One of the interesting conversations I had at AirWatch Connect was with Aaron Freimark, the CTO of GroundControl. GroundControl is a more flexible replacement for Apple Configurator, making it easier for companies to provision iOS devices and use supervised mode.
Supervision, DEP, and Apple Configurator
In case you’re not familiar, supervised mode is a set of extra-strong iOS MDM controls meant for corporate-liable devices. Some of the big features include single app mode, the ability to turn off iMessage and Games Center; global HTTP proxy settings, silent app installation, and a few dozen other restrictions.
To do supervision, it used to be that the only option was to use Apple Configurator, a Mac OS X application, to set up devices via USB.
Now we also have the Apple Device Enrollment Program (DEP), introduced early in 2014. DEP can take devices purchased directly from Apple (or authorized resellers) and automatically enroll them in your MDM.
However, Configurator is still useful because it does a lot of things besides enable supervision. It can update apps and the OS, set wallpapers, back up devices, and restore devices from backups. (Essentially it allows you to build gold images and then use them to completely configure other devices.) iOS backups have way more information than what you can set up with MDM or supervised mode on their own, so Configurator can be a very powerful tool.
For years the problem has been that Configurator isn’t very enterprise-friendly. There’s no Windows version and there’s no built-in way of making instances aware of each other—you have to bring devices back to the same Mac.
This is where GroundControl comes in. You still have to plug devices in via USB, but it works with both OS X and Windows; it’s cloud-enabled so you can share everything between instances and across sites; you don’t have to pair a device to a specific instance; and the UI is much more like an enterprise dashboard (in a good way) than Configurator.
Having a more flexible way to do Configurator tasks will obviously make it more feasible for companies to use and enable more use cases. And just think of what all could be possible using USB over IP. (I could imagine someone building USC over wireless capabilities into a ruggedized case.)
GroundControl has also figure out how to do a few device management tasks beyond what Configurator can do, including controlling when iOS is updated (or not updated, as the case may be), powering off devices, skipping more of the setup screens, and setting the language and timezone. Of course there are limitations (the can’t hide the default apps, for example), but still there’s a lot there. At the show Aaron showed some iPads getting completely erased and reconfigured in just a few seconds, just by plugging them in and kicking off the process in GroundControl
All of this Configurator functionality isn’t a standard thing that Apple opens up to EMM vendors (unlike the MDM protocol), so a lot of hard work went into building GroundControl. GroundControl works with a lot of EMM partners, and has API-level integration with AirWatch and MobileIron.
Expanding use cases
It goes without saying that all this functionality isn’t aimed a BYOD or COPE (though I’ve heard of companies using supervised mode on phones that replaced BlackBerries). Instead, this is for extended enterprise use cases like kiosks, education, healthcare, and point of sale. This is going to be a huge place for growth, and many of Apple’s recent enterprise improvements (such as the ability to assign Volume Purchase Program apps to devices instead of Apple IDs) have focused on this. At the show, Aaron said that people’s awareness of supervision and DEP have grown a lot.
There are still gaps, though, which is good news for GroundControl and other service providers. Yes, there’s always the chance that the next Apple Configurator could solve some of these issues, but on the other hand Apple prefers to leave MDM to partners; there will always be more space for more new innovations; and that’s just the way life is. In the meantime, there’s a growing market and a definite need for tools like GroundControl.