Has unified mobile management for business arrived?

New MobileIron platform for BlackBerry, iPhone, and others promises to make smartphone management enterprise-class

Whether IT likes it or not, mobile devices such as the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile families are becoming part of IT's job to manage. But the tools are uneven and scattered. Sure, iPhone 3.0, Palm Pre 1.1, and Windows Mobile 6.x devices support Exchange ActiveSync capabilities such as remote wipe and e-mail access for Exchange-based shops, and IBM's intended adoption of ActiveSync for Lotus Notes will extend that reach to mobile Notes users. However, managing e-mail is just part of the issue.

MobileIron is hoping to change that, with a new mobile management platform unveiled today after being in limited trials for a few months. Despite marketing the product as "smartphone data in the cloud," MobileIron actually provides a server that IT runs on-premise to manage mobile devices, with BlackBerry, iPhone, and Windows Mobile currently supported. Google Android and Symbian support is promised, and Palm Pre support is under consideration, says MobileIron CEO Bob Tinker. All devices are managed through a common console, so IT does not need to switch tools for each supported device type.

[ The InfoWorld Test Center puts the new iPhone Configuration Utility through its paces. | See how far you can push an iPhone or a BlackBerry for everyday business use. | Get the InfoWorld editors' mobile deep drive PDF report. ]

What sets the MobileIron Virtual Phone Platform apart is its tracking capabilities over phone service, such as logging signal strength, dropped-call rates, and dead zones. IT has increasingly been forced to manage cellular accounts, and as carriers reduce end-user support, the demands on IT have only grown, says Matt Kesner, CTO of the law firm Fenwick & West, and one of MobileIron's early adopters.

The MobileIron server also lets IT set up dashboards for alerts, so users who make lots of cell calls within the building, use a lot of roaming connections, and use lots of data traffic can be steered to better plans or receive the feedback to change any wasteful behavior. Given reports from Gartner that mobile data services now cost business $80 billion per year, usage and cost management are becoming critical, says MobileIron's Tinker. Plus, the monitoring lets the enterprise better negotiate its contracts with the carriers and validate it's getting what it paid for.

On the data management front, the MobileIron server lets IT manage data access, such as what data is stored on devices. Fenwick & West is testing this capability to see if it can let mobile users access SharePoint servers securely. The server also can track and regulate installed applications, ensure policies are provisioned and updated, lock out devices such as cameras and SD cards, encrypt SD cards, selectively wipe data from mobile devices, and archive SMS message history.

For many organizations, these capabilities coupled with the Virtual Phone Platform's support for the iPhone may knock down a big barrier to enterprise iPhone adoption. MobileIron's Tinker says that the server has the same capabilities as Apple's iPhone Configuration Utility, but does not require the use of iTunes, can manage iPhones over the air rather than through USB connections, and can enforce installation of policies rather than merely distribute them. The Virtual Phone Platform uses an iPhone client to enable this over-the-air management.

Fenwick & West's Kesner says these capabilities are very appealing in an organization like his that has a mix or company- and user-provided devices, though he notes his organization has just started to test the iPhone management features and can't yet comment on how well they work.

The MobileIron Virtual Phone Platform does not manage e-mail -- IT will continue to use Exchange Server or BlackBerry Enterprise Server to do that. Tinker says e-mail management is a solved problem, while multidevice management and cellular monitoring were unmet needs.

At Fenwick & West, Kesner is also looking beyond server-based e-mail management, especially because it is easy for devices to connect to e-mail servers without IT's knowledge. For example, he points out that Research in Motion quietly updated the BlackBerry this past year so that users could directly connect to an IMAP-enabled e-mail server, without informing IT. (iPhones, Palm Pres, and many other devices can also connect this way, in addition to their ActiveSync connection capabilities.) The ease through which users can connect to e-mail systems makes it all that more important to manage the devices' security and storage settings, as blocking mobile users from corporate data is increasingly untenable.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.