Android MDM is challenging to shop for. Dedicated devices like Android kiosks, point of sale systems (and mPOS systems), and others require more sophisticated tools for management than traditional Android MDM (Mobile Device Management) is capable of providing. Always-on remote control, robust app and content deployment automation tools, and device telemetry and monitoring are more than most MDMs can handle.

If your Android device management needs are complex, there are key considerations you must make before deciding on an Android device management solution, and reasons you may want to go beyond a basic Android MDM and toward a true Android device management solution.

Do I need Android device management or Android MDM?

Do you have a group of Android devices to manage? Then you need Android MDM, at the very least. But if you need to lock down your Android devices to a single app, disable hardware buttons, or force the screen to stay on forever? Then you need more than Android MDM, you need full stack Android device management!

What do we mean when we say “Android device?” Aren’t all Android devices the same? The answer is absolutely not! For example, it’s critical to know if your Android device is running Google Android (GMS Android), or if it running AOSP (without GMS). If these terms are new to you, check out our guide on GMS vs non-GMS Android.

Regardless, if you’re using an Android device, you can start managing that device immediately with a tool like Esper for free. And even if your device doesn’t have GMS, we support it!

Android MDM for AOSP devices

When you talk about “non-GMS” Android devices, you’re talking about devices running “AOSP.” The Android Open Source Project (known as AOSP) is the fully open source version of the Android OS, and it underpins more devices in more scenarios than it’s likely reasonable to list in a single place.

Manufacturers can utilize the open source code Google publishes as part of AOSP to assemble an OS, and Google has no control over these AOSP devices. But because AOSP devices don’t have Google’s mobile services and applications, they don’t have the cloud APIs and support infrastructure to enable OTA application updates and firmware over the air (FOTA) updates — and this is where major device management challenges can begin.

But AOSP can also enable huge opportunities, as the platform offers a huge library of APIs and supporting documentation, a ready-made UI, basic stock applications, and cross-platform development tools.

Designed to receive FOTA upgrades in place (with minimal disruption using features like A/B system partitioning), AOSP can let you build devices that can meaningfully improve and iterate in the field with software and firmware innovations that are fully under your control.

Traditional Android MDM is designed for Android GMS devices. These solutions were never built to do the kinds of things Google does for consumer Android products (deliver app updates, new content, firmware updates) because Android with GMS already provides these functions. But if you’re running AOSP Android, you’re now missing tools that a full stack Android device management partner like Esper can provide (for example, FOTA).

Android MDM OTA / FOTA updates

Deploying updates to the apps on your Android devices sounds simple enough. But if you need that app to roll out to specific groups of devices, with specific builds for particular hardware targets, or inside a specific timeframe (on a regular schedule), no traditional Android MDM solution is going to give you the tools to do it the right way. Even the Google Play Store (for GMS devices) isn’t a great fit if you need this level of precision and reliability when deploying software updates to devices.

Similarly, the ability to upgrade your fleet’s firmware over the air is a huge technical advantage. And much of the Android FOTA infrastructure problem has been solved … for Android smartphones. High-end handsets from Samsung and Google receive monthly firmware updates with security fixes, quarterly maintenance releases, and annual OS upgrades. Applications update seamlessly in the background, with the user rarely the wiser. Achieving similar results on a dedicated Android or AOSP system like a stationary kiosk, though, presents major challenges.

If you want to update the firmware on a retail store kiosk, you’ll need a distribution platform and infrastructure to manage it (read: a cloud). And what happens when something inevitably goes wrong? If your device’s manufacturer upgrades your firmware and it breaks a mission critical application, who do you turn to? Frequently, the answer is “no one.” Most device OEMs aren’t interested in bespoke firmware support (not unless you’re ordering in some truly huge quantities), and even if they were, don’t have tools designed to be used by third parties to manage these processes (let alone manage them precisely). Many won’t even allow you to opt out of upgrades you don’t want.

Esper’s full stack Android device management for kiosks and other devices can get you out of this painful cycle.

Advanced Android device management: Beyond MDM

Once you have control over your AOSP firmware, OTA, and FOTA strategy, an entire world of new possibilities opens up. Your devices become fully manageable objects, allowing an incredible degree of control and customization. There are new challenges, too, but frankly, they’re the kind you want to have (when you have the tools to address them).

Most companies using AOSP to build firmware for their devices never have this “moment.” Instead, they’re frequently locked into the Android MDM waterfall software deployment cycle, in which a very fragile, very user-unfriendly, but very cheap management interface will allow you to deploy applications and set policy from the cloud well enough to reach your devices at a theoretically massive scale.*

(*Eventually. And probably not actually all of them. And you won’t actually know which ones received that update, or why they didn’t get it, or whether there’s something you could have even done to prevent a botched rollout in the first place… unless you decide to build all this telemetry yourself.)

Android MDMs have their place for things like managed personal devices, but when it comes to testing updates precisely, deploying at scale aggressively, and continuously monitoring rollouts, Android MDMs offer you little more than a batch script with PR. Proper Android device management tools must be used.

Android MDM for GMS vs AOSP

If you’re disappointed by Android MDM offerings, you’ve likely investigated how easy it would be to just become GMS certified and roll with Google’s Play ecosystem and tools. For some companies, this is the best way to get there. If your timeline for certification isn’t tight, and if the Play Store is going to provide a major content value add to your device, Google has a path for you. But if your device is unusual in some way, or otherwise not cut in the cloth of a typical Android smartphone, you may start hitting some pretty big snags.

This post provides a thorough overview of how to think about building a GMS versus non-GMS Android device, which involves passing some extremely rigorous automated test suites. You can also check out Google’s CDD (Compatibility Definition Document). Consider it the ever-evolving sacred stone tablet that defines just what a “true” Android device is and will be, often forecasting changes years into the future. (Hey, nobody said building a multi-billion device ecosystem wouldn’t result in some seriously hefty documentation.)

Are there Android MDM alternatives?

Traditional MDM for Android won’t meet the needs of many devices and businesses. But you need to understand why.

Looked at from the lens of traditional Android MDM fleet management, app updates and firmware OTAs are afterthoughts — but these may be revenue critical tools for your business’s point of sale, kiosk, or MedTech devices on a daily or even hourly basis.

Once you’ve accepted the limitations of MDM for Android, it’s easy to brush off other solutions as unlikely to add significant value. But if you added up all the hours you and your developers spent troubleshooting and developing workarounds for your Android MDM instead of building great products, you’d see the math very differently.

Practicing proper Android device management would not only save your business money, it will help you create better products for your customers — and be able to do so faster and with far greater flexibility of scale.

If you’re tired of traditional MDM for Android, you’re ready to take the Esper Android device management plunge. Come talk to us.


What is an Android MDM?

MDM stands for Mobile Device Management. An Android MDM is a mobile device management solution that specializes in Android. 

How do I manage multiple Android devices? 

The best way to manage multiple Android devices is with an Android MDM. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 or 10,000 devices — a good Android MDM will allow you to control them all remotely (and in bulk). 

What is remote management in Android?

Remote management is a way to control, update, and modify Android devices without physical access. This could be on a small scale for a single device or for hundreds of thousands with a remote management solution. 

How to choose the right MDM for Android? 

There’s no “perfect choice” for every single scenario, but finding an MDM that understands the ins and outs of running an Android-based fleet is crucial. Many MDMs support Android, but the levels of support can vary greatly across providers.