June 13, 2013, 2:06 PM — Now that developers have had a few days to delve into the iOS 7 beta, it's becoming clear that the iPhone version of the software could prove beneficial to enterprises.
Many members of the 120-person development team at Solstice Mobile in Chicago have been scouring the many iOS 7 Application Programming Interfaces for features that can help large enterprises better build apps on iOS, Android, HTML 5 and Windows Phone.
In a keynote speech at Apple's World Wide Developer Conference last week, iOS development chief Craig Federighi said the beta version of the new operating system update sports some 1,500 APIs.
Solstice CEO J Schwan said his development team is still uncovering the ingredients of many of the new enterprise-focused features.
In an interview with Computerworld, Schwan said he's especially excited about Apple's new Activation Lock feature, as well as a Single Sign-on tool aimed at enterprise users as it works across multiple apps. (More details below.)
Schwan said he's also intrigued by the support for low-cost iBeacons transmitters that can connect an iPhone to a range of devices over Bluetooth 4.0 in a machine-to-machine world. The device would let the iPhone activate doors, lights and other things as a person holding it moves by.
Of all the platforms that Solstice Mobile supports, iOS -- especially on the iPad -- is the most important and interesting to the consulting firm's two dozen Fortune 500 customers, many with tens of thousands of employees and customers using iOS apps, Schwan said.
"IPad has been driving more of the interest from the enterprise standpoint than anything," Schwan said. "IOS is still kind of king here."
So far, only the iOS 7 beta for the iPhone has been released, but Federighi said he expects the iPad version to be available soon. The new iOS 7 software is slated to be available this fall.
In a blog post this week, Schwan summarized iOS 7's opportunities for enterprise users, and elaborated on many of the those points in the interview.
Apple officials barely mentioned the business advantages of iOS 7 at the WWDC, though it did offer a brief explanation on its website.
"iOS 7 includes many new features designed to make it easier for businesses to put iOS devices in the hands of employees," Apple said on the website." Features such as better protection of work and personal data, management of app licenses, seamless enrollment in Mobile Device Management, wireless app configuration, enterprise single sign-on support, and default data protection for third-party apps."
Schwan said some iOS 7 innovations are unique, while others match some already available features in Android, such as the new Control Center, which quickly allows a user to toggle to a screen to turn on Wi-Fi or Airport Mode.
Schwan's views , and some additional ones (and criticisms) from industry analysts, are incorporated in 10 new enterprise-focused iOS 7 features below:
1. Enterprise single sign-on.
Users can log in once and be authenticated across all of an enterprise's apps and services. Today, users must log-in separately for each app. Many third party mobile management software systems already allow this capability, but Schwan said it will help developers and be more convenient for users to have single sign-on capabilities within iOS.
"We're still digging into it, but if I could log on in one app, such as CRM, with iOS 7, then I could jump to an order tracking app without another sign on," Schwan said. "Right now it's very difficult to support single sign-on between those apps."
Apple's single sign on feature is "all driving toward 'mobile first' for enterprise," Schwan added.
The downside to single sign-on is the risk that the theft of a password or other user credential could give thieves access to all kinds of apps, not just one, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.
"Single sign on also means Apple controls the credential, not the app provider," Gold added. "Do I as app provider want Apple to monitor every time someone signs into my app? That's shades of Big Brother."
2. Activation lock.
With this new feature, a lost or stolen iPhone can't be reactivated without the owner's iCloud user name and password.
In the Bring Your Own Device world, activation lock can "help ease some of the fears of the CIO" that a lost or stolen iPhone could be used to access an enterprise system and the critical data it holds, Schwan said.
3. Per-app VPN.
This feature allows a user to open a secure VPN connection within any app. The user wouldn't first have to go to the iPhone settings to configure a VPN session before opening an app, as is required today.
The separate network tunnel is seen as more secure, while other apps -- such as personal apps that don't require a VPN -- could be used outside the VPN, Schwan said.
"If an employee has a CRM app that requires using a VPN, he could open that and still go to Facebook or another app the company is blocking without having to turn off the VPN," Schwan said. "This enables greater support for BYOD strategies."
4. AirDrop Sharing for Apps.
This allows app developers to add ways for users to share documents and content over the air, the same way that consumers use AirDrop to share photos and songs.
AirDrop works over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which allows sharing over greater distances than the 4-inch distance required by the NFC technology used in Android Beam, as Federighi noted on Monday.
"What's cool about AirDrop is its ability to share pictures, directions and contacts within custom apps," Schwan said. "If I have a custom app to use to present reports to employees, I can now proximity share that information with anybody in the room, which streamlines the experience" compared to what you do today.
Schwan said a financial advisor could show a customer his investment portfolio, with the data moving to and from an iOS device. "I could go through a prospectus and with just a tap or two, I could directly share information with my client without going outside that app experience," Schwan said. "The data that is structured to a specific app will mean I can send data that my app understands.
Schwan said that AirDrop could prove to be a more seamless sharing tool than Android Beam. He also noted that AirDrop means Apple doesn't have to support NFC -- at least not yet -- for data sharing. Apple may eventually adopt NFC for mobile payments as a secure technology, he added.
"Apple is continuing to come up with technologies that don't require NFC," Schwan said. "AirDrop shows that NFC is less likely on Apple's immediate roadmap. NFC is a great technology and will be a part of the machine to machine revolution, but Apple doesn't seem to be jumping on it yet."
Solstice customers are asking for NFC in devices running iOS and other platforms, as well as for apps that make use of NFC, Schwan said. "Apple's payment strategy has yet to be uncovered," he said.
The iOS 7 update also lets users scan QR codes to get Passbook passes such as coupons or other customer incentives, Schwan said. "That's another feature that Apple's providing that doesn't require NFC," he said.
Gold is concerned that while data sent over AirDrop is encrypted, there is still the potential for a loss of corporate data. "We all know that security in wireless gets broken," Gold said.
5. Multi-tasking APIs.
Enterprise developers can write apps that keep content up to date when the app is running in the background. This feature got a big cheer from the WWDC crowd. Schwan said it will improve the experience by allowing a user to move to another app while the update proceeds.
Gold said that multi-tasking of apps could prove very beneficial to enterprises as many corporate users must run two or more apps at once. "But done badly, this approach could really burn through a device battery very quickly," he said. "We need to see how this is implemented and how well it works."
6. Viewing of PDF annotations.
This innovation allows a user to see annotations inside a PDF without using a third party PDF reader. The feature is great for collaboration, Schwan said.
7. Control Center.
Schwan said that Android has offered this capability for a while, but it will be welcome in iOS to get almost instant access to frequently-used controls, such as airplane mode.
Apple's iOS 7 supports low-cost transmitters that can work with an iPhone or iPad to collect location data, even if there's no location system installed in a workplace or other environment. The system works over Bluetooth 4.0 and can be used to open doors and turn on lights just by passing through an area.
"This would allow your phone to automate processes and to communicate with other devices in proximity without your telling it to look for a device," Schwan said. Bluetooth typically works to a distance of about 25 feet.
Gold said that iBeacons offer potential uses to enterprises, though "not revolutionary" ones. Other approaches for proximity transmissions have used Bluetooth and Wi-Fi triangulation, but such approaches haven't been used very often to date, Gold said.
9. Extended MDM.
Gold and Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner, noticed a quick mention in the WWDC keynote about iOS 7 allowing enterprises to easily provide Mobile Device Management software to iOS 7-based devices. MDM software is now available from dozens of providers. It isn't clear whether Apple is providing part or all of the MDM capability, will support third party MDM connections, or do both.
Apple hasn't given many details, but Gold said such a capability "could have a major impact on what enterprises do with the iOS device. [It could] potentially eliminate or limit the need for third party MDM solutions."
10. Audio-only FaceTime calls.
Federighi briefly mentioned that iOS 7 offers the ability to voice-chat over Wi-Fi through FaceTime.
Gerry Purdy, an analyst at MobileTrax, said the feature could one day compete with Skype and other Voice over Internet Protocol providers, which offer services that allow free calls over Wi-Fi.
"This is the first time that voice calls on Apple mobile devices will be easy to make to another iOS user outside of the voice minute plan," Purdy said. "Many Apple users will be able to greatly reduce their consumption of voice call minutes and migrate them over to their data plan in which voice calls will be incurred at a lower cost [or] marginally zero cost."
While audio-only FaceTime calls are going to be an advantage for consumers, their impact on workers could be equally as important, analysts said.