'Surprise' Mac app quickly configures iOS devices

Apple Configurator 1.0 streamlines initial setup and configuration of iOS devices

Almost unnoticed in announcing the new iPad, Apple also released on March 7 a new Mac app designed to streamline setting up and configuring iOS devices. It's a powerful tool for small organizations or small iPhone and iPad deployments, according to one network manager who's worked extensively with the new software.

The app, from the Mac App Store, is Apple Configurator 1.0. It's just under 16MB, and currently enjoys a 4+ rating. IT groups can use Configurator instead of a full-blown third-party mobile device management app or Apple's Profile Manager, which requires OS X Lion Server. Configurator can be loaded on any Mac running Lion client, and requires iTunes 10.6.

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One limitation is that Configurator is not an over-the-air manager: The iOS device has to be plugged into a USB port on the Mac. But Randy Saeks, network manager for Northbrook/Glenview School District 30 in Northbrook, Ill., points out that USB port could be filled with a USB hub, used with something like the Bretford PowerSync products which let multiple iOS devices be powered and synched with one Mac. He thinks an obvious future upgrade for Configurator would be wireless support to eliminate the USB connection.

"This was a surprise," says Saeks. "A lot of us had been thinking, 'There's gotta be a better way to do this, without relying on iTunes or a big MDM solution.'"

The other alternative, Profile Manager, from Apple, can be used to enroll new iOS devices, push settings out to them via files called "configuration profiles" and remotely wipe a lost or stolen device.

But Apple Configurator provides the tools for doing the initial setup for iPhones and iPads, before they're released to the network. It can set the profiles, note the iOS version running on the device, and install paid apps that are bought through Apple's Volume Purchase Program (VPP), designed for organizations. It's ideal for organizations that lack an infrastructure to support full-blown mobile device management.

Saeks has prepared a couple of online tutorials for Configurator, and is encouraging viewers to ask, and answer, questions about using it. The first one is an introduction. The second one goes into more detail on working with devices that are classed as "supervised."

Configurator is a set of screens and prompts that walk a network manager through the process for setting up an iOS device. Configurator devices can be "supervised" -- as in the case of iOS devices shared by multiple users at different times, or for corporate-issued devices; or they can be "unsupervised," with one user retaining the customary control over the device.

For devices that are classed as supervised, Configurator can install free apps from the iTunes Store, and enterprise apps that have embedded provisioning profiles. But it can only install paid apps based on an imported spreadsheet of valid Volume Purchase Program (VPP) redemption codes, downloaded from the VPP portal by a registered VPP administrators. Additional details from Apple are online.

"It's just something to be aware" of during setup, Saeks cautions. But devices can have more than one Apple ID. "You can sign out of one ID and sign in with another one," he says. "When you do that, it seems to be the case that users can then go to the App Store and download apps."

Saeks' first tutorial shows a series of clean, simple screens and prompts that walk the administrator through the configuration process. The configuration can be saved as a standard and applied to multiple devices.

Configurator also can talk directly to the corporate LDAP directory server to pull down user information and make use of it. In his tutorial, Saeks begins typing a name, options are presented, he selects one, and the relevant information fills into Configurator automatically.

Check boxes let the administrator quickly configure the iOS device to use or not use the onboard cameras, Apple's FaceTime video chat, and a wide range of other features.

If the device is being loaded with apps purchased under VPP, Configurator tracks the VPP redemption codes and automatically manages all the VPP accounting details.

If during setup the device is classed as supervised, it can only be managed from the original Mac by which it was configured.

Configurator can also create a backup, of sorts, of each device's data and documents, according to Saeks. "It grabs the data and saves it to the administrator's Mac," he says. "If you use this, then you need procedures in place to safely back up that backup." Apple's documentation for Configurator backup and restore is online.

"Compared to what was out there before, [Configurator] is a heck of a lot faster," Saeks says. "You can configure iOS devices ahead of time, so they're really well set up."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww. Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed.

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This story, "'Surprise' Mac app quickly configures iOS devices" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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