police officer using wireless device (First Responder Network Authority/Flickr)

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Why Android is emerging as the OS of choice for public safety

As Microsoft phases out support for its mobile operating systems, many public-sector agencies that previously relied on Windows-based mobile computers are evaluating strategies to migrate to Android.

Android has an 85% market share globally, which makes it very user-friendly. It also offers a number of key benefits to enterprise users that aren’t available with other OS options. Of course, migrating agencies to a new technology is not as easy as buying a mobile device from a local retail store or wireless carrier. Public-safety IT professionals should prioritize their unique security and operational needs when shopping for a new mobility solution. Here are some key questions to ask when evaluating the various OS options and comparing consumer-grade, business-grade and enterprise-grade rugged devices.

What applications are required?

Public-safety organizations, especially police and fire departments, require rugged communications devices that support a wide range of use cases, including highly secure voice communications, real-time navigation, e-citation and code enforcement, asset and inventory tracking and more. A pocketable device might work for one team, while a larger screen might be appropriate for another where users require access to multiple applications simultaneously. Devices may need to be used with gloved hands, in bright sunlight or in rain and snow -- and they likely require robust batteries that last through long shifts. Not all devices marketed as rugged are designed to meet these challenges.

Can this solution be customized to comply with current IT and security requirements?

It is vital to ensure that a technology solution can comply with an organization’s existing IT guidelines. For example, some federal, state and local government agencies have limitations on whether their professionals can carry devices that access the cloud -- either for security reasons or because they don’t have enough resources to support a cloud-based deployment.

In this case, consumer devices purchased from a wireless carrier may not be appropriate, as applications commonly preloaded on consumer devices -- such as Google Mobile Services -- often operate through the cloud. Selecting an enterprise-grade device that can restrict access to applications and services such as GMS can give public-safety agencies a higher security level without requiring any additional IT resources.

As another enhanced security measure, an IT department may want to consider privilege-based access and trusted execution environment controls, which give IT full control over which applications are installed and what data those applications can access. Some public-sector agencies may choose to disable Bluetooth or USB ports, which can make devices more vulnerable to attacks and allow the easy transfer of sensitive data. Others may want the option to insert a smart ID card or common access card for access control.

What extra features can be implemented?

Often, enterprise-grade devices provide customization tools that enable a wide variety of productivity, security, management and application development options for public-sector IT departments. Some tools allow the customization of Wi-Fi settings for specialized environments. Others support zero-touch device provisioning for faster technology deployments and include private cloud or side loading off network. Still others allow users to create a custom keyboard that supports an agency’s unique vocabulary without requiring any third-party software. Some enterprise-grade devices even offer data wedge tools that read barcodes, track RFID tags or even enable basic voice recognition with existing applications.

What is the lifecycle of these technologies?

Public-sector agencies should consider the average device lifecycle as part of the evaluation process. Agencies simply cannot afford to replace devices every 24 months, which is about the typical consumer device lifecycle in the U.S., according to the research firm Kantar Worldpanel. The reality is that many consumer device vendors only guarantee security support for two to three years. In sharp contrast, some enterprise device vendors guarantee OS support for up to 10 years. With purpose-built devices, public-safety agencies can rest assured knowing they will not have to replace their existing devices before they are ready.

Who controls OS upgrades?

With consumer devices, OS updates are typically forced upon device users. Management tools may offer to postpone updates, but there is usually just a short window for this delay, forcing users to upgrade whether they want to or not. For many enterprise solutions, quite the opposite is true. Public-sector IT departments have control over their OS upgrades, which means upgrades can be delayed until all suppliers or application partners are ready to migrate to the newest OS. IT can even revert back to a past release if an issue arises. Besides, some enterprise vendors will continue to issue OS patches long after an OS upgrade is available.

Looking forward

In a recent Zebra Technologies survey of public-safety agencies, 72% of respondents said they are concerned they are not investing in new mobile technology fast enough. With software updates discontinued for the Windows Mobile OS, there has never been a better time for public-safety agencies to migrate to Android-based enterprise-grade devices that offer more security, productivity and lifecycle benefits than legacy solutions -- on today’s consumer-grade devices.  

About the Author

Bree Bergman is director of vertical and field marketing with Zebra Technologies.

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