A look at Apple's updated iPhone Configuration Utility

It allows companies to create configuration and provisioning profiles for iOS devices

The big iOS-related news from Apple this week was the release of iOS 4.1, an update that included fixes for common bugs in the initial iOS 4 release for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It also introduced FaceTime for the fourth-generation iPod Touch, which began shipping to customers on Wednesday, and Apple Game Center, which introduces a multiplayer gaming system that all iOS game developers can integrate into their products.

Without much fanfare, Apple also updated the iPhone Configuration Utility. This tool, which has been around since the release of iOS 2 in 2008, allows administrators in business or education environments to create configuration and provisioning profiles for iOS devices. These profiles can be used to preconfigure an iOS device's settings; install in-house applications and security certificates; require adherence to security policies (such as mandating a passcode to unlock the device or specifying passcode requirements); and to restrict access to iOS features.

Apple also updated the documentation for the iPhone Configuration Utility, changing the name from iPhone Enterprise Deployment to simply iPhone Configuration Utility and moved the guide from the iPhone business resources, where it had resided as a PDF, into the larger iOS reference library. That library has traditionally been a repository for iOS developer information and resources.

One important note about the updated version is that it cannot be used to configure or provision iPads, as the current version (3.1) only supports iOS 4. Apple continues to make the previous version available for organizations that need to manage iPads.

What's new

Apple's release notes indicate that the update includes support for the iOS mobile device management features, as well as support for Cisco AnyConnect and Juniper Networks SSL VPN clients, CardDAV, configuration of multiple Exchange accounts and SAN support using Simple Certificate Enrollment Protocol (SCEP). Largely, this means that the utility can be used to configure the majority of new features introduced in iOS 4.

While it isn't mentioned in the release notes (though it is covered in the guide), the update allows for restriction of access to Game Center and FaceTime.

A significant update

The update itself isn't a particularly major one. It is simply keeping the iPhone Configuration Utility on par with the latest iOS version. What may be significant is that Apple is being proactive in updating the utility.

A major focus of iOS 4 was advanced enterprise management and monitoring consoles available from a range of third-party vendors. I recently offered an in-depth look at those features and how they can simplify the management and security of iOS devices (whether company- or employee-owned) as well as provide a single solution for managing multiple mobile device platforms.

The actual management capabilities of these products are essentially based around the management capabilities of the iPhone Configuration Utility. However, those capabilities are also tied to Apple's new mobile device management service, which allows for over-the-air deployment of configuration and provisioning profiles, as well as real-time monitoring of devices.

For most organizations, a more robust management tool is going to be the ideal solution. However, for some small and medium-size business, the cost and configuration effort may be more than they are able to handle or feel comfortable taking on. In these cases, a free management product (albeit without over-the-air benefits) may be the better choice.

That makes Apple's proactive approach to updating the iPhone Configuration Utility in lockstep with an iOS update significant. Apple has shown an interest in the small-business community with resources on its site and the Apple Consultants Network, and by placing business consultants and business-specific classes in its retail stores. Keeping the iPhone Configuration Utility updated and available illustrates that Apple is serious about providing solutions to them, as well as to large organizations.

Who's it for?

For small businesses, the iPhone Configuration Utility is a useful option. For larger organizations, it really is not. Although functional, the lack of easy mass-deployment capabilities and monitoring options make it unwieldy and limited. Even for small businesses, a third-party solution is likely to be a better option and should be considered.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Ryan was also the co-author of O'Reilly's Essential Mac OS X Panther Server Administration.

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