While the masses were fawning over Apple’s new iPad last week, IT pros had something far more significant to celebrate.
Apple released a free app called Configurator that makes it much easier to deploy, manage and configure more than one iOS device. It is available for download through the Mac App Store.
The evolution of iOS device management
Apple Configurator is an evolution of the existing iPhone Configuration Utility (iCU) that Apple introduced nearly four years ago. Unfortunately, the new app isn’t a full-fledged mobile device management (MDM) tool, but it does bridge MDM and the iCU.
“Configurator is the starting point of Apple finally catering to IT managers,” said Michael Oh, founder of Tech Superpowers, a Boston-based Apple solutions provider.
It appears that Apple Configurator will be useful for streamlining the large-scale preparation and deployment of iOS devices in the enterprise. It should allow departments to cut costs, since Configurator removes the need for similar third-party software.
The utility does not require an OS X Server or MDM add-on software. Apple bills this as a fast and easy way to get an iOS device ready-to-go.
Apple Configurator features
One of Configurator’s most promising features is that it can prevent users from syncing their iOS device with more than one computer, Oh said. IT admins can lock a device to the system on which it was prepared, preventing users from turning a business device into a personal one.
“No matter what tools you use, there was always a mechanism to wipe [an iOS device], re-sync it with another computer’s iTunes and turn it into a personal [device],” Oh said. “Configurator gives some control to restrict users from doing that and in effect turns iOS devices into more business-oriented devices.”
Here’s a small sampling of other Apple Configurator features for IT:
- Create configuration profiles directly, or import previously created profiles from iCU;
- Set specific policies regarding passcodes, Wi-Fi, VPN, pre-installed apps and other features;
- Set restrictions on device hardware (disable the camera or location settings, set up profanity filters for Siri);
- Wipe and restore devices;
- Install a specific iOS version in bulk;
- Create device backups for data, profiles and settings and reinstall them on devices;
- Pre-set the AppleID used to purchase installed apps;
- License paid apps using Apple’s Volume Purchase Program;
- Create a device check-in/check-out setup similar to a Windows enterprise roaming profile;
- Organize devices into groups for easier management;
- Restrict devices from syncing to other computers.
Apple Configurator limitations
Configurator requires that the iOS device be tethered to a Mac. A single Mac computer can manage an unlimited number of iOS devices, but because those devices must be connected via USB, only 30 devices can be connected and managed at any given time. That’s problematic for large enterprises that need to manage thousands of devices.
Some say Apple Configurator may not be of much use in companies supporting BYOD for mobile devices where IT does little to set up and configure personal devices.
Julian Harper, IT manager for the Jeroboams Group, a UK-based wine distribution company, recently switched to a BYOD policy and doesn’t plan to set up anyone’s personal phone as if it were a corporate device. Instead, he’ll rely on third-party MDM for iOS device management and security.
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“It's far better to tell people to update their phone because of ‘X’ new feature than to have to set up and manage [it for them],” Harper said. “You can very easily be overwhelmed by the amount of work and costs [device management] can generate.”
Apple Configurator only makes sense for businesses employing a controlled, mobile strategy, Harper said. Other IT pros said they welcome the ability to set up, configure and manage more than one iOS device at a time, even though a full MDM solution would have been better.
“When they are serious about implementing IT support, they’ll release some core IT packages for the iPad,” Oh said.
According to Oh, the best thing about Configurator is that Apple is finally moving in that direction.