Another Android enterprise play: Zebra (rugged device OEM) announces long-term Android OS support

As Android takes over more enterprise use cases, additional features like long-term servicing become important, too.

In the last few years, many rugged devices have started offering Android as the OS, instead of older Windows variants, and managing these devices has become a significant business for some EMM providers. One of the major manufacturers of Android rugged devices is Zebra, so I wanted to learn more about how they think about Android.

Today, Zebra happens to be announcing a significant Android development: their new LifeGuard program will provide extended Android OS support. I spoke to Mike Petersen, Zebra’s head of global solutions marketing, and Jeff Hovorka, senior product marketing manager, to learn more.

About Zebra

Zebra has a long history (going back to the 70s) of selling label printers, readers, and RFID equipment; but the mobile computing business we’re talking about today traces its history through a couple of acquisitions.

Zebra purchased the enterprise rugged device business of Motorola Solutions in 2014. (Just for clarity, Motorola Solutions is still around and makes some rugged devices, too, but they concentrate the public safety market. Also, they’re not to be confused with Motorola Mobility, the other half that came out of the Motorola split in 2011, that makes consumer smartphones and is now owned by Lenovo.) Motorola Solutions, in turn, got into much of its enterprise rugged device business by acquiring Symbol Technologies in 2007 and Psion in 2012.

Motorola Solutions started working on ruggedized Android tablets as early as 2011 and Android mobile computers in 2012, and then made further Android investments in subsequent years. They developed a variety of software offerings, including SDKs for core functionality like scanning

As we’ve written about extensively, before Android for Work came along, Android’s management capabilities weren’t great, so like many other device OEMs, Motorola Solutions added their own layer of management extensions, dubbed MX. (They emphasized that this is not a variant of Android, just a set of extensions that rides on top of it.) Motorola Solutions also catered to enterprise customers by letting them choose between plain AOSP (Android without any Google services or apps) and Android with GMS (Google Mobile Services). All of these options and services came over to Zebra when that business unit was acquired, and the software is now known as the Mobility DNA Suite.

Customers typically use third-party EMM providers to manage Zebra devices. (Motorola Solutions previously had a device management business, but they sold that to AirWatch in 2013.) Now that Android has better enterprise capabilities built in, customers can use those APIs, too.

Android has been steadily replacing older Windows variants on rugged devices, and Mike and Jeff told me that today, about 65% of Zebra’s core device volume (in areas like retail and field services) is now on Android.

Today’s announcement

Now that the world has been using rugged Android devices for a few years, other issues are coming up: Android isn’t known for having the longest support cycles. Some companies are used to running a Windows variant for as long as 10 years, but Google usually only supports Android versions for about three years.

To address this, today Zebra is announcing a program called LifeGuard, in which they will extend Android support two years beyond what Google usually does.

LifeGuard will provide monthly or quarterly Android patches; and customers always have control over when they’re rolled out. Customers can also choose to purchase extra years of support to go even longer.

This goes into effect for many existing Zebra devices, so customers can look forward to new, longer support time tables for devices that are currently under support contracts. (Though it will vary by model, and there’s a limit to how far back they can go with this, so customers will have to check regarding their specific devices.)

Wrap up

For customers, this means they’ll get better security as they use their devices longer.

For the Android ecosystem overall, this is another example (like the OEM MDM APIs we saw in the past) of organizations stepping up to make it more enterprise-friendly.

(In fact, Zebra didn’t mention this, but it makes me think that in the next few years, we could see Google thinking about a long-term servicing branch for Android.)

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