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Is Android Coming to a Secure Device Near You?

What Happened?

In case you missed it, the National Security Agency (NSA) announced last week the initial public release of a security-enhanced (SE) version of Android based on SE Linux. As stated by the NSA, the primary objective of SE Android is to “identify and address critical gaps in the security of Android.” The enhanced security features of SE Android are designed prevent malicious attacks by restricting the permissions of Android applications (superseding user-approved settings) while also isolating individual apps from each other.

VDC’s View

The openness of Android has been widely regarded as both a blessing and a curse during the platform’s first few years of relevance in the mobile device market, leading to seemingly equal parts innovation and fragmentation. With regard to apps, this openness allows independent developers (and hackers) to create apps that have access to a variety of internal device features, such as Bluetooth, network communication, personal information, storage, system tools, and more. While this has certainly been beneficial toward the creation and expansion of the vast Android Market, the security implications have in many cases prevented Android devices from being utilized in various government and enterprise environments. Of course, security concerns have also played a role in what to this point has been a relatively low rate of adoption of Android beyond the mobile and consumer electronics industries.

VDC continues to believe that Android will eventually become widely deployed in automotive infotainment applications, medical devices, military communication equipment, and other applications that place a premium on connectivity requirements, sophisticated user interaction, and application availability. SE Android, which is still in its early stages, may represent the first step toward building an implementation of Android that would be suitable for embedded devices with security requirements above and beyond those of typical smartphones, tablets, and other consumer electronics products.

However, while the strict access control policies of SE Android are likely to be attractive to OEMs, a significant level of compiling and other custom installation processes would still be required to deploy the platform – a process further complicated by customization requirements inherent in Android-based vertical market-specific devices. Herein lay the opportunities for embedded software vendors to capitalize on the momentum behind Android and perhaps finally help bring the platform to a much broader range of embedded device classes. By leveraging their domain expertise – both in the development of vertical market-specific applications and in embedded device security – vendors such as Green Hills Software, Mentor Graphics, MontaVista Software, SYSGO, Wind River, and others are expected to play a vital role in enabling OEMs to exploit the benefits of Android while also maintaining a secure operating environment. VDC also believes that it will be critical for these organizations to also evangelize the capabilities of Android as they pertain to security-enabled devices, as the community as a whole may not be inclined to completely accept the notion of deploying Android in environments where security is paramount.

VDC will investigate this trend among others in our upcoming report, Android in the Embedded Systems Market, from our research service Strategic Insights 2012: Embedded Software & Tools Market. Please contact us for more information.

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