Is iPhone OS 4 the holy grail of iPhone adoption in the enterprise?
When Apple previewed some of the new features slated for iPhone OS 4 (due out this summer for iPhone and iPod touch and this fall for iPad), it listed enterprise-related improvements as one of the seven "tent pole" features that Steve Jobs discussed at Thursday's media event.
Those specific enterprise-related features, as well as a number of other new features that weren't branded as enterprise-specific, may finally illustrate that Apple is ready to make the iPhone a truly enterprise-grade mobile device.
Despite the potential of the iPhone for use as a business mobile computing device -- offered by both its built-in features and a dramatic range of third-party business and productivity apps -- many mobile IT managers and systems administrators have historically tried to prevent or limit the adoption of the iPhone in their organizations.
Mobile IT iPhone Issues Addressed in OS 4
While some Apple fans might describe this as an anti-Apple or pro-Microsoft bias, the truth is that there are challenges associated with the iPhone that simply don't exist for other platforms. These include limitations on securing confidential or sensitive data on the device; very limited over-the-air options for applying security policies or device configuration; no real tools for managing mass deployments; and the reliance on iTunes for activation, backup, sync, and loading content and apps.
In its preview of iPhone OS 4, Apple addressed each of these concerns to some extent. Apple also announced multitasking functionality for third-party apps as well as about 1,500 new APIs that developers can use to improve existing applications -- including access to device features or components that were previously accessible only by Apple. For instance, mobile developers can now access the Calendar app and its data as well as having in-app access to SMS messaging.
So what features making it into iPhones this summer have the potential to bring the iPhone into more business and enterprise environments? Here's a quick rundown of 12 iPhone IT issues and of what we currently know about them given the OS 4 news.
One of the biggest concerns IT has always had with the iPhone was securing data stored on the device if it is lost or stolen. The iPhone 3GS pioneered whole device encryption on the platform but was limited compared to other platforms. The iPhone OS 4 will include a feature dubbed "device protection" that can implement a user's passcode to unlock his or her phone as an encryption key for securing all email and email attachments. Considering emails and attached files are often the most sensitive data on a smartphone, this is a big and much-needed improvement.
2. Mobile App data encryption:
In addition to encrypting email and the whole device encryption introduced on the iPhone 3GS, Apple will be providing APIs to iPhone developers to allow them to easily include data encryption in their apps for whatever data they may store. This isn't entirely new as existing apps from varied developers can encrypt data stored in them on an iPhone.
However, making this a public API ensures that any app can be written to offer mobile data security and that all such apps will have at least a common baseline of encryption strength. Given the wide range of business, productivity and other apps in Apple's App Store, this should go a long way toward offering a more secure device overall.
3. Additional Mobile VPN services:
The iPhone has offered VPN capabilities for some time. In past iterations, L2TP
were supported while Cisco-compatible IPSec was added in last summer's iPhone OS 3 upgrade.
In iPhone OS 4, Apple will include support for SSL VPN
solutions (identifying solutions from Juniper and Cisco specifically). SSL VPNs are already somewhat common and are becoming increasingly popular. As a result Apple is expanding the iPhone's option and following in the steps of enterprise technology.
4. Mobile Device Management service:
One common complaint about the iPhone as an enterprise platform is its limited ability to auto-configure many device features and an inability to perform true over-the-air updates to those configurations. A new Mobile Device Management service will allow third-party, server-based solutions to perform device configuration (and presumably to provision devices with security certificates).
Apple hasn't released much in the way of details on this new service. It seems likely that the service is based on the existing configuration profiles approach currently available via the iPhone Configuration Utility. The company has also said that, in addition to device configuration, the service will allow querying of deployed devices, and remote locking or wiping of compromised devices. All of these features enhance the security of the platform (currently remote wipe is capable only when paired with Exchange or Apple's consumer-focused Mobile Me service).
Perhaps the bigger question here is what products will be used to integrate with this service. It's possible Apple might release a product similar to Research In Motion's BlackBerry Enterprise Server, or, that it might simply make the service available to existing mobile device management packages or encourage new third-party products.
5. Wireless software distributions:
Apple will also make some over-the-air software distribution tools available to enterprises. At the moment, this appears to be limited to a company rolling out internally produced iPhone apps to company-owned devices. It is possible that volume or site license distributions of public apps from the iTunes-based App Store could be done in a similar manner, but Apple seems to be focusing on only in-house apps with regard to this feature. Even if limited in that way, it would still be a large improvement over requiring iTunes for installation. It also might encourage companies to look at how they can create in-house apps that tie into existing systems.
6. Mobile Exchange 2010 support:
Even as most organizations are beginning the tasks relating to upgrading or migrating to Exchange 2010, Apple is positioning the iPhone and iPad to work with the suite if/when the transition takes place.
7. Support for multiple Exchange accounts:
Up until now, the iPhone's support of Exchange has been limited to a single account per device. This limits individuals charged with monitoring and managing additional Exchange accounts beyond their own account in larger environments. It also prevents use of additional Exchange accounts from different Exchange environments (such as work accounts from multiple organizations and the ability to access both work and personal Exchange accounts, including the Exchange-enabled features of Google's GMail). In iPhone OS 4, those limitations will no longer be an issue.
8. Unified Inbox and other Mail enhancements:
One of the biggest user complaints about the iPhone has always been its lack of a unified inbox -- a feature found in virtually any email application and on almost every other smartphone platform. This feature, along with the ability to quickly switch between inboxes of individual accounts and the ability to view messages as a thread instead of a date-based list, finally bring the iPhone's Mail app on parity with most of the industry.
Support for opening email attachments with third-party apps: File management has always been an issue on the iPhone because there is no general file system that all apps can access (though the iPad includes a vague stab in that direction). The ability for users to choose which Apple or third-party app is used to view (and hopefully edit and save) an attachment somewhat this issue and it allows users to work with documents in different ways depending on the apps available to them.
Hands down, the biggest thing iPhone users have been clamoring for since Apple opened the platform to developers was multitasking. Apple's response has been to point out that true multitasking reduces overall performance and drains battery life. In iPhone OS 4, some devices -- right now only the iPhone 3GS and third generation iPod touch -- will get a form of multitasking.
This will include the ability to rapidly switch between current/recent apps using a dock-like app switcher. Apps won't continue to run fully in the background but will be able to use seven services that allow some app functionality to continue after a user has switched to another app. These include: background audio playback, background voice over IP, background location awareness, Apple's server-based push notifications, local notifications generated by installed apps on the iPhone, and task completion, which will allow apps to completely finish a task (like uploading/downloading data) after the user moves to another app.
Apps will automatically store their current state when a user switches out of them, allowing the user to return to the app in the exact state that they left it (as opposed to relaunching with a splash screen and default options).
Some might argue that this isn't true multitasking, but it does provide the ability for core background tasks to continue and for a user to work between different apps very effectively while at the same time reserving the lion's share of resources (including battery power) for the foreground app that is actively being used. Whether it's true multitasking or not, this allows iPhone users to finally develop multi-app workflows, which a major advantage for business users.
10. Enhanced developer options:
The 1,500 or so new APIs for iPhone developers will allow access to more device features, core system capabilities and user data than ever before. This will no doubt enhance a number of existing business and productivity tools.
Some of these new capabilities include: calendar store access, address and date data detectors, iPod remote control accessories, in-app SMS, regular expression matching, date formatters, photo library access, half-curl page transition, Quick Look, call event notification, full access to still and video camera data, carrier information, power analysis tools, map overlays, map annotations, performance tools and automated testing. Also included will be a new framework for hardware accelerated math functions.
11. Support for Bluetooth keyboards:
This feature came first to the iPad, but the iPhone and iPod touch will gain the ability to pair with any Bluetooth keyboard. While a full-size desktop keyboard might seem absurd to use with an iPhone, small and more portable models, including ones that collapse for storage and transport, already exist for other mobile devices and will offer mobile professionals an easy way to type larger amounts of text on an iPhone. This development, while barely mentioned by Apple, is a major new feature for enterprise users who need to type a lot.
12. More complex passcode requirements:
Along with the ability to use a user-defined PIN to unlock an iPhone (and now to secure email), Apple will be providing options for users to assign (and for IT to require) longer and more complex passcodes that can include alphanumeric and special characters. Ideally, this feature will be paired with the range of advanced management tools (see below) to allow for passcode requirements that rule out common words, a user's name, and disallow repeating past passcodes or variations of them.
So, that's what we know for now about the iPhone OS 4 upgrade. With just a brief look at seven of more than 100 features and only a handful of the over 1,500 additional options for developers, it seems pretty clear that Apple is providing just enough upgrade information for iPhone/iPad users and IT professionals to feel in the loop, while still keeping enough information under wraps that Steve Jobs will have his usual "there's one last thing" moment as the release date gets closer.
Even so, it does seem that Apple is not only serious about pushing the platform further but is also finally listening to -- and putting an effort behind addressing -- the issues and needs of IT professionals charged with supporting and managing the iPhone in the enterprise.
Ryan Faas is a technology author and consultant specializing in Apple technologies in both the home, enterprise and mobile space. His most recent book is "The iPhone for Work." You can find additional information about his work and consulting services, as well as follow him on Twitter, by visiting http://ryanfaas.com.