Microsoft Office for iOS could solve the BYOD problem

Rumors about Microsoft Office for iOS have been going around for a while now.

Rumors about Microsoft Office for iOS have been going around for a while now. While we don’t really have any idea of what the suite will be like, if a sandboxed email client were a part of that suite, then it could a compelling solution to the dilemma of unmanaged personal devices in the enterprise.

Why sandbox email?

Corporate email on personal devices is a particularly difficult issue because the built-in email clients allow other applications to access contacts and other information. While that’s convenient for users, it’s obviously a security concern for their employers.

In order to keep the built-in email client safe, IT has to know what apps are installed on the device. Mobile device management software can handle this, but MDM on personal devices can be a thorny issue, IT has to actually know about the device, and keeping up with which apps to blacklist is difficult. (Would you want to be the person that has to tell the users they can’t install the latest app on their personal devices? Yes, it may be part of the trade off that the users made to get work email on their own devices in the first place, but at the end of the day it’s no fun for either party.)

With a third party email client, however, corporate email can be just like any other app. It can be password protected, managed, selectively wiped, and sandboxed, all without disturbing the rest of the apps on the device. IT can then simply limit email connections to just that sandboxed client and block access for built-in clients.

Sure, a third-party email client won’t be smoothly integrated, but if in order to get work email on a personal device the choice was between that and having the device be managed, a lot of people would pick the third-party app.

We don’t know what this will look like yet

Enter Microsoft Office for iOS (and possibly for Android). There are a lot of rumors circulating, but it’s possible (though not likely, according to some rumors) that it could include an email app. Other rumors indicate that it might be an independent OWA client. I’ll just call it “Outlook for iOS” for now.

Despite the uncertainty, there are some really cool possibilities here. In addition to the benefits of being a third-party email client, Outlook for iOS could have all sorts of integration with other mobile Office apps. Users could open attachments right in Word or Excel, they could make calls with Lync or Skype (creating the ability to have dual phone numbers), and heck, even be social with Yammer.

All the apps could be connected together on the back end through Sharepoint or Office365, and also Microsoft wouldn’t have to worry as much about get sandboxed apps to talk to each other on the mobile devices. The end result of all of this would be a completely sealed-off suite of work applications—the dual persona ideal. It doesn’t matter what personal apps are on the device, and the device wouldn’t even need a password, because all the security could be at the app level. “Work” could safely live on unmanaged personal devices.

What Outlook for iOS could do to the field

For companies that are interested in a dual-persona approach to BYOD, getting it from Microsoft in the form of Office would be great (as long as the licensing isn’t too screwy). There are lots of companies that can create this ecosystem of device native corporate apps—Good is the long-established leader, others include Citrix, AppSense, OpenPeak, Symantec, and Enterproid (right now some of them have email clients and some of them don’t). The difference here is that Microsoft already has its killer app—Office—built in right from the beginning.

This idea of a native app ecosystem for unmanaged Android and iOS devices is consistent with what we’ve seen from Microsoft so far: no MDM for those devices, only app management through Windows Intune.

There are two major caveats here, though: the Surface tablet and the fact that a Microsoft mobile device email client might not even exist! There are plenty of other articles that you can read about the pros and cons of Office for iOS versus Microsoft putting all its weight behind Surface. The reality, though, is that there will be a ton of money to be made if Office for iOS comes out, and that an email client could make it an important option for dealing with personal mobile devices.

(Note: Since I’ve written a few articles about sandboxed email clients, I decided to try one out for the next month, so I can see how easy they are to live with.)


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