By Gary Marshall

Analysis: Watch out Windows: Google's big plans for business computing


At its I/O developer conference, Google showed how it hopes to dominate business computing. It’s making Android more business-friendly, expanding its range of apps, offering native Office editing, delivering stronger security and making Chromebooks more compelling than ever before. Simply put, Google’s getting down to business.

An uphill battle

In the corporate world Google remains an also-ran: it’s not just behind Microsoft, Oracle and IBM in the enterprise, but it’s behind Apple too. According to the latest quarterly report by mobile services vendor Good Technology, Apple’s iOS accounts for 92% of enterprise tablet activations. The picture’s slightly better when you factor in smartphones, with Apple at 72% and Android at 27%, but it’s clear that iOS has a significant lead over Google’s mobile OS.

Sales of Chromebooks, Google’s stripped-back notebooks, may be rising – ABI Research estimates that 2.1 million Chromebooks were shipped in 2013 – but the numbers are a drop in the ocean compared to sales of Windows PCs.

Google intends to change that.

Google I/O

Attacking Office

Google’s online apps have offered a simple and cheap alternative to Microsoft Office for some years now, and they’ve been improved again to make them more useful. Where previous versions could import and export Office files, Google’s apps now use QuickOffice to natively edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files without converting them. Native Office editing is currently available in Android and in the Chrome browser, and will come to iOS “soon”.

Document collaboration has been significantly improved too. Change tracking has been overhauled to make it easier to see what’s been edited, especially when multiple users have been involved.

Google also unveiled a mobile version of its Slides presentation program at the I/O conference. It’s not the prettiest presentation package out of the box, but the ability to create or edit presentations on mobile Android or Apple devices is worthwhile.

Furthermore, the company also revealed a new version of Google Drive for business users. Google Drive for Work offers unlimited storage (with an individual file limit of a whopping 5TB), file encryption and auditing tools for $10 (around £6, AUD$11) per user per month.

Google Office

Android and BYOD

The rise of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) means that many organisation’s mobile devices are used for both business and personal purposes. Android for Work, which will be part of the autumn Android L (Android 5.0) release and made available afterwards for existing Android 4.x devices, is designed to facilitate that while keeping work and play separate. The initiative, which is supported by the major hardware manufacturers such as HTC and Lenovo, will use a series of mobile device management APIs to secure corporate applications on users’ devices and enable mass deployment of business apps.

Android L

A key part of Android for Work is KNOX, Samsung’s sandboxing technology, which keeps personal and corporate applications and data separate. KNOX is certified by the US Department of Defense and approved by the UK government’s End User Device (EUD) Security Guidance, but despite heavy ad spending Samsung hasn’t been able to dent Apple’s enterprise sales with its SAFE (Samsung for Enterprise) marketing campaign. By bringing the technology to all Android devices, Google clearly thinks it can be more successful.

Android on everything

Google has already blurred the lines between the Chrome web browser and its Chrome OS platform via the Chrome Web Store, which offers applications and extensions for both the browser and the browser-based OS. The next logical step is to blur the lines between Android and Chrome, and that’s exactly what Google is doing.

The most dramatic new feature is the ability to run Android apps on Chromebooks, another feature announced at I/O which will arrive in the autumn. It doesn’t apply to every app – only approved Android apps will run on Chromebooks, and to begin with that list only covered a whole three apps (Vine, Flipboard and Evernote) – but it’s a significant development.

Android L

Google is also making Android and Chrome more aware of one another. Chromebooks will automatically unlock when a recognised Android phone is nearby, and notifications such as SMS messages and incoming phone calls on mobile devices will appear on associated Chromebooks too.

That’s not the only way in which Google plans to make Chromebooks more compelling. Google has partnered with cloud telephony firm Twilio to launch Twilio CX for Chromebooks, an enterprise communications platform that uses Chrome and Plantronics headsets to slash the hardware and software costs of call centres.

Cost remains the Chromebook’s major selling point, and it’s why the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham went with Google instead of replacing its ageing Windows XP boxes with Windows 7 or 8 PCs.

The council is replacing 3,500 Windows desktops and 800 laptops with 2,000 Chromebooks and 300 Chromeboxes (desktop Chromebooks), saving an estimated £400,000 (around US$680,000, AUD$720,000) in hardware and energy costs compared to Windows PCs. It hasn’t abandoned Windows altogether – it’s still using Windows for applications such as AutoCAD, and some council applications require the use of a Citrix virtual desktop – but for most users, their IT future is browser-based.

HP Chromebook 11

More to IT than money

Few businesses would balk at an opportunity to reduce their costs, but of course money isn’t the only criterion IT decisions are based on. There are significant gaps in Android’s mobile device management features compared to iOS, and Android also has a reputation for malware.

The malware problem is largely overblown – stories that claimed Android accounted for 97% of all mobile malware were based on problems affecting obscure, unregulated third-party app stores in Asia and the Middle East.

In the West, Android is generally perfectly safe if you don’t frequent dodgy download sites – but it does illustrate a genuine problem, which is fragmentation. More than three-quarters of Android malware takes advantage of long-patched vulnerabilities, but only 13% of Android users are using the most recent, most secure version of Android. On iOS, 89% of users are running iOS 7.

Google is addressing that too. While 87% of users don’t have the most up-to-date Android OS, 93% of them use the latest version of Google Play Services, which updates every six weeks. Those updates maintain the core Google apps, services and APIs, keeping users’ devices safe and secure whether they’re using the most recent OS release or not. While Android L won’t be available for a few months, version 5.0 of Google Play Services has recently been rolled out.

Google can’t win over everyone, but the updates and changes it demonstrated at Google I/O make Android more appealing and Chromebooks more compelling. Google-powered devices have always been cheap, but now they’re considerably more capable too.