The father of Google Apps and Chrome OS has a new vision -- and it revolves around Android

An exclusive interview with Google's Rajen Sheth about Android's evolving role in the enterprise and how it and Chrome OS will continue to work together.

Android Enterprise

Rajen Sheth is used to being ridiculed. He's also used to being vindicated.

Sheth has been the driving force behind some of Google's most crazy-seeming product pivots -- first the advent of Google Apps, which asked enterprises to leave the long-standing comfort of Office for services like Docs and Gmail, and then the launch of Chrome OS, which challenged the very idea of what a desktop operating system needed to be.

Both projects attempted to introduce a new kind of cloud-centric focus to a change-resistant environment -- and both were met with skepticism, doubt, and even disdain at their start.

"When we first started pitching [Google Apps], I literally had CIOs kicking me out of the room after five minutes," Sheth recalls.

And most of us have seen firsthand how eager folks were (and in some cases still are) to dismiss the Chromebook as a mere "browser in a box," with no valid use case or value.

"We had some really atrocious comments about our Chrome OS efforts," Sheth says. "And it turns out we believed that this was a better way, and we've now seen that -- especially with schools and enterprises."

Rajen Sheth, Android Google

A father's next frontier

These days, the Google Apps suite is known simply as GSuite. And while it may not have the market share of Microsoft's dominant Office behemoth, it's come a long way over time and managed to squeeze its foot into a door once thought to be impenetrable. Chrome OS, meanwhile, has defied its doubters and become a legitimately viable alternative to traditional PCs, outpacing Mac laptop sales in a recent quarter and seeing particularly strong success in schools.

With his babies all grown up (or at least firmly past their infancy), Sheth has turned his attention to the broader Android and Chrome OS picture -- and specifically how the two platforms can better serve users in the education and enterprise realms. Today, he's reframing the Android enterprise effort by folding both Android For Work and Google Play For Work into their respective parent platforms.

That's right: no more "For Work" in either of those names. Android's business-oriented features are now just part of Android itself, and the same goes for Google Play.

"We're simplifying it," Sheth explains. "These capabilities are capabilities that are just inherent now to Android and Play."

And really, it's no wonder Sheth wants to rethink how Android's enterprise presence is presented. There's a widespread perception that Android can't manage to crack the iOS-favoring business market -- but on the smartphone front, at least, the data tells a very different story.

The battle for the enterprise

According to measurements by IDC (which is owned by the same parent company as Computerworld), Android accounted for a whopping 66% of all commercial smartphone shipments in the second quarter of 2016. That's a growth of 5% from its spot at the same point in 2015, when it held a still-impressive 62.6% of the pie. Apple's iOS, in comparison, came in at 31% in 2016 and 29.3% in 2015 -- about the same relative growth from year to year, though obviously at a much smaller scale.

(Both Android and iOS seem to be benefitting from the rapidly falling standings of BlackBerry and Windows Phone, by the way: Those platforms saw significant drops from 2015 to 2016 and are barely even on the map in IDC's latest measurements. Notably, too, these measurements are all specific to smartphones and don't take into account tablets -- which could explain the differences between this data and other assessments that show Apple as being further ahead.)

The numbers are even more eye-opening when you consider that Android's enterprise push didn't even exist until early 2015. The 5.0 Lollipop release was the first version of the operating system to include any meaningful focus on enterprise readiness, and it was shortly after its launch that Google declared Android was "ready for work" and announced the Android For Work program. The company's steadily been adding features into the program ever since, with a slew of new arrivals over the past few months and as part of this year's Android 7.0 Nougat release.

Sheth realizes that awareness -- of the types of tools Android now provides for businesses, of the realities of Android security and the high-profile "scares" people may read about, and of the broader advantages Android can offer as an enterprise platform -- is half the battle moving forward. That's why a big part of his work these days is helping managers understand the "best practices" of Android, including not only the common sense stuff about sticking to the Play Store for app downloads but also the realities about which devices are likely to get reliable monthly security patches and thus be advisable purchases.

"Part of our role with this team is to be a trusted adviser for our customers, to talk to them about these best practices, [and] to give them guidance on what devices they should go look at that are following these best practices," he says.

And remember: Sheth oversees the evolution of both Android and Chrome OS on the enterprise front. So while he may not have a tablet with anywhere near the iPad's level of popularity to suggest for businesses, he can tout the affordability and versatility of Chromebooks -- particularly those with access to the full Google Play Store of Android applications.

Sheth likes to point out the advantages of having Chrome OS's core benefits alongside Android's entire app ecosystem -- a combination that, as I've observed before, essentially creates a whole new category of device. And he hints that what we've seen so far may only be scratching the surface of what's possible.

"I think what you're going to see is us stick with this kind of structure that we have, that we're now releasing to Chromebooks, but making that more and more powerful," he says.

Rumors, of course, continue to suggest Android and Chrome OS will come together in even more significant ways in the months ahead. Sheth notes only that when he first started working on Chrome OS, the jury was still out as to whether the web ecosystem or the mobile ecosystem would "win" the war -- and so Google, as we saw, staked a claim on both sides of the battleground. Now, the company seems to be realizing its two warriors may actually be comrades in disguise.

"What we found is that it's not a one-vs.-another thing; it actually should be both," he says. "There are times when the mobile ecosystem makes sense and there are times when the web ecosystem makes sense, and the user shouldn't have to choose. They should be able to use whatever makes sense for them. And that's really where I think we've evolved to with Chrome OS."

As for whether some similar sort of duality might one day make sense in other contexts, we'll have to wait and see. But Sheth seems confident the approach itself is sound.

"An OS is only as good as what you can do with it, and I think with the combination of a powerful browser and the Android mobile ecosystem, there's so much now that you can actually do," he says.

One thing seems like a given: The road ahead is bound to have more divisive ideas and crazy-seeming gambles. And if that means Sheth has to take a little more grief along the way from folks who don't yet appreciate his vision -- hey, that's okay. He'll wait.

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