Apple Inc.'s iPhone has always had something of an image problem in the workplace, which isn't surprising given that Apple has always marketed its smartphone more to consumers than to the business world.
In fact, when the iPhone debuted in 2007, there was no way to put third-party apps on one without jailbreaking the device, it didn't support 3G data networks, it didn't integrate with Microsoft's Exchange, and you had to use iTunes to activate it initially and back up or sync data later on. Plus, there were security concerns, since there was no way to require a passcode, encrypt business data or remotely wipe an iPhone if it was lost or stolen.
A lot has changed for the iPhone, its operating system and the smartphone industry as a whole in three years. For people who want to use the iPhone at work and the IT departments that support them, the changes have been good. In fact, some of the major updates in each new iteration of the iPhone operating system (now called iOS) were the ones that made it easier to manage and secure Apple's mobile platform.
With each passing summer, Apple has polished the business and enterprise features of iOS. It has added Exchange support, support for remote wipe, security and configuration policies (either through Exchange or with configuration profiles that can be loaded onto each device), VPN options and encryption -- both whole-device encryption on the iPhone 3GS and targeted app data encryption in iOS 4.
While each of the changes was an improvement, it wasn't until this year's arrival of iOS 4 -- and the iPhone 4 itself -- in June that Apple included a new mobile device management (MDM) service that companies could use. As a result, businesses finally got something sorely needed for enterprise iPhone adoption to make sense: the ability to more easily deploy, manage and monitor iPhones used by employees -- a capability that has long made Research In Motion's BlackBerry one of the most trusted mobile platforms.
Note: Although iOS 4 has been rolled out for the iPhone, the iPad won't get the operating system upgrade until this fall.
Third-party vendors are part of the equation
One surprising thing about how Apple rolled out MDM is that the company largely left implementing it via a server up to other companies. Considering Apple's penchant for secrecy about upcoming products and its tight control over the App Store, this move seemed out of character. Most people, myself included, figured Apple would offer a robust over-the-air device management solution. And we expected Apple to take a page from RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server and ship something as part of its own Mac OS X Server platform. (That could still happen in the next major OS X Server release.)
Whether or not Apple comes out with its own management server, there are advantages for companies looking to support iOS devices in a secure and managed way. The most obvious one is competition. With seven different options either already on the market or slated to be available by year's end, companies can choose the one that works best for them. Although many of the core management features of iOS 4 and the MDM service offered by each vendor are essentially the same, there's still plenty of differentiation among them.
In some cases, the main difference may simply be the management interface. Or it can mean different levels of integration with other technologies such as Active Directory. Other variables run the gamut from the type and format of reports about mobile device use to system requirements (one option is completely Mac-based), cost, existing relationships with providers and the number of non-iOS platforms each can manage.