Android 11 Developer Preview is out. What does the enterprise need to know?

The updates are mostly incremental, but that’s a sign of Android Enterprise maturity.

Last Wednesday, Google released the Android 11 Developer Preview. This is a very early version (earlier than ever before), and more features will crop up between now and Google I/O in May. But either way, this is our first glimpse of what’s coming in Android 11 later this year.

So, is there anything in the Android 11 Developer Preview that will change the way we think about Android in the Enterprise?

After looking over the announcement blog posts and developer documentation, so far the answer appears to be no. Surely some of the features will be exciting to the product managers and developers at EMM vendors, and I'm excited to hear what they have to say about them. But for most of us in the enterprise, Android 11 looks to mostly consist of incremental refinements. And again, this could change between now and May.

A lack of big new management features might sound disappointing, but for the most part, this is a good thing. There’s widespread consensus in the EMM space that Google is doing a great job on Android Enterprise, and that it’s fairly mature. With support for BYOD and COPE built in from the beginning of, and later additions like zero-touch provisioning, OEMConfig, and the Android Enterprise Recommended program, we’re in a good place.

The overall story around Android for the last several years has been one of better updates, better privacy, better security, better manageability, and reduced fragmentation. So, if people and IT departments are still thinking about Android in terms of where it was five years ago (or ten years ago), it’s definitely time to get up to speed.

Of course, that’s not to say that everything is perfect and that I’m just going to heap on the praise. I think it’s crazy that Android permissions lagged behind iOS for many years, and clearly iPhones have better support lifecycles. And a big feature that I’m still waiting for is support for multiple work profiles, so that users can use their personal devices with multiple organizations’ MDM environments.

Android Enterprise in Android 11

Anyway, let’s get to what’s new for the enterprise in the Android 11 Developer Preview, via Google’s blog post and the Android developer documentation.

Android 11 will refine the way that work profiles on enterprise-owned devices (commonly known as COPE mode) handle the balance between user privacy and enterprise controls. The example that Google gave was preventing an employee from using up lots of corporate cellular data by streaming video on the personal side of the device, while still preventing IT from knowing what actual apps the user has installed.

(Update: Tuesday, February 25: I've heard from multiple industry contacts that believe that Google's changes concerning COPE usage will be more dramatic. Again, it's very early, so consider this to be a developing situation until we get more documentation and EMMs get a chance to update their platforms. Also, I have edited the previous paragraph for clarity.)

Other new enterprise features are:

  • In the settings app, separate work and personal tabs for location, storage management, accounts, and app information.
  • Common Criteria mode for corporate-owned devices.
  • Support for individual key attestation in corporate-owned devices.
  • New or updated APIs for granting certificate access; managing device passwords; managing time and time zones; managing factory reset protection; managing network settings; blocking a user from clearing data or force stopping designated apps; and location settings.

Again, these are small refinements to a mature framework, and are smaller changes than what we saw in Android 10.

More in Android 11

Moving on to the general Android features, there’s the usual range of UI refinements (chat bubbles, a special section in the notification UI for chat apps, more share sheet options), as well as some updates for the enterprise to care about.

Here’s Google’s blog post, and here’s what stuck out to me:

  • There are new APIs to support 5G, allowing apps to check to see if a data connection is metered and estimate bandwidth usage. This will surely be used by telecom expense management apps.
  • There are new one-time access options for location, microphone, and camera permissions. 
  • Apps will have to request background location incrementally, first asking for location while using the app, and then asking for use all the time. This is good for privacy, but it also means that there are more ways that users could “break” apps by accidentally hitting the wrong button.
  • New APIs will support more granular usage of different types of biometrics.
  • There will be support for secure usage of identity documents, i.e. digital driver's licenses.
  • Project Mainline, which takes chunks of the Android OS and makes them so they can be updated from Google Play, is being expanded.

Final thoughts

I don’t have too much else to add for now. To me, the main Android Enterprise story in 2020 is watching as enterprise adoption is increasing.  Another key story is that iOS finally has work and personal features that approach what Android has had in work profiles for years. (Though remember, BYOD is still hard, no matter what!)

We’ll keep an eye on Android 11 as it works its way through the preview and beta process. Stay tuned!

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