In the beginning, there was the BlackBerry, the push-email device from Research in Motion (RIM), which set the standard for corporate mobility. And of course, Microsoft's own Windows Mobile system has long offered push-email and Microsoft Exchange compatibility as well.

But with consumer-oriented devices like Apple's wildly popular iPhone slipping into the boardroom, there's an opening for other smartphones, like those based on Google Android, to do so as well. Here's what you need to know about Google Android.

Smartphone Platform
Android is surprisingly similar to Windows Mobile on many levels, but it features a more modern architecture and provides a native touch screen interface that’s more like the iPhone. (Though Windows Mobile 6.5.x does support multi-touch as does the iPhone.)

It's based on a Linux kernel and runs managed code applications created with the Java programming language. Unlike Windows Mobile and iPhone, Android is an open system. And Google provides Android to wireless carriers and mobile device makers for free. As a result, there are already over 30 Android-based devices worldwide, despite the fact that Android has only been on the market for less than 18 months.

At this time, at least one Android handset is available from every major wireless carrier in the US, including the popular Verizon Droid, and Google's own Nexus One phone, which the online giant sells directly to users from its website. This variety of devices works similarly to the range of choices one sees with Windows Mobile devices, but with some important differences.

First, Android phones tend to come in two basic form factors: pure touch-screen devices and devices with pullout hardware keyboards. What's missing is a BlackBerry-style thumb keypad-based device, though there's nothing stopping third parties from making one. And because of Android's open nature, any Android user can take advantage of software updates and new OS versions, something that’s very difficult with Windows Mobile.

And Android has seen several updates since its first release in October 2008. These updates have caused Android to mature quite rapidly, and the system is now considered to be quite compatible, functionality-wise, with iPhone, while offering low-level capabilities like multitasking that the iPhone lacks.

Key updates since the initial release include system-wide copy and paste, HTML 5 support, multi-touch support, and, in version 2.x, compatibility with Exchange. It’s this capability that makes Android interesting to businesses.

Android In Business
While a Google phone platform such as Android would logically be expected to integrate nicely with Google's Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs systems, Google has also been working to add Exchange functionality to its OS.

This work is not yet complete. In the most recent version of the Android OS, Google provides core Exchange sync capabilities for email, contacts, and calendaring. But Android doesn’t yet support Microsoft's sweeping set of ActiveSync security policies—for complex password requirements, device level encryption, and so on—nor does it support remote wipe. Until these capabilities are added to Android, the system will be unacceptable for the enterprise.

That said, Android will likely see great traction with smaller businesses, and it's an excellent solution for those businesses that are based around Google's hosted services. As was the case with the iPhone, you can expect Google to improve Android's Exchange functionality and make the system a more acceptable alternative to Windows Mobile or BlackBerry in businesses of all sizes.

Third parties could rise to the challenge as well, including wireless carriers or device makers that wish to serve this market. T-Mobile, for example, has released an Android application that helps encrypt on-device email, plugging one hole in the core OS. But it's unclear how effective a modified Android device will be in attracting larger corporations.

Recommendations
Although Android is a surprisingly strong entry so early in its lifecycle, I can’t yet recommend any Android-based smartphones to enterprises because of the lack of key security features.

But I expect that this will change rapidly, and for those smaller businesses who are looking for cool and functional smartphones, some of the newer Android designs are quite enticing.

Android is especially attractive to those businesses that have opted out of on-premise servers and have instead adopted Google-based cloud services. This, too, is a growing audience, and one that Google will likely have great success capturing. This is a system to keep an eye on.