Mad Dog 21/21: Curate’s Eggs
January 20, 2014 Hesh Wiener
Bring Your Own Device is turning business computing inside out. Corporate support squads are now obliged to cope with free range users’ diverse machines. Gadgets running iOS, Android, Fire OS, and Chrome can give support personnel acute headaches, but they aren’t the most nefarious ones. The worst annoyances come from weakly managed Windows, which becomes infested by browser cooties like the Ask Toolbar, smuggled in during Java updates, or the McAfee Siteadvisor, subversively installed when Flash is patched. In the BYOD looking glass world, Windows can be less practical than any of the mobile operating systems.
A key factor that makes the mobile operating systems easier for support teams is the way they are managed: On smartphones, tablets, and web-only clients (such as a Chromebook), applications are curated. Users can overcome the installation restrictions, but must do so explicitly. Additionally, mobile devices running Android and its cousin, Fire OS, are easily managed so that they can accept specific apps from outside their primary curated collection but deny these apps permission to load other non-curated apps. This blocks one common route into Windows PCs: Sometimes, malware begins with a single toolbar or other app the user installs; this app then invokes additional installations that occur without the user’s knowledge or permission.
Content control for mobile devices was pioneered by Apple when it first offered iPhones. Applications for the phones were managed and distributed more or less the way songs were provided to the iPod base. As it turns out, that was a very good starting point.
Since its inception, Apple’s app ecosystem has grown and matured, serving the iPad as well as the iPhone and some high end iPods, too. Google’s Android app store began as a similar service. It has also evolved quite a bit. It currently supports not only smartphones from many vendors, including Google itself, but also a phenomenal assortment of tablets, Google’s Nexus family products again among them. Amazon, an e-tailing empire founded as a bookseller, supports an app store for its Kindle Fire tablets, devices based on a fork of Google’s Android. Fire OS is not only distinct from all systems bearing the Android name, but is often incompatible with other implementations of Android. When a Kindle Fire is configured with default settings, Fire OS users cannot download apps from the Google app store; instead, they must turn to the Amazon.com app store for approved software.
Despite the strong efforts of the creators and supervisors of iOS, Android, and Fire OS to control apps, each of these three environments has a colorful counterculture producing unsupported applications. There are paths that can be taken by users who wish to overcome the restrictions imposed by the developers of their system software.
Unfettered, users’ devices will allow the installation of packages from development groups that operate outside the boundaries set by Apple, Google, or Amazon.
The main distinction between vendor-approved software and unendorsed software is this: All software from vendors’ apps stores is pretty carefully checked for safety. Apps from outside the curated stores are usually safe, but there is nevertheless increased risk that a package will be infected with malware or provide a gateway though which malware could enter the host system.
Jailbreaking is the term for defeating the software restrictions imposed by Apple’s iOS. Once a device has been jailbroken, it can run apps from outside the Apple ecosystem and do things phones and tablets living within Apple’s rules cannot do. Apple fights the jailbreak movement, wins battles, but does not seem capable of winning the war. The result is, as the Washington Post reported, not merely a counterculture but a viable business segment. Users who jailbreak their iStuff frequently install software that provides an app store service. The best known such service is Cydia, which is loaded on iStuff when it is subjected to a jailbreak process.
Conditions are different in the Android market. There, Google encourages adherence to its curation and product standards but openly tolerates exceptions. There is a user-accessible setting in Android (and a similar setting in Fire OS) to open the host device to apps not curated by Google (and Amazon, respectively). Beyond that, access to Android phones at a deep level that is blocked by stock Android and similar access to the inner workings of Fire OS tablets can be obtained by a process known as rooting. A rooted device gives the owner the same kind of access available to systems software developers. A rooted Android phone can be loaded with a different operating system, whether a variation on Android from the CyanogenMod group or, in the case of a couple of Google developer phones, a Linux distro from Ubuntu.
In practice, relatively few Android phones and tablets and only a tiny fraction of Fire OS tablets get rooted. A larger percentage are unlocked for non-approved apps using the explicit setting in their systems software, particularly in the case of the Kindle Fire, so users can sideload apps not approved by Google or Amazon, respectively. In business circles, popular sideloaded apps used with the Kindle Fire include the current stable Android version of K-9 email for JellyBean (4.409), Dropbox and Aurora (an advanced version of the Firefox browser).
While app developers often provide files in a dot-apk form that can be downloaded and installed, end users and corporate IT groups that provided extensive mobile client support find that it is often easier to locate (and later update) unofficial apps with the help of an independent app store. In the Android world, there are a number of these apps stores; one that is popular and has a reputation for prudence is Yandex. But sometimes the best place to get the latest (and reliably virus-free) version of an app is a site maintained by the app developer. For example, K-9 mail’s development group, K-9 Dog Walkers, offers its .apk files via the Google Code web site. Amazon’s app store doesn’t have the latest K-9 but instead provides an older somewhat inferior version. The 4.409 version, newer than Amazon’s but not the latest 4.8 release, works fine on Fire HDX platforms.
Google Chrome has its own web app store. So far there are no widely used independent apps but Google is aware of the limitation of its own offerings, such as its Docs alternative to Microsoft Office. The result has been an effort by Google to encourage third-party app developers and add their work to the Chrome app store. This is a young and incomplete effort, but as the base of Chromebooks grows and Chrome browser users become more sophisticated, the app options are bound to improve.
Because of this curation process, app support for users of iOS, Android, Fire OS, and Chrome is a breeze for corporate IT departments is a pretty tame affair compared to the wilder and more dangerous position of weakly managed Windows PCs. But even in the best of cases–which iOS fans believe is their situation, happy Android users see as their state of affairs, Kindle Fire fans feel is their place, and Chromebook owners seem to think is where they stand–conditions among end users who manage their own devices (even if they can get a little help from corporate IT support teams) are often unsatisfactory.
The tradeoff of freedom against risk for end users is greatest in the Windows world, which has by far the best business and productivity apps but also opens users up to an enormous number of threats. While iOS boasts myriad apps, the choices for business users who need basic productivity and business communications apps leave a lot to be desired. The same goes for Android, which also has a long but not always useful roster of business-oriented apps and Fire OS, which so far seems to lag the other mobile device systems for business notwithstanding a determined effort by Amazon to made it as good a system for business apps as it is for media. Chrome is an attractive, safe, but still quite limited environment, a nicely crafted thin client that seems to run well because it uses as much computing horsepower as a low end fat client. All that interpretive computing just slows Chrome down.
So, when it comes down to it, each of the end user’s systems choices is pretty disappointing. Without the quantity and quality of IT support that corporate users get when they use office-bound PCs, every one of the end user systems is a curate’s egg. Users, who like the fun apps on their smartphones and tablets, and who find productivity apps and the client end of business software suites pretty disappointing, try to act like their mobile devices are just fine. But that surely isn’t the case. The business world needs to give end users devices with the slick experience of iOS, the versatility of Android, the support of Fire OS with its Mayday support service and the cloud-friendly technology of Chrome.
Microsoft might be the vendor that makes the kind of product improvements it will take to conquer the deeply disappointed end user business market. It has the most to lose if it keeps fumbling with Windows. And it has the talent to reinvent its operating system and to provide tools to help business organizations curate installations the way its rivals do. What it may lack is the leadership it will take to harness its capabilities. In the meantime, Apple could stall, not because it has no visionaries but rather because it probably has too many and lacks a way to arbitrate among them, a feat Steve Jobs had apparently mastered. Google seems to have vision and pretty good leadership, too, but so far it has failed to show it understands end users except as crowds prone to herding and given to the occasional stampede. Amazon, the last to this party, could end up as a leader, because it not only touches end users as closely as Google, but also seems to appreciate the diversity of the mobile device user base. If it can provide the quality of service to businesses that it does to families and individuals, it might be able to win hearts, minds and virtual desktops. The Kindle Fire could be this generation’s Selectric, and the Amazon cloud service its glass house.
There’s no obvious winner yet, and maybe not even a clear leader. That’s what makes it all so confusing, so risky . . . and so much fun.