, although probably not as loudly as they should be doing, a feature in the upcoming iOS 7 that will not only wipe a device, but also require the Apple ID and password of the associated account before it can be used again. The actual deterrent this may provide in the ‘real world’ to the magpie like pickpockets attracted to shiny and expensive Apple gadgets is yet to be seen. Also technically speaking, there’s nothing to truly stop the more tech-savvy recipients of such stolen goods in getting round the block and resetting the device ready for resale. However it’s a welcome feature nonetheless, promotes a further air of security and is definitely one worth shouting about, especially if it does create even a mild decline in the theft of Apple devices.
What say you then Google? Until last week, “nothing”, would have seemed to be the answer. Google had had their annual I/O conference, Jelly Bean had undergone another point release update to 4.3 in recent weeks and nothing along these kind of lines was mentioned. Yet, almost out of the blue at the end of last week, the official Android blog posted that this very service, named Android Device Manager, will soon be made available via a web app and supplementary phone app, for all devices on Android 2.2 and over. For a company so steeped in data management, information assurance and software in general, arriving this late to the party seems very strange – is there a reason why?
The answer I think lies in what Android actually is – a basic and lightweight operating system. A free to obtain and compile OS that provides the absolute bare-bones software required to provide an interface for a mobile device. Android itself (stock Android that is, the kind you only get on Nexus devices), has almost nothing installed out of the box. If anyone with a Nexus wants to factory wipe back to stock, they may be surprised at how little there actually is. Without OEM software, a stock Android device is a lot like a clean PC install. Nexus vs. OEM is a bit like buying a bare bones PC from the techy shop on the high street vs. buying an HP laptop from PC World. With this incredibly empty device in your possession, it is then up to you to install whatever you want to make it work how you wish. This has always been part of the Android ethos, to keep it as lightweight as possible and provide the end user with freedom. Seeing as Android Device Manager is going to be released as a separate service/app, most likely through Google Play with a web service, this continues to still be the case.
HTC, Samsung and others have included OEM solutions for locating and wiping their Android handsets and 3rd party apps are some of the most popular in Google Play. The reason behind Google’s lack of an official alternative may be the old bugbear of fragmentation. Whatever your thoughts on the phrase, it’s true providing a service that accesses deep features of the device such as a factory reset or ringing / sending messages is made harder with multiple hardware configurations. OEMs know their devices and implementation of Android inside-out so making their own apps is easy. 3rd parties can also afford to make mistakes – customers can contact them if the app doesn’t work as expected on a particular device. Google can’t risk their own apps looking too shoddy; they have to follow their own guidelines to the letter as examples to the rest of the developer world and get it right first time.
The final thought of mine is in Google’s recent approach to using Google Play to make their services available separately. For instance Google Keyboard has been available on Google Play as a free download for several months now. This means even if you have an OEM device, you can download the ‘official’ Android keyboard. This has two benefits to the big G; first of all they can make their applications and services updateable outside of actual Android updates, which are often delayed by OEMs and carriers as they tinker with them to their own ends. They can also get hold of more customer data and feedback. As some OEMs strip out Google services to replace them with their own, Google lose that data.
This new approach of separate Google apps and services I believe is a move towards unifying Android. ICS / Jelly Bean has shown that the platform has matured into a stable OS that can work well across devices. Manufacturers are beginning to hold back on their skins somewhat (except Samsung of course) and these separate apps bring core Android functionality to those who may never have experienced it, despite maybe owning Android devices for some time.
This addition may be very late in arriving in the grand scheme of things, hopefully though it marks the start of something new. Android may have begun life as an experiment that has since gone on to take over the mobile world with the help of manufacturers, but perhaps Google are finally beginning to show some interest in the end users of their product.