Good news! 3 mobile breakthroughs you may have missed

MobileIron, Samsung, and Apple have moved the needle for smartphones and tablets in ways that really count for business

Good news! 3 mobile breakthroughs you may have missed

When it comes to mobile, it may seem as if all the action so far this year has centered around iOS 9, Android M, the Galaxy S6, and the Apple Watch.

Those products certainly have kept bloggers busy writing countless stories, but there've been other mobile developments this year that are arguably more important, especially for business users and IT.

Here are three needles you may have missed in the haystack of mobile stories.

Privacy controls for users

Although IT organizations often seem paranoid about mobile devices (never mind that they're much more secure than PCs), users are increasingly concerned about their employers spying on them in the guise of managing the personal smartphones now so commonly used for work.

For many people (not only Millennials), our smartphones and tablets contain very personal and sensitive data about us and our families, not our workplaces alone. We certainly don't want our bosses spying on those private aspects of our lives.

Thus, the Visual Privacy tool that MobileIron is adding to its mobile device management (MDM) client is very welcome -- I hope its competitors implement it too. Visual Privacy shows you what data IT can see on your mobile device, as well as what functions IT can control. With that information, you can then decide whether you should use your personal equipment for work or whether your boss needs to pony up and supply the business equipment.

Such a tool also provides a reality check for IT on what access it really needs to secure business data -- it's all too easy to look at everything rather than sweat the details. 

Of course, the issue of corporate spying extends to all that personal data that companies collect on us all from all our digital moves -- in fact, people fear the Googles and Facebooks of the world when it comes today abuse more than they fear the NSA and other government agencies.

That's why I've long praised Apple for exposing in its Settings app exactly what services on your iPhone or iPad apps may be tapping into and letting you control the apps' access yourself. Google's Android has made such management difficult, since that's how Google makes money, but at least the forthcoming Android M finally offers the beginnings of real privacy controls.

ActiveDirectory integration in device management

Whether you manage user profiles and access rights locally or in the cloud, chances are very strong that you're using Microsoft's Active Directory to do so, either directly or through a single-sign-on federation tool. It's the default tool for most organizations because of its tie-ins to Exchange and Windows Server.

Thus, I applaud Samsung for integrating Active Directory into its Knox container security technology, available in the Galaxy S6 and future devices.

Sure, most MDM tools can integrate device enrollment with Active Directory, and they can use ActiveDirectory to manage the policies provided by Apple, Google, and the MDM vendors themselves. But Samsung went a step further and integrates the sign-in portion of ActiveDirectory, so your ActiveDirectory credentials become your secure container's credentials.

That means users have one fewer password to forget and reset -- and IT can better manage users' access to these containers, which exist to protect business information, because it controls the password manager.

Carrier-agnostic SIMs

Cellular carriers -- especially in the United States -- like to lock customers to their networks, then charge exorbitant roaming fees when you travel abroad. Verizon, for example, will charge you $25 for a measly 100MB of data in Europe -- or $205 if you don't get its preferred plan ahead of time.

It took a major political campaign to force the U.S. carriers to unlock smartphones for use in other countries, but they can still lock you to their networks domestically for the duration of your contract. Also, they use proprietary network technologies to render most phones incompatible with other carrier networks even if unlocked.

When the iPad 2 came out, Apple forced the carriers to leave tablet unlocked, so you could replace the SIM with that of another carrier, though U.S. cellular network differences effectively mean that you could only swap SIMs when going to other countries. Today's iPads and iPhones are more compatible with multiple networks, so the unlocking is more useful.

The situation is better in Europe, where European Union regulators have cracked down on roaming charges and plans to eliminate them in a couple years -- and where carriers use the same network technologies, so there's no de facto lock-in possible.

Last fall, Apple began selling the Apple SIM for its new iPad models (though not iPhones) that theoretically would let you change carriers. The reality was that AT&T locked the SIM if you ran it on its network; you could really only use the Apple SIM to move between Sprint and T-Mobile. (Verizon refused to support the Apple SIM altogether.)

In effect, you had to get a new SIM to use a different carrier for your iPad -- the Apple SIM made little sense in practice.

But Apple recently signed a deal with a provider called GigSky that offers international roaming in 90 nations. Prices are not bargains; you'll pay $50 for 1GB in France and twice that in Australia, and there's little available in Asia. You also have to buy separate data plans for each country you visit; there's no actual roaming such as for a trip across Europe. But the prices per country are in line with the cost of getting a local SIM in that country, without the hassle of finding a store there and setting up a pay-as-you-go account. GigSky at least offers some convenience.

A small fee for billing overhead across borders is reasonable, but not the huge markups that carriers now charge.

In that context, the Apple SIM is a significant move to SIM portability, which should be the norm but is not likely to be outside of Europe.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.