Why Android is the Goldilocks standard for dedicated device fleets

David Ruddock

October 20, 2021

When choosing a platform to deploy, manage, and support your fleet of edge devices, you have a lot of factors to consider. But we all know that cost, ease of use, security, and scalability are among the top-level concerns for any organization serious about dedicated devices in the field. Your team needs to be able to easily set those devices up, deploy software (and firmware) to them, and manage and troubleshoot them — remotely. And given the combination of additional variables and demands that are likely unique to your organization and use case, that’s going to be complicated. Right?

At Esper, we know the answer isn’t actually all that complex: Android is the right edge device platform for tons of businesses. (We’re not saying other platforms have no place at the edge, but that if you’re in the position to choose, Android is frequently the right choice.)

Android is the world’s most popular operating system, and a rapidly growing share of companies across dozens of verticals are choosing Android for devices at the edge — but why? After all, Android is problematic from a security perspective, right? And isn’t it less stable, and less performant than platforms like iOS? Isn’t it less flexible and extensible than Linux? And doesn’t Android only run on ARM chipsets? Oh, and if I don’t want to rely on Google’s products or services, doesn’t that rule out Android entirely for my business (it doesn’t — check out this post)?

You might have guessed that we’d respond to all of the above firmly in the negative. And that’s why Esper chose Android.

Myth: Android offers a poor end user experience

Reality: Android can and does power world-class device UX — but your approach matters

Some myths stick around well past their “sell by” dates, and this is one rotten egg. In the early days of smartphones, Android rightly had a reputation as a second-class citizen when it came to UX. Many apps were poorly designed and executed or — worse — half-baked ports directly from the iPhone. The fallout of this dynamic still bubbles up from time to time (think online banking and other legacy applications), but in 2021, many apps even offer a superior software experience on Android when compared to their iOS counterparts.

Because of Android’s truly massive global popularity, the developer ecosystem for apps has matured rapidly to meet the demand for first-class software. Developing for a non-touchscreen use case on iOS, for example, will generally find you cold and alone — Apple doesn’t have much interest. Headless Android devices, meanwhile, have been in use by organizations for years. And though it’s true Linux can do whatever you set out to accomplish, this is all provided you want to build it yourself. With Esper, we can offload unnecessary resources for devices that don’t have to, for example, render the full Android user interface, letting you right-size your silicon against the real-world performance your use case requires.

As Android adopts modern languages like Kotlin, apps have only become more performant and more adaptable. And with cross-platform tools like Flutter, it’s becoming easier than ever to write your apps once and run them everywhere. Combined with its superior development economics, we’re confident Android presents a faster, easier, and more accessible way to enable next-generation device experiences for fleets. And unlike Linux, Android has the features customers demand right out of the box, like a mature cellular connectivity stack and proper Bluetooth, NFC, Wi-Fi, and media playback support.

In short, Android software is a lot like Android hardware: If you use the wrong tools, you’re going to have a bad time. If you choose the right ones, you’re setting yourself and your business up with a serious competitive advantage. At Esper, we want to give you the freedom to make those choices correctly, and the confidence that they’re backed by technical infrastructure — infrastructure that you don’t need to build yourself! — in order to support your vision at scale.

Myth: Android isn’t affordable — it’s cheap

Reality: Android is the ideal platform for end-to-end fleet opex management

This myth is still one of the great misconceptions about the Android platform. In many ways, Android is both more mature and more affordable to support than iOS or Linux, but a tribalistic and largely outdated consumer technology narrative has given rise to the opposite belief.

Android has a bit of a Yugo problem: Many associate the entire operating system (which is largely hardware-agnostic) with the bottom-of-the-barrel consumer smartphones you’d pick up at a prepaid carrier store, “no credit check, no money down!” And you’ll get no argument from us, either: If you’ve used a bad Android device, you know exactly how frustrating it can be. But if that’s your reference point — the very worst of the ecosystem — it’s a bit like you’re using a test drive of that Yugo to make generalizations about every foreign car for years to come.

The Android of 2021 is a very different beast than it was a decade ago, and a much more capable one. The diversity of Android hardware is staggering. Smartphones make up the lion’s share of all Android devices, of course, but you can find Android just about anywhere: smart wearables, laptops, connected fitness products, retail kiosks, medical devices, display signage, in-vehicle interfaces, and it probably even powers your airplane’s seatback entertainment. These use cases run the gamut in terms of processing power, connectivity, and UX requirements; none of them fit neatly into a little list of checkboxes. So, what’s driving these decisions?

Your first guess is almost certainly cost. You wouldn’t be wrong! One of the truly wonderful things about Android is that the entire ecosystem of ARM computing hardware is at your fingertips, and that ecosystem can accommodate a far wider range of unit costs and form factors than, say, iOS. This is the beauty of Android: If the hardware you envision doesn’t exist, you can probably build it with off the shelf solutions that won’t be cost-prohibitive to engineer. While the same can be said of Linux and hardware, it’s also a false equivalency: Linux may run on anything, but you’re responsible for making it run suitably for your use case. 

But why is Android cheaper and simpler, doesn’t this mean corners are being cut? As with any product, you can absolutely cut corners with Android — on hardware or software. And many vendors in the MDM (Mobile Device Management) space do just that. But judging the entire ecosystem on that basis — the Yugo option — is doing your business a real disservice. Whether you’re building headless display signage that simply renders for video output, or if you need a full camera and AI suite with low-latency 5G connectivity for advanced facial recognition, there’s Android-ready hardware out there for you and your use case. And with Esper, the power to choose the right hardware for the job is back in your hands — we even support Android on x86.

When it comes to software, Android has the largest developer ecosystem of any platform on the planet, far exceeding that of native Linux or iOS development. We don’t need to tell you that this community is global, too, empowering you to make cost and operations-conscious decisions from end to end for your organization.

Myth: Android is a cybersecurity risk

Reality: Android offers enterprise grade security — and the keys are in your hands

Security has been a bugbear for Android from the OS’s earliest days, but Android is exceptionally secure in fleet and other enterprise settings when implemented and updated properly. Major vulnerabilities leading to attacks like remote code execution can affect any computing platform, and — like Windows — Android has become a victim of its own popularity as hackers and phishers evolve their techniques for our mobile-first world.

The first concerns we hear from clients on the subject of Android security are always rooting (jailbreaking) and sideloading (installing unpermitted applications). In the world of consumer Android products, both are real risks — without taking the necessary precautions, a user could root a device, install a 3rd party application, disable your remote management tools, and even introduce malware on your network. 

Android features advanced hardening options like full-disk encryption, application sandboxing, remote locking and wiping, verified boot, and system-level permissions management. But these tools are only as good as the team wielding them. We firmly believe that we can help you make Android as secure as your organization needs it to be. We also know that we can go further yet with our platform — Esper Enhanced Android (EEA). To see what we’re building, and learn more about how EEA can help you, check out this page.

Consumer Android devices like those from Samsung and Google are actually among the most secure smartphones on the market, receiving prompt monthly security updates and supporting enterprise-level management features for fleets. We think this is great! But we also know that you don’t need a $1000 smartphone to accomplish what a Raspberry Pi with a gigabyte of RAM and an ethernet connection can. That’s why we’re working to bring the best of that consumer Android security experience to our customers, providing monthly security patches from Google to all of our customers using EEA.

And when it comes to locking down your devices at the edge, Esper knows better than anyone how important it is to keep your UX on the rails you’ve built. We offer advanced kiosk mode functions above and beyond those of Android’s standard app pinning behavior for mission critical applications. And we won’t create more work for your app team: Esper’s kiosk mode is designed to be highly compatible with almost any Android app, so that your development can stay focused on the product, not keeping the product on the screen.

Myth: Android devices have short lifespans, so you’ll have to replace them sooner

Reality: Android enables agile fleet evolution — but you need a partner to leverage it well

While it’s true that platforms like Linux and Windows can be updated into near-perpetuity (granted, your drivers can’t), the issue of Android device longevity is a lot more complex than that. Especially when it comes to fleets.

The mobile ecosystem is mature. Unlike ten or even five years ago, the features and tools most organizations expect as part of their devices have begun to standardize. 4G connectivity, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, USB-C, and advanced networking features are available on smartphones costing $100 or less in many parts of the world. Gone are the days when choosing a mobility-first — frequently, ARM-based — computing solution meant that technology would rapidly age out of a fleet because of deprecated software support or hardware limitations.

Android smartphone makers long ago had to consider the challenges of building apps and services across multiple generations of hardware and operating systems, and the Android development ecosystem has successfully navigated similar challenges. Google itself has also made the task of supporting Android devices in the long-term substantially more tenable with initiatives like Project Treble, modularizing portions of the OS to reduce hardware dependencies. In other words, we’re saying you aren’t the first person to think about these kinds of problems! We also think they’re a distinct advantage when choosing Android, because the technology is built on rapid iteration and evolution. Your business shouldn’t stand still because your hardware is holding it in place.

And while chipset vendors, Google, and device manufacturers have all done substantial work to make Android a viable long-term dedicated device solution, it can be difficult to effectively leverage these efficiencies as an individual player in the Android space. That’s why we built Esper — to give you all the benefits Android and its ecosystem have to offer, with a mind toward the unique considerations that come with large-scale dedicated fleet operations.

If you work with a traditional Android MDM, in all likelihood, your fleet will never see a single Android security patch, and it might get one major platform update (which you will likely have no choice but to accept). If you work with Esper, you’ll have a partner in the Android business when it comes to security patches, major Android OS updates (as long as your BSP supports them), and new platform features.

Not only will Esper help your hardware stay useful longer with a more stable, more readily updateable platform, we’ll help that hardware grow with you.

Myth: Android hardware is inferior, isn’t it? And aren’t I stuck with ARM?

Reality: Android hardware is whatever you want it to be (including x86, with Esper)

One of the biggest challenges any business will face in choosing Android for fleets is deciding on which hardware best fits their needs. Esper is more than ready to help you choose, but we also understand that use cases vary wildly. You may be using Android for dynamic display signage that’s little more than an app overlay with a few text elements on top of a visual framework. You might also be using Android to process complex AI or ML tasks like face detection or handwriting recognition (OCR).

Let’s go back to that Yugo. If you were buying a car to take down to the local quarter mile for some Friday night drag racing, a Yugo would be a pretty poor choice. “Poor” is much too generous, if I’m honest: it’s an objectively terrible choice. You could do it — no one is stopping you — but it’s clearly not the right tool for the job. If you choose the wrong hardware for your fleet, you could find the competition leaving you in the dust.

Because of Android’s natural economic advantages, it tends to attract use cases where aggressive cost management is front of mind. This also leads to a predictable outcome for many Android fleets: MDMs focus on the needs of their largest customers, who are frequently the most demanding when it comes to per unit cost. This creates a vicious cycle in which the most cost-focused customers drive MDM product development toward a “one size fits all” solution. We know this doesn’t work. Such solutions are almost definitely not going to be right-sized for your business and your specific needs. This is why you’ve probably found the choice of hardware at most MDMs to be underwhelming.

At Esper, we started with a very clear goal: To serve Android fleets of all shapes and sizes. Whether you’re building an advanced augmented reality headset for delicate industrial operations, retail kiosks for point or sale or customer support, or simply dedicated use smartphones and tablets for technicians to communicate in the field, we can help you build and manage it all under one umbrella. 

Conversely, you probably don’t need the horsepower of a $500 iPad or a $1000 PC — there’s almost certainly an Android solution that’s better and more cost-effective for executing your strategy. (And if you do need that top fuel performance, the Android ecosystem and Esper are more than up to the task, even including x86 hardware.)

Myth: Android can’t do what Linux / Windows / iOS can

Reality: Try to stump us. It’s kind of our favorite.

We won’t pretend to know your use case better than you do (in fact, you knowing it best is the assumption we’re built on). But we might know a bit more about what Android can and can’t do, and we’d love to hear from you — especially if you think it’s not up to the task. We’ve enabled mission critical applications running on Android devices in the field for everything from home medical care, to exercise equipment, to industrial IoT, to retail kiosks, to display signage. We know Android is a powerful, capable platform — and one that gets real results.

Android is more cost-effective, more adaptable, and is supported by a larger developer ecosystem than any other platform. We firmly believe this, because that’s exactly what our customers tell us! To start your own Android mythbusting journey with Esper, get in touch. We’re happy to set up a demo with your team and tell you more about what we’re building, or you can just starting trying out Esper right now.