OEMConfig May be New, But Experts Say It’s Already Making a Big Impact on Android Devices

Find out why you should care (a lot) about this new Android security and hardware control feature. And why you should use it!

A person using their thumb to scroll on an Android handheld mobile computer
by Your Edge Blog Team
November 18, 2019

If you are responsible for buying or managing Android™ mobile computers in an enterprise environment, then you may have heard about a new technology called OEMConfig that Google introduced in 2018. However, based on interest from Zebra customers, we wanted to learn more about what it is and how it’s supposed to be used by their organizations.

We did some digging within Zebra to get the scoop, and what we learned is that OEMConfig is kind of a big deal!

In fact, some predict that it will forever change the way the Android Enterprise experience is managed – and exponentially increase the value you get from your Android mobile computers long into the future.

(Do we have your attention yet?)

To help you figure out exactly why your IT team, enterprise mobility management (EMM) solution providers and Zebra solution engineers are super excited about OEMConfig, we asked our EMM and partner admin tools product manager Adam Arruda to give us the scoop on this new Android device configuration tool.

Trust us, you’re going to want to read what he has to say…if you care about protecting your data, your mobility investment, your bottom line, etc. (Yes, OEMConfig is that big of a deal!)

Your Edge Blog Team: Let’s start with the million-dollar question on most people’s minds…what is OEMConfig?

Adam: In the simplest terms, OEMConfig is a new Android Enterprise standard that enables original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Zebra to make new mobile computer features and configurations immediately available to customers – literally the day they go live. It also enables EMM providers to universally offer “zero-day” support for those features via their consoles.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, it’s a new mobile device management application?

Adam: Yes, in a way. OEMConfig uncomplicates the process of implementing new features and policies.

Each Android device, including Zebra mobile computers and tablets, offer numerous management application programming interfaces (API) built in as a standard offering of the operating system (OS). However, they only offer so much flexibility in device configuration, despite Android’s tremendous flexibility from a software development and workflow application perspective. So, OEMs like Zebra have been developing custom device features and applications – and defining more advanced, and often proprietary, setting configurations for their devices – in order to support customers’ evolving business needs.

Now that OEMConfig technology is available, OEMs, customers and EMM providers have a single interface or mechanism through which we can manage updates or changes to enterprise Android devices after they are deployed in the field.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, how did Zebra (and other OEMs) handle Android device management before OEMConfig technology became available?

Adam: We created proprietary APIs and interfaces to provide the features required for enterprise deployments. For example, Zebra started developing Mobility Extension (Mx) in 2012 in order to provide enterprise-class security and manageability, enterprise data capture support and business-class Wi-Fi connections to customers using our Android mobile computers and tablets. This helped to ensure Zebra Android devices were enterprise ready, and they enabled customers to manage and support these Android devices in much the same way they had previously managed Windows® devices.

However, the process for actually getting these new features or configurations onto customers’ devices could get complicated since we were technically working outside of Android’s standard “device administrator” function to implement them.

Then, when Google rolled out Android Enterprise (AE), we were able to take a more hands-on approach to device management to create a consistent management experience across all devices and management solutions. Almost immediately, Zebra was able to offer a more robust set of management capabilities as part of the Android Management API set. Close to 60 percent of Zebra Mx APIs are offered standard through Google today.

But, even still, there were OEM-specific features not supported by Android Enterprise that OEMs like Zebra had to continue to support in a proprietary fashion.

Your Edge Blog Team: And managing those features in a proprietary manner posed some challenges?

Adam: Absolutely. When Zebra offered a new device feature to customers – such as a new time synchronization, Wi-Fi settings or the ability to manage remote scanners – we would notify EMM providers, just like we still do today. However, before OEMConfig, our customers would have to wait until their EMM providers took the time to understand the use case and benefits and then integrate the associated API into their EMM platforms before customers could access the new feature from their EMM consoles. It often took a while for customers’ IT teams to receive the settings or policy guidance needed to properly implement or manage the feature on workers’ devices.

Sometimes, customers never received access to the device features.

Your Edge Blog Team: Why was that? Wouldn’t EMM providers have to eventually offer support for their OEM partners’ features? If not for the sake of the OEM relationship, then for the sake of their customers?

Adam: You have to understand that as more proprietary APIs were released, they created fragmentation and management challenges, particularly for EMMs. Each OEM had different interfaces for integration.

Although these APIs were released out of necessity, at least from our perspective or even our customers’ perspective, EMM providers still had to evaluate and prioritize which ones they could reasonably integrate into their graphical user interfaces (GUI) and when. As a result, many API integrations were delayed for customers; others didn’t make the cut and were never integrated into EMMs’ support solutions.  

Your Edge Blog Team: So, how is OEMConfig simplifying the mobile device management process now?

Adam:  Thanks to the new OEMConfig app Zebra officially rolled out in August 2019, we (Zebra and our customers) no longer have to wait for the EMM providers to integrate new features into their platforms – or hope that they’ll even make one-off, vertical or workflow-specific features available to customers, which some OEMs found to be a problem.

It offers universal “zero-day” accessibility and support for new features, which eases the burden on EMMs and allows customers to protect their data, increase productivity, enhance device performance and more, much sooner than they would have been able to in the past. EMM partners no longer need to integrate with specific APIs from an OEM to support the OEM’s custom features, and OEMs no longer need to develop and support proprietary interfaces.

Your Edge Blog Team: How does OEMConfig work, exactly? If I was an IT manager for a Zebra customer, what would I need to do in order to get zero-day access and support for those new time synchronization settings or remote scanner management?

Adam: I don’t want to get too technical here. So, the best way to explain it is this:

1. Zebra has built and now manages an OEMConfig application specific to Zebra devices. It is hosted on Google Play and available for download now by our customers and EMM providers.

2. Once the Zebra OEMConfig app is installed on Zebra mobile computers or tablets running Android N and up, then our customers’ IT administrators (leveraging their chosen EMM solution) can use the customized policies and settings we’ve defined in OEMConfig to immediately support new features when they become available. No further development or custom API integration efforts are needed by their EMM providers. The OEMConfig app interfaces with the underlying APIs required to implement and manage the many device features and configurations we offer.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, really, the benefit of OEMConfig is “speed to market” for new Android device features?

Adam: That’s exactly right. Speed, but also control and standardization of new feature integration are the key benefits, all of which are really important to our customers.

Android is an incredibly flexible operating system (OS). That’s why it has been gaining such favor in enterprise environments where application versatility and security are valued most. However, it is because the application potential for Android mobile computers is so tremendous that technology such as OEMConfig is so necessary.

Agility is everything in business these days, which means the agility of your mobility solution is too. If an OEM technically rolls out a new device feature today, but customers have to wait a week, month, or even six months to be able to configure it into their deployed Android devices, then that could be a problem, especially when it comes to security-related updates or even productivity-enhancing tools such as key mapping, camera management or greater control of the user interface (UI).

Your Edge Blog Team: So, could OEMConfig essentially allow OEMs like Zebra to bypass the EMM to get new features on customers’ devices sooner?

Adam: I wouldn’t say that. If a customer is using an EMM console to manage its mobile devices, then the EMM provider is still the one giving that customer access to the new feature policies that Zebra (or another OEM) is making available through the OEMConfig app. OEMConfig is not eliminating EMMs from the equation. It is better enabling them to pass these new benefits along to customers. It’s removing the roadblocks that are typically incurred at the EMM level when we would offer a custom management policy or new configuration option to customers. The EMM provider no longer has to be burdened with additional integration work on its end to support the numerous configuration options that OEMs offer enterprise customers.

Your Edge Blog Team: But, since OEMConfig is available to all via Google Play, customers’ IT administrators could technically be exposed to new features and configurations at the same time as the EMM and use OEMConfig to implement the new offerings ahead of the EMM if they wanted, correct?

Adam: Almost. Since OEMConfig created a standard that both OEMs and EMMs adhere to, any time an OEM releases new proprietary features via its OEMConfig app, the EMM will automatically support those features without any additional development work or testing.

Your Edge Blog Team: You mentioned that Zebra was involved in the development of OEMConfig technology. How did that come about?

Adam: When Android Enterprise was rolled out, one key feature that we found to be beneficial was Managed Configurations. It exposed a standard way to manage or configure Android applications. However, Zebra saw the opportunity to use Managed Configuration as a way to manage the whole device and not just an application. Thus, the concept of OEMConfig was born. Zebra committed to the standard-based approach, built a prototype and worked with Google to refine and standardize the approach for all OEMs and EMMs.  

Your Edge Blog Team: Is that why Zebra has been such a big advocate of OEMConfig since it first came to market?

Adam: Yes, but we’re not just fans because we were involved in OEMConfig’s development.

We are continuously innovating at Zebra to ensure that our handheld mobile computers and tablets deliver the exact business-critical capabilities our customers need, when they need them. Our devices have long lifecycles. They may be in the field 5-7 years or longer. The number of new features, policies or setting configurations that our customers may implement on those deployed devices during that lifespan is quite extensive.

Given the time-sensitive nature of some of the updates that we push out, especially new security settings, it is mission critical that we streamline the implementation process as much as possible. That was a challenge before OEMConfig. Now, it’s not. Customers immediately gain the benefit of our ongoing mobile computing development efforts, whether that’s better battery management, a more secure device, greater control over a device’s radio or a new button mapping.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, OEMConfig will enable customers to better manage legacy Zebra Android mobile devices that may still be deployed in the field today?

Adam: Absolutely. Even though most of our efforts today are focused on Android P and will be shortly on Q, we made sure that OEMConfig would be supported on the legacy Zebra devices out in the field.  Device administrators can use the OEMConfig app we offer in Google Play to take advantage of all the features and capabilities we offer for any devices running Android N and up.

Your Edge Blog Team: Does OEMConfig solve the problem of managing and updating the Android device OS?

Adam: No, OEMConfig is geared around device management. However, Zebra will be offering a new service called LifeGuard Over the Air (OTA) to help solve this challenge. Stay tuned for those details here on Your Edge in the coming months.

Your Edge Blog Team: Who can Zebra customers contact, or where can they look, for more information about the Zebra OEMConfig app specifically?

Adam: There’s a semi-technical guide that they can find on our website, or they can contact our team with questions specific to their business.

If you’re a Zebra customer, I also recommend that you reach out to your EMM provider to find out when it will offer support for OEMConfig (many do already) so that you can begin using this new approach in your mobile management strategy.

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Your Edge Blog Team
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