I’m really excited about several new iOS development and deployment projects that we’ve been working on at CG. We’re working closely with Apple on a bunch of solutions: at the most basic level, we’re building solutions for security and management of employee iPad and iPhone use; at the other end of the spectrum, we’re helping to realize visions such as a kiosk-like platform of thousands of iPads deployed in retail environments around the country.
We’ve learned a ton about what is and isn’t possible as we strategize ways to scale to thousands of units. Here are some of the challenges we’ve come across:
- How do we deploy and support iPads – whether ten or ten thousand – in a secure, efficient, and centralized way?
- How can we architect kiosk-like application experiences on the iPad, enabling us to design and curate the customer experience, while also allowing a true iPad experience complete with app-switching, web browsing, Facebook-checking, game-playing, and movie-watching?
- What kind of network and server architecture is needed to support a platform of iOS devices across the globe? How do we enable caching and pushing of dynamic data to the devices – particularly large amounts of media content?
Centralized deployment and support of iOS devices
How do we deploy and support thousands of iPads or iPhones in a secure, efficient, and centralized way? Mobile Device Management (MDM) platforms like AirWatch, Casper, MobileIron – and soon, OS X Lion Server – allow us to push XML configuration profiles to iOS devices. This enables centralized inventory and basic management of the devices: from what version of iOS they have installed, to some security control over how/if users can install and delete apps. For many enterprise customers, these tools are useful for administering security policies on employee-owned iOS devices. But for custom platforms like kiosks and retail experiences, MDM is not ideal due to the need for end-user interaction. What we need is a way to easily restore iOS devices back to their “golden” state in a centrally managed way.
We’re excited about the potential of over-the-air restores and software updates coming in iOS 5, but as of today, iTunes is the only game in town for this. Working within this limitation, we’ve architected some innovative solutions that enable iOS devices to connect to iTunes virtually over USB to IP converters and a content distribution infrastructure. Until iOS 5, this is a good option to have, and I haven’t heard of anyone else embracing this approach.
Rearchitecting Apple’s iOS user experience
Put an iPad in front of someone and they’re going to tap, scroll, pinch, and squeeze the user interface. The user experience is still the leader in the tablet space – though we’ve been recently impressed by the BlackBerry PlayBook. For a project we’re working on now, we want to encourage this user experimentation and interaction, while locking down some important components of the UX. Things like App Store purchases, iTunes downloads, deleting apps, rearranging icons, and changing the home screen wallpaper will quickly affect the kiosk experience. MDM solutions can help disable some of these features, but the aforementioned need for user interaction just doesn’t work for specialized user environments.
One solution we’ve had success with is a combination of custom code to disable user customization of the Springboard, plus a WebKit-based Safari replacement for browsing that enables us to prevent user download of unauthorized content. Combine these with some configuration profile-based customization of iOS and we have a good solution for locking a customer experience down and reducing the frequency of unit restores or reimaging.
The CG approach to iOS projects
Part of what makes CG stand out as a solution provider is our deeply embedded collaboration between our application development team and our infrastructure team. As the Enterprise’s appetite for customized mobile platforms and experiences grows, we’re uniquely suited as a technology partner to build and innovate on our customers’ vision. iOS is at the core of this vision and I couldn’t be more excited to be working with these technologies today. Plus, iOS 5 is on its way and it’s shaping up to be a giant leap forward!