Choosing a Corporate Smartphone Platform

By  Matthew Dieckman — April 18, 2011

Choosing a corporate smartphone platform is one of the biggest challenges facing IT managers in 2011. IT is tasked with finding an effective smartphone platform that is safe, easy to configure and manage, and flexible enough to meet the productivity needs of the employee base, including senior executives.

The decision criteria should include not only the physical attributes of the device, but also the types and severity of threats posed by security failures. For instance, phones are more easily lost or stolen than laptops, and a misplaced phone can expose highly sensitive corporate or personal data. In addition, malware and surveillance software can present serious threats to certain smartphone operating systems.
Moreover, not all platforms were created equal. Some make it more difficult to enforce basic security policies effectively (e.g., password enforcement, over-the-air device wiping, or local data encryption). And while some security policies (e.g., the mandatory reporting of lost or stolen phones) are platform-independent, other policies (e.g., limiting access to specific device types, or prioritizing bandwidth for smartphone traffic) depend upon the available features and functionality of the selected platform.
Here are a few of the high-level pros and cons of leading smartphone platforms in corporate environments:
Google Android: Android has taken off as an industry hit. The handset vendor community has been attracted to Android by its open-source operating system. Industry analysts forecast that Android will be one of the dominant smartphone operating systems in the next few years. Initially viewed as a consumer platform with a less restrictive and more flexible app model than the iPhone, Android-based devices have continually improved security support with successive releases. Other security features such as remote wipe and upgraded password policy enforcement, as well as the expectation of whole-device encryption in 2011, add to Android’s burgeoning appeal to the business community. 
Apple iOS (iPhone/iPad): A watershed phenomenon, the iPhone remains the smartphone of choice for those in the design-conscious consumer markets. However, not all enterprises share the public’s enthusiasm for Apple’s iconic device. Apple insists its closed, tightly controlled iOS ecosystem is a security benefit. IT managers who want to deploy their own or trusted third-party applications dislike Apple’s restrictive policy that they can only distribute, install, and back-up apps via the Apple Store and iTunes. Moreover, widely available jailbreak software can bypass the iPhone’s built-in security features and enable users to install a wide range of unauthorized and unsigned applications.
Still, by supplying VPN capability as standard, enabling access to some features of Microsoft Exchange, and including remote-wipe and automatic device-erasing features and remote management APIs in iOS4, the iPhone has become a better option for enterprise customers. Yet certain deal-breakers remain for many enterprise customers such as a lack of centralized management and whole-device encryption.
Microsoft Windows Phone: Following its launch in 2010, Windows Phone 7 has attracted a great deal of attention, and Microsoft’s recent partnership with Nokia may help push Windows into the spotlight. This latest version of the Microsoft mobile device operating system improves many aspects of the mobile Windows experience. In particular, features for security access and integration with back-office Microsoft applications make it a powerful tool for accessing corporate data on the move. Like Apple, however, Microsoft has yet to provide a central console for large-scale management of devices, and it is dependent on a proprietary app store, the Windows Phone Marketplace, for installation and distribution of applications.

Despite positive reviews, analysts differ on the platform’s long-term viability. Gartner predicts that Windows Phone would account for only 5.2% of the market in 2011, while the research firm IDC (as stated in a Dec. 19, 2010 research note by analyst Al Hilwa) is more optimistic, citing faster-than-expected growth in the number of Windows Phone 7 apps and a strong developer ecosystem.
RIM BlackBerry: Long favored by corporate IT for its excellent e-mail facilities, RIM devices historically have not enjoyed the same degree of user evangelism as their more glamorous contemporaries. As of February 2011, there were still fewer than 20,000 BlackBerry apps in RIM’s app store, a small fraction of the number offered by iPhone and Android developers. In addition, the BlackBerry’s browser and interface lack the usability of its main competitors. Owning 16% of global sales in 2010, however, RIM is still a major contender, especially in corporate markets where its ubiquitous e-mail platform, robust hardware, and strong battery life all appeal to business users.

Perhaps its biggest asset is the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which gives enterprises advanced central device management and control of security over the air, to date still a unique feature among smartphone vendors. However, as more vendors enter the field, many businesses view the BlackBerry Enterprise Server as one of the more expensive options in the field.
Nokia Symbian: Still the world’s most widely used smartphone platform, Symbian comfortably leads the pack in sales, with 37.6% of global smartphone sales in 2010, according to Gartner. Its global distribution, comparatively low-cost hardware, and mature software platform resonates with many consumers and businesses. The Symbian security model makes it very difficult for unsigned software to cause damage to phones or data, even if users authorize installation. However, its popularity has occasionally made it a target for malware.

Recently, its market share has eroded to other vendors such as the business-focused RIM and, most notably, Android, whose tremendous growth in 2010 hit Symbian harder than any other platform. In early 2011, Nokia announced a partnership with Microsoft to put the Windows Phone 7 operating system on high-end Nokia smartphones.
Making Smart Choices
Smartphones are an inescapable and largely beneficial element of the modern corporate computing landscape. They have the potential to make businesses more productive, but they can also create major security problems. No single platform excels in all aspects of smartphone security. Most platform vendors place more focus on user-friendliness and flexibility than on corporate security protocols. That may be changing as the platforms develop.

Looking ahead, for instance, Android and Windows Phone seem particularly well positioned to begin deeply addressing corporate security demands. In the interim, however, to address the security challenges of smartphones, IT managers must not rely on platform vendors alone, but seek out broader security solutions that comprehensively protect corporate information and resources at rest and in flight, regardless of the endpoint platform.
Matthew Dieckman is the product manager for secure remote access products at SonicWALL.


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