Should your IT department support the iPhone?

As the iPhone gains enterprise cred, sysadmins may have no choice

When the iPhone was first launched in June 2007, it was generally panned by IT managers and systems administrators. It didn't support any encryption of user data, could not have any enforced security policies and offered no way to remotely wipe data if it were lost or stolen. At the time, a lot of companies weren't prepared to accept those security gaps. Perhaps more importantly, the iPhone didn't yet support any third-party applications or interact with most office suites.

A lot can change in two and a half years. In 2008 the iPhone gained 3G and GPS support, and the simultaneous iPhone OS 2 update added support for third-party apps and the ability to interact with Exchange servers using Microsoft's ActiveSync technology.

Exchange support allowed security policies for mobile devices to be enforced and allowed the user -- or an administrator -- to remotely wipe all data from the device. Apple also started to allow administrators to pre-configure the iPhone's settings, including an initial step toward a managed environment that could increase security and compliance with a company's acceptable-use policies.

The mid-2009 iPhone OS 3 and iPhone 3GS release again bolstered the iPhone's business cred. The iPhone 3GS was the first model to offer hardware encryption. The scheme isn't perfect and forensic and jailbreaking tools can sometimes get around it, but it is one of the strongest commitments Apple has made for enterprise customers.

And the iPhone OS 3 update added support for a wider range of collaboration tools beyond Exchange. All iPhones can now access CalDAV shared calendars, subscribe to any calendar published using the iCalendar format (which can also be used to schedule meetings across various calendaring apps), and access shared contacts using the relatively new CardDAV standard. That's in addition to its pre-existing support for vCard files and the ability to access LDAP databases for contact information.

More importantly, Apple boosted the device management capabilities available to IT departments to lock down an iPhone using configuration profiles created by the iPhone Configuration Utility. While the original version of this tool (released with the iPhone OS 2 and iPhone 3G in July 2008) was pretty limited, the latest version (released with the iPhone OS 3 update and iPhone 3GS in June 2009) allows admins to define settings and restrictions for many iPhone features. It also means you can limit access to a number of iPhone features such as the camera, the iTunes store and even Safari or YouTube.

At the same time, the ever-expanding array of apps for the iPhone provides serious business tools, including several fully functional office suites, for both general workplace functions and specific niches in a variety of industries. The result isn't surprising: A growing number of workers want to use these apps -- and the iPhone itself -- as a mobile device for many different tasks.

Is this enough for IT?

With that brief iPhone history lesson out of the way, the question remains: Is the iPhone at last ready for business or enterprise adoption? Even if admins say no, you face another question: Can you effectively ban the use of the iPhone in your environment?

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