The ability to customize Google's Android operating system (OS) as well as the many smartphones running the OS gives both enterprise users and IT administrators more choice and flexibility in deploying Android devices in the workplace compared with Apple's iPhone, industry watchers concluded.
Tim Renowden, Ovum's device and platform analyst, said the Android platform has a hardware advantage over Apple's smartphone because the former gives enterprise users more choice in terms of the features and cost most suited to their business needs.
Features such as physical keyboards and the ability to connect to an external screen are just some of the hardware benefits Android phone users have over their iPhone counterparts, he added.
As for Scott Schwarzhoff, vice president of marketing for platform and services company Appcelerator, the unrestricted use of the Android OS allows for "unique enterprise implementation scenarios".
Citing Cisco System's announcement to introduce its Android-based, business-class tablet, he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the device will bring together a lot of the company's enterprise software and hardware capabilities into a single device--something that "couldn't happen" on Apple's iOS.
As for smartphones, Schwarzhoff observed that the latest version of Android--Froyo--has "shored up" some of the system's enterprise weaknesses by improving security and providing support for the Microsoft Exchange server system.
Furthermore, Forrester Research noted that the U.S. Copyright Office's decision to approve mobile phone jailbreaking will give enterprises an excuse to avoid Apple's platform due to security concerns. Allowing non-approved apps to run on the iPhone may bring in malware.
Following the approval, a jailbreak provided via Apple's Safari Web browser exposed a flaw that could potentially allow anyone unrestricted access to users' phones once they click on a malicious PDF link.
That said, both Renowden and Schwarzhoff conceded that there are areas in which Apple continues to have an edge over Android devices.
Third-party software and support are areas that Apple still holds sway over, noted the Appcelerator vice president. He said that, for one, Apple has made changes to its iOS4 that makes "developing and distributing enterprise apps much easier".
"The restrictions for distributing apps are now much simpler as you can now point to any URL and download an app inside an organization. In other words, you don't need to go through the App Store and have your users all on iTunes," he said.
Furthermore, with the iOS4 deployed on only a selected number of devices, namely iPhones and Apple's iPad slates, this makes the job of the IT administrator "easier", Schwarzhoff added.
Ovum's Renowden supported Scharzhoff's view, saying that the iOS has a "slight advantage" in supporting enterprise functionality and in third-party developer support.
He said that the iOS platform has a headstart with developers and, as a result, more sophisticated software is being produced.
However, he pointed out that Android is "improving rapidly" and both platforms will have similar capabilities in time to come.
"Ultimately, it's up to third-party software vendors to choose which platform to support. We've seen Cisco's announcement of its Android tablet device, and this may indicate vendors' growing willingness to support Android as it allows greater flexibility," Renowden said.
When contacted, a Google spokesperson said that with the introduction of Froyo, there are now over 20 enterprise-friendly features added to the OS.
For Exchange support, the spokesperson said this will allow administrators to enforce password policies across devices and remotely wipe content off lost or stolen handsets.
Other features include giving developers access to the phone's data back-up and restore functionality so that users' data will not be lost with a system update, as well as the ability to turn devices into portable Wi-Fi hotspots that can support up to eight Wi-Fi-enabled devices, he added.
"We are receiving great feedback from businesses and vendors alike. IBM, for example, recently made a statement that it sees Android devices as suitable business tools with its release of its Lotus Notes Traveler software for the platform," the spokesperson said. "At the same time, Gartner also gave Android devices a thumbs up for the use of corporate e-mail, personal information management, Internet browsing and telephony."
Apple had not responded to ZDNet Asia's questions by press time.
BlackBerry still dominant
Earlier, research firm Nielsen found that among consumers who bought a smartphone in the first half of the year in the U.S., 27 percent got an Android phone, while 23 percent chose an iPhone. NPD Group also showed that Android-based smartphones were bought by 28 percent of U.S. users surveyed compared with 21 percent of iPhone users in the first quarter of 2010.
Both platforms were trumped by Research In Motion's BlackBerry device, though. The Nielsen report showed that 35 percent of the users still preferred the Canadian company's smartphone, while NPD had the BlackBerry at 36 percent.
Bryan Ma, associate vice president of devices and peripherals at IDC Asia-Pacific, agreed with the statistics. He told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that for now, it is still "RIM against everybody else" in the enterprise smartphone arena.
He also said that the adoption of iPhones and Android smartphones is not a "conscious decision" made by IT managers.
"This trend is because of the consumerization of IT and it is being driven by workers who are familiar with both the iPhone and Android platforms," Ma said.
As for whether either the iPhone or Android smartphones will eventually displace the BlackBerry as the dominant enterprise phone, the IDC analyst said it is down to companies to decide if they are willing to "run the risk" of supporting these platforms, which, unlike RIM's device, are not engineered for the enterprise space.
Ma's comments were taken before RIM's system of encrypting and storing users' data in servers sited in the company's home base of Canada came under intense regulatory scrutiny.
Gulf States Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates earlier threatened to shut down key functions of the device as these did not comply with the countries' regulatory policies, while others such as Indonesia and India are considering similar actions.
Saudi Arabia has since relaxed its stance, choosing not to go ahead with its ban as it continues to work with RIM to find a long-term solution, according to latest reports.