How to turn an iPhone into a BlackBerry

New software could give the IT police a way to reverse the mobile-led 'IT spring' consumerization revolution

With revolutions, the old leaders and their cronies often get sent to prison -- or worse. Some of those threatened by populist change resort to violent force, others to genuine accommodation, and still others to a slow reimprisonment through a succession of "reasonable" restrictions in the name of security. If I were speaking of countries, Syria, Myanmar, and Russia would come to mind, respectively. But I'm speaking of IT here, in response to the consumerization phenomenon that some pundits have labeled the "IT spring" in honor of the Arab Spring uprisings last year.

For now, it seems unlikely the Western corporate world will abide a violent crackdown by IT admins on users who want to drive their own technology choices and liberate corporate information so it can be more easily analyzed and acted on. What's happening instead at some organizations is the third option, using mobile management and security software to progressively shackle iPhones, iPads, and Android devices into slick-looking but highly secured -- or imprisoned -- versions of Research in Motion's BlackBerry. It's paternalistic authoritarianism.

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The BlackBerry, after all, is the very incarnation of an IT police force's control mania, with more than 500 policies to tie up users.

The BlackBerry is also a fast-dying device, rejected by most users given a choice; the company is in economic freefall, and its share of new sales is now a mere 6 percent -- less than that of Symbian, the limited mobile OS that Nokia abandoned a year ago. Of course, trying to convert iOS and Android devices into essentially BlackBerrys is a stupid policy sure to backfire as users wise up and realize that their highly capable devices have been turned into bricks carrying a $30-per-month data plan the company has stopped paying for. Or will they?

The progression to rendering your iPhone as incapable as a BlackBerry
As is the pattern in counterrevolutionary tactics, the first steps seemed reasonable. Once IT got over the shock of Apple products in employees' hands, the first step was to enforce Exchange ActiveSync policies for basic security needs: on-device encryption and required use of passwords -- a perfectly reasonable action.

Then came the wave of mobile device management (MDM) tools -- 80-odd companies, by my last count, were in this business, sensing a gold rush -- that offered more policies to apply to users' mobile devices. The justification was for the extra needs that some companies faced and the need they claimed to have to track assets.

I've never believed that most companies need such tools, but like many I thought, "If that makes IT happy and gets it out of my way, fine, let it waste the company's money on unneeded security." For those who need more security than the EAS/iOS combo provides, they deserved something better than a BlackBerry too. Some Android device makers -- particularly Motorola Mobility and to a lesser extent Samsung -- later joined the EAS and MDM parties, too.

Of course, as soon as MDM appeared to be solved, we began hearing police-oriented IT leaders talk about the need to manage applications. Translation: They wanted to force users toward corporate app stores. Thankfully, that fantasy has gone nowhere, as an iPhone without the App Store and an Android without Google Play can't do anything users want. At best, corporate app stores are used as supplemental distribution points for in-house and customized commercial software -- a notion that many of us could swallow, if we held our noses.

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