With Android for Work, Google aims to secure 1+ billion BYOD devices

We’ve all been doing it, to the dismay to some of our bosses: Employees have long been bringing their own devices to work, reading corporate mail on the same phone that also is used to run their favorite games, snap their family photos and browse the web at large. Now, Google wants to legitimize BYOD, as the bring your own device is being called within the industry, by making Android more secure for work.

The company launched a new Android for Work program Wednesday that promises to not only make new and existing work devices more secure, but also bring enterprise-strength security to more than one billion Android handsets and tablets that consumers have acquired on their own. “Every employee should have a work-enabled mobile device in their hands,” said Android for Work Product Management Director Rajen Sheth during a press briefing in San Francisco Wednesday.

The basic idea behind Android for Work is to offer enterprises and their employees a secure area within their Android phones and tablets that can be managed by a company with dedicated policies and easily accessed by a user. For example, users can access a work-specific version of Google’s email client, and then simply switch back to their personal email client. Work apps are visually set apart from personal Android apps through a small suitcase icon.

This is how Android for Work looks like on a Lollipop device.

This is how Android for Work looks like on a Lollipop device.

On devices running Android Lollipop, this is done via dedicated profiles that are integrated on the operating system level. But Google also wanted to make Android for Work available to older handsets, which is why the company developed a dedicated Android for Work app that brings this kind of separation to non-Lollipop devices — an increasingly common tactic for Google, which has been fighting the often-decried Android fragmentation by adding key functionality updates to apps like Google Play services instead of Android itself.

Google is also launching a dedicated Google Play for Work store, which can be managed by each enterprise to deploy only whitelisted apps, or even purchase apps in bulk. Enterprises could decide to manage policies on their own, or work with third parties like VMWare or Citrix to handle these tasks.

Google Play for Work doesn’t really change anything for app developers, who only have to publish their app once to make it available to both consumers and enterprises, and are even able to add Work-specific security features to the same apps that are also installed by consumers. However, down the line, developers could expect new forms of monetization through Google Play for Work, which could include special bulk subscription tiers for enterprises. Sheth said that the company wants put a lot of focus on getting developers to build new apps as well as secure existing apps for Android for Work.

Google's new for Work productivity apps.

Google’s new for Work productivity apps.

Finally, Google is also making its own suite of productivity apps available as part of Android for Work. These are essentially customized versions of the existing Google apps. I got to see an email client that on the surface looked like Google’s Gmail app, but integrates with Exchange and Notes.

Google got a number of partners to launch Android for Work, including device manufacturers like LG, Sony and HTC, app and services businesses like Box, Salesforce and SAP as well as enterprise services companies like Citrix, VMWare and BlackBerry. Samsung, which at times has been a bit of a contentious partner for Google, got a special mention for its Knox security framework that integrates with Android for Work. The company also touted enterprise partners that have already been testing for Work, including Woolworth and Pearson.

However, the Google is also eyeing other industries, and looking to take Android even beyond BYOD, and to specialized single-purpose devices. One example mentioned by Sheth: Amusement parks, which could hand out a tablet or phone with some very specialized apps to each attendant. Restaurants could also benefit from dedicated Android apps that help staff to take and process orders, he said, adding: “That can open up an opportunity for many more devices that don’t exist today.”