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Mobile device management's getting better, and about time too

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Sysadmin blog The uptake of smartphones has placed pressure on network administrators to work out Mobile Device Management (MDM) beyond Blackberry Enterprise Server. Microsoft has made a few half-hearted attempts at MDM that have steadily improved with age, but there is little to see from the vendors of the phone platforms themselves. This gap in the market didn’t last long; many companies have stepped in to fill it.

Irish company FancyFon and the American MobileIron are two that I’ve seen.

MDM is much farther along than I had thought. Each of these companies offers multiplatform MDM software for the most common security issues presented by mobile devices, depending on the platforms you need to support.

But I’m more concerned with the MDM itself. Each smartphone platform has a completely different approach to security.

Java feature phones are essentially useless from a business security standpoint. Only the most basic MDM features are possible, and the different proprietary platforms make them a moving target, impossible to keep up with. Contrast this with the Blackberry. Research In Motion decided to build an enterprise device, and enterprise devices they produce.

Windows Mobile and Symbian are – from an MDM standpoint at least – nearly as good as Blackberry. Symbian is singled out by FancyFon for praise: if you know enough about the platform, you can make these devices do everything short of make you coffee. 
That leaves iOS and Android. I would have stated before I looked into it that, of the current group of competitors, iOS would have been the pig to work with. I was shocked to learn how difficult Android has proven to be. From an MDM standpoint it is often as bad as – and in some cases worse than – iOS.

The philosophy behind these two handheld platforms is different; they were both developed for the consumer. They assume that the user of the mobile is the owner of the mobile, and the user has ultimate control over what could, or could not, happen on the device. The idea that those who use the device would not be those who own the device seems largely to be an afterthought haphazardly bolted onto each platform afterwards.

There are no controls on either platform to lock down and control roaming. Remote control of Android phones is currently not possible. Android doesn’t support Over The Air (OTA) configuration.

With iOS you can turn the app store off, but with the exception of Apple applications (such as Safari), you cannot granularly allow or disallow applications obtained from the app store. iOS similarly doesn’t allow tracking of voice or SMS usage, nor does it support access to the underlying filesystem. iOS doesn’t support deployment of applications via SMS.

MobileIron is able to do a great deal more with an iOS device than FancyFon, because MobileIron uses device-side APIs that are not in the SDK. Apple partners MobileIron, and so MobileIron is able to make use of elements of Apple’s MDM services that aren’t yet openly available to their competitors. To contrast, FancyFon appears to have the edge when dealing with Symbian.

Mobile device management is maturing. On every mobile platform it is possible to back up a device, or shift information from one platform to another. All platforms support remote wiping or locking down aspects of the operating system. But as FancyFon says, “It’s not a mainframe, it’s not a PC. It’s a mobile phone and unfortunately we have to live with that.” ®

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