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Will iOS 7 and iCloud changes meet post-PC needs for enterprise users?

Will iOS 7 and iCloud changes meet post-PC needs for enterprise users?

One place where the post-PC era is in full swing is the enterprise. And enterprise IT groups will be watching when Apple unveils iOS 7 at its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, June 10, to see if the new version improves its fit for business users. Live stream: WWDC keynote.

iOS has achieved an astonishing acceptance in the enterprise, and is the basis for most companies' mobile deployments. But increasingly, those iOS deployments are grappling with more complex tasks than email, PDFs, presentations and Web browsing. And in doing so, enterprise IT staff are looking for iOS changes that make the platform better suited to enterprise computing.

[ IPHONEYS:The iPhone 6 and 5S edition]

Apple is widely expected to show at least a partial redesign of the iOS user interface, creating a more consistent visual syntax and cues. But power users, especially in the enterprise, need more. [see "Will iOS 7 finally make traditional PCs irrelevant?"]

To achieve that, the UI changes need to be married with deeper changes that make the OS more capable when dealing with complex, long-durations tasks; and that give IT the ability to somehow fit together Apple's mobile experience with business requirements for manageability and security.

"Apple famously likes to keep tight control over the UI and user experience," says Avi Greengart, research director of consumer devices and platforms, Current Analysis, a Washington, D.C., competitive intelligence consulting firm. "But in doing so it has siloed most of its own apps: they don't share data easily."

A related issue is the way iOS currently handles, or doesn't handle, multi-tasking. "You have a single app that commands your attention at all times," says Greengart. "But if you're bouncing around between tasks, or between related tasks, other mobile operating systems do a better job of moving users between them."

Making it easier for iOS users to handle files and to leverage the platform's multi-tasking capabilities would go a long way toward making iOS more effective in more complex tasks.

Many IT staff are in effect hoping for a subset of features that let them better administer hundreds and thousands of iOS devices. "I would like to see consideration for more enterprise needs such as device management, and [enterprise] app stores, that provide us with greater choice," says Rich Adduci, senior vice president and CIO at Boston Scientific, Marlborough, Mass.

"An Apple-branded full mobile device management [system] would be great, as well as additional APIs for third-party MDM solutions to better manage iOS devices and [bridge] the gap between managing iOS and other platforms," says a technology manager at a leading private university, who requested anonymity because he's not authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the institution.

One new API would be one that lets MDM applications "globally restrict cut/copy/paste functions," says James Gordon, vice president of IT for Needham Bank, Needham, Mass. It's a small community bank that relies on iOS as its mobile platform. "This will drive greater adoption and innovation among enterprises that are still on the fence about [iOS] security," Gordon says.

"One limitation of iOS devices compared to other corporate devices is the lack of administrator control, so that devices can easily be pre-configured, cloned, remote-controlled, and [so that] controls can be put in place to force or block iOS upgrades," says Carl Maisonneuve, chief systems architect, The Ottawa Hospital, Ottawa, Ontario. The hospital has widely and aggressively deployed several thousand iPhones and iPads for doctors, nurses and staff.

Large-scale deployments pose special challenges given how Apple currently handles AppleIDs and app purchasing. "My greatest hope would be a solid and easy to implement solution for corporate AppleIDs and volume purchases for apps," says Benjamin Levy, a principal with Solutions Consulting, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in OS X and iOS deployments for business customers.

"At present we have two basic models for how a company can manage apps for its users: Either the user can own the apps or the company can own the apps," Levy explains. "But in the current model it's far easier for a company to decide to let the users own the apps, because of the management requirements for handling what might be thousands of AppleIDs and multiples of apps on top of that. This wasn't so much of an issue with iOS apps because [in the past] few were significant in cost. But as more apps move to the Mac App Store with higher prices it becomes a real question."

One example of an enterprise option that's emerged in recent months is the interest in a secure "container" or virtualized workspace within iOS, where corporate apps and data can be fully protected and managed, entirely separate from the end user's personal apps and information. "One of my biggest wishes is virtualization on iOS devices to allow separate sandboxed home and work environments, similar to what BlackBerry is doing on the Z10 smartphone [via the BlackBerry 10 operating system]," says the university IT manager.

"Customers would be joyous over this: a separate 'dual persona' capability so that the device could have separate areas with separate security characteristics," agrees Ken Dulaney, vice president, mobile, at Gartner, the Stamford, Conn., technology research firm.

One area that's not yet being addressed is Apple's cloud-based data syncing, which is vital for future, complex, database-driven mobile apps, especially for the enterprise. But only the university technology manager mentioned, as his No. 1 "biggest wish," the need for improvements to Apple's Core Data sync service. It's an illustration of the close relationship between the OS, app development and cloud services.

iCloud is the Apple-maintained online service that receives, stores and downloads data (music, photos, etc.) among multiple iOS and OS X clients logged into an iCloud account. Core Data is an application-level framework, supplied by both operating systems, that lets applications store items and data about those items in a single cloud database, without developers having to write a lot of their own SQL code and data persistence logic.

It's simple in concept. But for many developers the reality borders on nightmarish. For months, the complaints, accompanied by detailed analyses of Core Data shortcomings, have been growing.

iMore's Rene Ritchie cataloged one group of complaints in a post headlined "iCloud gets kicked in the Core Data sync -- totally had it coming." Another catalog was put together by Jacqui Cheng, at Ars Technica: "Frustrated with iCloud, Apple's developer community speaks up en masse."

Developers complain that Core Data is opaque, poorly documented, without reliable mechanisms for troubleshooting problems, or even for identifying them. One of the Ars Technica sources was developer Rich Siegel, of Bare Bones Software. His own subsequent blog post on their Core Data travails describes a service that sounds like it was thrown together with bailing wire and spit. Some of his comments:

  • "In general, when iCloud data doesn't synchronize correctly (and this happens, in practice, often), neither the developer nor the user has any idea why."
  • "[W]e ran into a situation in which the baseline (a reference copy of the synchronization data) would become corrupted in various easily encountered situations. There is no recovery from a corrupted baseline, short of digging in to the innards of your local iCloud storage and scraping everything out, and there is no visible indication that corruption has occurred -- syncing simply stops."
  • "Finally, one of the most maddening issues: the iCloud-just-says-no problem. Sometimes, when initializing the iCloud application subsystem, it will simply return an opaque internal error. When it fails, there's no option to recover -- all you can do is try again (and again ...) until it finally works."

But Siegel's most damning comment is this observation: "And we find it noteworthy that, to the best of our knowledge, none of Apple's currently shipping products on Mac OS X use iCloud to sync Core Data [emphasis in original]. (One might think that Address Book or Calendars would, but in fact they use CardDAV and CalDAV, respectively. These are both HTTP-based protocols for communicating directly with a server, and do not rely on Core Data or the Ubiquity system.)"

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: @johnwcoxnwwEmail: john_cox@nww.com

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