Judging by the 5 million units sold last weekend, the new iPhone 5 has a fair number of fans, even in the face of stiff competition from Android. But the noisy launch and heated war between iOS and Android in the consumer market is accompanied by a quieter but equally crucial battle in the business market.
Hard numbers on the total number of smartphone business lines are tough to find, but a November 2011 poll of 2,300 enterprise workers by the enterprise mobility provider iPass revealed that the iPhone may be the most used business smartphone among private firms. Android is fast closing in on the sinking veteran RIM for second place. According to iPass, 45 percent of the enterprise workers surveyed used an iPhone as their business smartphone.
So how does iOS 6 improve on Apple's already strong enterprise position?
The key to Apple's strategy actually landed before iOS 6 -- in the form of the Apple Configurator tool, which was launched this spring. This product, available on iTunes, helps firms control certain capabilities of the phones used in their networks. It can adjust control for iPhones, iPads, and iPod touch devices according to whether employees are using their own or company-owned devices.
Apple Configurator appeals not just to enterprises but also to so-called mobile device management (MDM) providers. AirWatch, one such company, has offered a list of what it sees as highlights of the latest Configurator tool in a press release. AirWatch and other MDM providers will pass along these capabilities to enterprise IT in the form of software-as-a-service (SaaS).
CIOs and IT professionals may be making more use of these services. The combination of the iPhone 5 and the iOS 6 operating system provides new location-aware and cloud service features. That's great for consumers, but it's an enterprise security headache. Fortunately, the Configurator tool has been updated to lock down many of these features.
For example, IT can prevent Apple's iOS 6 Passbook mobile wallet application from displaying sensitive details: name, employer, etc. IT also can lock PhotoStream to prevent employees from accidentally (or intentionally) sharing sensitive photos. Yet another welcome feature is the ability to turn off recent contact syncing, to prevent contacts from personal email accounts on the device (if allowed) from syncing with the work email account.
Employers wanting to cut down on employee distractions can turn off FaceTime, iMessage, Book Store, and GameCenter. They can lock employees' wallpaper. They can set a global proxy to prevent users from visiting unwanted sites.
Enterprises can even use Apple Configurator to force employees to use only a certain app or handful of apps in a Supervised Mode. This mode combines Guided Access with App Lock, which, among other things, can lock out the home button. Beware, though -- such draconian extremes may alienate executive users.
Apple has also ratcheted up security a couple of notches by adding S/MIME secure mail support and the ability to adopt longer passwords instead of four-digit PINs.
Some MDM features are still missing from iOS, though. There's no support for management with Apple Configurator over wireless links. And putting phones into Supervised Mode requires essentially an OS reinstall, so backups of user data will likely be necessary.
Apple doesn't give companies the ability to recompile its source code and customize special secured mobile operating system builds like Google does. Then again, most organizations don't want or need to put in that kind of effort. Otherwise, Apple's stepwise improvements have made its iOS framework on par with (or in many cases superior to) the management tools offered by Google or Microsoft for their mobile platforms.
Feature-wise, Apple is still a bit behind RIM, which offers management support over the air on wireless connections via products such as the BlackBerry Mobile Fusion. But at the end of the day, the majority of employees don’t want BlackBerrys.
That's why Apple is winning the overall enterprise OS war with RIM -- its short list of missing features is trumped by higher client satisfaction.
If you work for enterprise IT or an MDM firm, Apple Configurator is an appealing option. It won't do your work for you, but it gives you or your contractor the tools you need to secure your platform.
— Jason Mick is senior news editor at the independent tech news site DailyTech.