Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Android Market: a Solution for Apps at Last?

One of the main problems I've heard about these iPad and iPod Touch educational pilot programs that everyone seems to be so enamored with is application management. Everyone loves apps because they're cheap and good ones are so intuitive that almost no training is required at all to get them working. The problem is that apps are by and large built around a consumer market model, and almost exclusively delivered through the cloud whether via iTunes for iOS or over the air via the Android Market (or Blackberry Market, Palm Market, etc.). Has anyone honestly ever gone into a store to purchase an SD card with an app on it and then inserted that SD card into their phone and installed that app on their phone/tablet? (Nevermind iOS devices don't have SD card slots in the first place). That now absurd sounding process is exactly what consumers and organizations used to do with CD-Roms and DVDs, and that was one (admittedly complicated) way to concretely manage applications across an organization.

With the advent of app stores, how does an organization manage applications effectively? Is an application licensed to a device or a user? If several classes and dozens of students are utilizing one iPod Touch cart, how many instances of a given application are they supposed to purchase? How does a student make sure the progress they make in the app or the work they do in an app is associated with the correct user account? What about updates?

Yesterday Google officially unveiled the Android Market, which seems to have answers for some of these questions. The Android Market is a website, (not a program like iTunes) and programs can be purchased and installed to multiple Android devices over the air. The skeleton of a comprehensive application management system appears to be there, but there is still much progress to be made:

Firstly, I haven't been able to find out if Android devices have the ability to support multiple users logging in and out. This would be important since the Android Market associates all applications on the device(s) with whatever Google Account is active on the devices at the time.

Secondly, the Android Market does not appear to support multiple application management rights levels. It would be nice if, for example, an IT administrator could log in to see all the applications and devices owned by the organization, while a teacher could log in and see all the applications and devices being used in their class, etc.

Thirdly, the Android Market appears to only have the ability to install applications to devices, whereas a complete central application management system would have to allow an administrator the ability to install, update, and uninstall applications to any device or groups of devices.

That being said, it does now seem possible for a rudimentary application management system to exist. An administrator could purchase a dozen Android tablets, register a dummy Google account, purchase an app through the Android Market and deploy it to all 12 devices over the air. In fact, this appears to be the recommended strategy for just such a situation. (I should probably mention that this strategy is probably also possible on iOS devices using iTunes except that the devices would have to be physically tethered one after the other to a computer to get the apps instead of getting them pushed over wireless).

This rudimentary strategy may not have all the advantages of a fully fledged application management environment, but at least you only have to buy each app once!

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