Along with announcing the new iPad and Apple TV (and related iOS and app updates), Apple released a new tool for managing iOS devices in business and education. The new Apple Configurator app is a free download in the Mac App Store for Macs running Lion. Although it takes the sting out of managing iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches for smaller organizations, it won’t replace more full feature mobile management solutions for mid-size or larger companies.
Apple Configurator is essentially a more user friendly version of the iPhone Configuration Utility that Apple introduced along with the iPhone 3G, App Store, and iOS 2 almost four years ago. It lets a Mac manage iOS devices and and makes it pretty painless to accomplish the following set of tasks:
- Wipe (restore) devices and install a specific iOS release
- Update the installed iOS version
- Assign unique names/identifiers to each device
- Backup and/or restore data from an existing backup
- Create and apply configuration profiles
- Install apps (from the public App Store or created for internal use)
- License paid apps using Apple’s Volume Purchase Plan for business or education
- Install documents (documents must be associated with an installed app because iOS doesn’t offer a user-facing file system)
- Assign devices and related configurations to users (users can be populated based on an enterprise directory service like Microsoft’s Active Directory so long as the Mac running Apple Configurator is joined to such a service).
- Organize devices into groups for easier management
- Restrict devices from syncing to other computers
- Assign a organization or user-specific lock screen image
- Create a device check-in/check-out setup that ensure users always have access to their on-device data regardless of whether which device they are assigned (similar to roaming profiles in a Windows business environment where users have the same desktop regardless of which PC they use)
- Enroll devices in a third-party mobile device management (MDM) console for additional capabilities
That’s a pretty good set of tasks that Apple Configurator can handle. The automatic check-in/check-out capabilities are particularly valuable for schools or other environments where the supply of devices like iPads doesn’t match the full user population. This allows a lending library-style approach that ought to work particularly well in elementary schools (it’s essentially an iPad/iOS version of the MacBook carts that Apple has been selling to schools for the past couple of decades). It should also work well in any business that has mobile professionals who only need a device some of the time – sales and marketing jobs come immediately to mind. This entire approach also represents an easy-to-use user-oriented management model that’s been almost completely absent from iOS to date.
The good news is that this is a very nice and user-friendly solution. It’s something non-IT folks can setup and manage easily – perfect for teachers, librarians, hospitality managers at hotels or restaurants, and the overworked “computer guy” in most small businesses. Apple has really been staking out territory in the small business market, and this is a perfect solution for that market.
The bad news is that although it provides a lot of powerful features and workflows, it really doesn’t scale all that well. The fact that management involves physically connecting those devices really limits the size and type of organization for which it will be effective. Apple Configurator really pales when compared to MDM solutions that can automate the management process almost completely, do so wirelessly, can and scale to handle thousands or tens of thousands of iOS devices (along with other mobile platforms like Android and BlackBerry). It even falls short when compared to Apple’s own Profile Manager feature in Lion Server. It also seems like a solution really aimed at just iPads (and maybe iPod touches) rather than iPhones.
Ultimately, this is a really good tool for some specific situations. It bolsters the iBooks 2 textbook model by creating ways that the iPad can work in a device lending rather than 1-to-1 deployment. It’s also a great option for hospitality (hotel and events), retail, and even some healthcare deployments.
I think the most significant thing that can be said about Apple Configurator isn’t about what it can or can’t do – it’s that it shows Apple is serious about providing a range of iOS management solutions that meet very different needs and use models.
Update: Originally we noted the device limitation as meaning that a single Mac can only manage 30 devices, which wasn’t accurate. A single Mac can manage an unlimited number of iOS devices. As the devices must be connected via USB, however, only 30 devices can be connected and managed/backed up/updated at any given time.