iPhone upgrade leaves room for mobile device management

Third party management companies excited about iPhone OS 4.0 improvements

Mobile device management suppliers are confident their products still have a place in the enterprise, despite new features in the imminent iPhone OS 4.0 upgrade aimed directly at the enterprise.

"iPhone OS 4.0 increases the value of management platforms like MobileIron because there is simply more to manage now," vice president of products at Mobile Iron, Ojas Rege, told Computerworld Australia in an email.

Enterprises have traditionally been wary about the iPhone due to the lack of enterprise-level features, including the lack of comprehensive security and an inability to distribute in-house applications directly to the smartphone fleet. Though Apple implemented Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync service into iPhone, its shortcomings in the face of stronger alternatives like BlackBerry and Windows Mobile made it a poor choice for corporate-bought smartphones. However, the iPhone has quickly become a mainstay in businesses due largely to pressure from C-level executives, as well as lower-level employees bringing in their own phones and demanding access to corporate mail and other servers.

Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of iPhone software development, said at the launch of iPhone OS 4.0 that "already more than 80 percent of Fortune 100 companies are using iPhones."

Mobile device management companies have emerged over the past few years with solutions that allow enterprises to manage the iPhone as well as other smartphone platforms from a single console, with similar security policies and options. It's this feature that companies like MobileIron, Sybase and Zenprise are continuing to push in the face of the imminent release of iPhone OS 4.0.

"Almost all business-use iPhones exist in multi-OS environments," Rege said. "Apple has been very supportive of giving our industry the tools we need to integrate the iPhone into our multi-OS platforms."

"When we first went into the iPhone, organisations in Australia and across the world came to us saying 'we need a single environment where we can secure all of our devices,'" Sybase Managing Director Australia and New Zealand, Dereck Daymond said in an interview. "We can access of all of these devices remotely from a single console. That means we can update software remotely, that we can kill a device remotely. There's a number of different encryption capabilites that we can offer as well."

"The demand is there, and we're seeing it gradually increase," Gartner analyst Robin Simpson said, "though it's fairly difficult to do mobile device management with iPhone because Apple make it difficult to do background processing."

Apple appears to have resolved most of those qualms with iPhone OS 4.0. Additions like multiple Exchange accounts, enhanced password protection and compatibility with SSL VPNs from Cisco and Juniper bring the iPhone into line with some of the strong offerings on the enterprise smartphone market. One of the operating system's most notable new features - multitasking - means the iPhone will be able to process VoIP, audio, location information and other basic tasks in the background. For enterprises with in-house development teams, the ability to wireless distribute applications directly to smartphones means an enterprise can subvert the App Store and deliver secure, tailored applications with private APIs.

"Apple has definitely been listening to their enterprise customers," Rege said. Despite initial concerns that the new features might put the viability of third-party mobile device management solutions in danger, companies like MobileIron see even more room to grow with iPhone OS 4.0.

iPhone OS 4.0 will support an expanded range of APIs suited directly to mobile device management, which can be used to monitor corporate compliance, wirelessly updating the device as well as the ability to remotely lock or wipe managed iPhone. Third party companies are already beginning to work towards building the increased functionality into their suite of products.

Apple itself is acknowledging the part that these companies have to play.

"There are companies out there like Sybase and MobileIron and a number of others and they build these enterprise solutions for deploying large numbers of phones to companies," Forstall said at the launch of iPhone OS 4.0. "We did the work in iPhone OS 4 to enable those solutions to also manage the deployment of iPhones."

"What Apple has announced is that they will be providing an expanded set of APIs to enable solutions like MobileIron to deploy iPhones at scale in the enterprise," Rege said. "So this announcement is great news for us."

A spokesperson for Zenprise said that the new APIs would enable mobile device management companies to provide a much richer interface for managing iPhones.

While none of the companies were able to say when their respective software would provide support for the new features in iPhone OS 4.0, all three were keen to take advantage of the new capabilities afforded by the upgrade.

"The metaphor here is that Apple has provided the building blocks," Rege said. "MobileIron uses those building blocks to provide end-to-end smartphone management."

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