NitroDesk TouchDown is a third-party Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) app for Android and iOS. Because so many enterprise mobility management vendors support it and use it as their email client of choice, I wanted to learn more about it, and so recently I had a chance to talk to Nitrodesk COO Ron Goins. I’m not going to get into any hard core analysis in today’s post (it’s Friday, after all) but here are a few interesting things I learned:
First, some background on mobile mail clients. These days third-party mail clients often are used to keep personal and corporate data separate, or to secure corporate mail without having to lock down the user experience on the rest of a device. But before modern MDM came along, third-party clients used to be the only way to deliver and secure corporate email on many devices (and this was happening since way before iOS and Android, too).
When Android was launched in October 2008, it didn’t have an Exchange ActiveSync client, nor did it have any provisions for corporate management. Several third-party mail apps were released around that time, and one of them was NitroDesk TouchDown, created by Goutham Sukumar and released in November 2008.
At the same time, Ron Goins was looking every day to find a corporate email client for Android. He found TouchDown, installed it, and it didn’t work. It turned out that that Ron lived just a couple of miles away from Goutham, so the met up so that Goutham could debug the app. That lead to Ron becoming part of NitroDesk, which today has 10 employees and over 2 million users.
About the TouchDown app
In the beginning, NitroDesk used a combination of WebDAV and Exchange Web Services. They subsequently took an Exchange ActiveSync license, giving TouchDown push notification capabilities in March 2009, and full Exchange ActiveSync support shortly after.
(Just for reference, the native built-in Android email client didn’t support Exchange ActiveSync until version 2.0 was released in October 2009; and Android didn’t really have any management features until the introduction of the Device Administration API in version 2.2 in May 2010. Then don't forget that it takes a while for these versions to filter down to production phones, and most old ones don't get updated.)
TouchDown supports all the usual Exchange ActiveSync Exchange ActiveSync policies, and other security features include AES-256 encryption, support for S/MIME, and support for Microsoft Information Rights Management.
In addition to Exchange ActiveSync policies, TouchDown has management APIs that can be addressed directly by MDM client apps that are on the same device. That means that there’s no separate management protocol, just EAS for mail and whatever the MDM app is doing. There are DLP policies available to keep users from doing things like from cutting and pasting text out of TouchDown, sharing contacts with other apps, or opening attachments with other apps. The MDM integration can also handle licensing the app. Just about all of the big name MDM vendors integrate with TouchDown.
NitroDesk released an iOS version of TouchDown in October 2012, but it doesn’t have push notifications or download emails when the app is closed, because of the restrictions iOS puts around background processes. (The Android version does run in the background in order to receive email notifications through EAS.) This iOS background issue is a huge pain for a lot of people, and we’ll explore it more in a future post. There are also versions for Windows 8, Windows RT, BlackBerry, Kindle Fire (here's a cool explanation from their blog), and the Nook.