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Secure enterprise mobile operating systems: new contenders

Businesses want alternatives to Apple's iOS and Google's Android that provide more secure smartphone operating systems, but are less expensive to run than a beefy BlackBerry. Now new market entrants are stepping up to meet the need.

The scale of the Apple iOS/Google Android duopoly is causing concern among other communications players whose fortunes are also tied closely to smartphone success. Mobile operators, smartphone handset manufacturers and mobile application and service developers in particular are both envious of the revenue the Apple/Google dominance generates, and nervous at the extent of the control the two companies exert over the rest of the mobile industry as a result.

That unease has led to decisive action, with a tranche of rival branded mobile operating systems (OSs) set to emerge this year. Mozilla's Firefox OS, Jolla's Sailfish, the Samsung-backed Tizen, and Canonical's Ubuntu Touch, will soon be arrayed alongside BlackBerry's BB Q10 and Microsoft Windows Phone 8 in mutual opposition to the Android/iOS axis. Though most of the challengers are hoping to win a larger slice of the high-volume consumer market, they are positioning their respective platforms specifically for the enterprise sector.

One of the primary perceived demands here is for enterprises that want BlackBerry-class security, but which are unwilling or unable to pay the premium that'RIM charges for its services – or enterprises that just want a mobile operating system that's more secure than Apple or Android, and are prepared to fork out a bit more for it.

SMEs are increasingly being targeted by'various online threats (see E&T Vol 8 Issue 6), both because they are perceived as being innately more vulnerable, and because the so-called 'Black Hat' intelligensia are wiser to the fact that smaller companies can be trafficking high-value information – maybe via smartphones.

Cross-platform support is a key weapon against iOS and Android which inhabit smartphones and tablets – but little else. Canonical, the firm behind the distributions of the open-source Linux desktop and server Ubuntu, announced a smartphone version of the OS using the same kernel, but tweaked for small screen display in January 2013. It, along with Microsoft, is particularly keen to use the same software that runs on desktop PCs and other devices for smartphones in order to simplify security, management and application control.

"Enterprise users now want better designed, entry level product capabilities and technology that stretches across every platform, whether desktop, laptop, or phone," says Ubuntu Touch product manager Richard Collins. "There will be the capability to provide a wide raft of enterprise-orientated apps – lots already run on Ubuntu mobile devices, and now we can assign a more enterprise profile."

Mobile desktops

Launched in October 2012, the Windows Phone 8 (WP8) is the first mobile OS from Microsoft to use the company's Windows NT Kernel as deployed in its Windows 8 desktop PC OS, adding multi-core CPU support and screen resolutions up to 1280x768 pixels to support larger format devices such as tablet PCs and netbook-class devices. In the same way that Canonical is looking to existing developers building apps for its desktop, server, and other platforms to use shared code for Ubuntu Touch, Microsoft believes developers can easily tweak existing desktop and tablet applications for use on WP8 devices, and perhaps more importantly, give enterprise IT departments more control over smartphone encryption and device management, with secure boot features toboot.

Ubuntu Touch will support docking stations that allow an end-user to plug devices into a screen and keyboard when in the office, effectively turning the smartphone into a desktop PC. Canonical promises enterprise-class security tools able to protect mission critical services, and regular security updates and software fixes for the OS, as well as mechanisms for carriers and handset makers to deliver their own maintenance provision as part of broader mobile device management services.

"As long as the phone supports HTML over USB, the keyboard and hardware components are available at the higher end," says Ubuntu Touch's Richard Collins. "Handset makers are all interested in devices which dock into an HDMI cradle to get a better screen or keyboard. From a security perspective it will be seen as just a standard communications device, but dock it and it runs the desktop environment, which allows users to embed security mechanisms in the same way as on a corporate desktop."

BlackBerry introduced its BlackBerry 10 mobile OS in January 2013, with an initial touchscreen Z10 device set to be followed by the Q10, which retains BlackBerry's signature physical 'raised' QWERTY keyboard, later in the year. The troubled Canadian corporation, which has seen its market share and stock price decline in the last few years, is relying on its broader system and mobile device management platform – Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) – to attract enterprise users in much the same way that Microsoft's System Center 2012 should present key advantage for WP8 in the enterprise market where their respective pedigrees are already long-proven.

Security focus

Web software company Mozilla, meanwhile, revealed its Firefox OS in July 2012, the result of a joint project with global mobile operator Telefónica Digital. The open, HTML5-based OS can be installed on any smartphone, with Telefónica (02 in the UK) and Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile) promising to deliver Firefox OS-based handsets using ZTE and Alcatel hardware in the second half of 2013. Telefónica says it is working hard on security while Firefox OS partner Deutsche Telekom promising to pre-load 'strategically relevant building blocks, such as those for security' onto handsets.

Tizen, the Linux-based OS and MeeGo successor backed by handset makers Huawei, Motorola, NEC, Panasonic, and Samsung, alongside 18 mobile operators, will also put special focus on security. When the first Tizen handsets debut, expected in late Q3/2013, Intel's McAfee security tools will be natively embedded into the hardware alongside a firewall which can be used by other companies to build their own mobile security applications.

Other features intended to disrupt the market include dual persona and virtualisation features designed to ring-fence business usage from any concomitant personal/consumer activity in order to provide enterprise IT managers with greater security control and device management tools. For example, BlackBerry's Z10 includes a gesture-based technology feature called Balance, which allows users to switch between separate business and personal profiles that isolate enterprise and consumer applications into different domains; this is a key feature in a drive for ever-security-conscious enterprise sales.

Quite how much traction these dual persona or separate domain services will have, either at the application or virtualisation layer, is still somewhat difficult to gauge. None are especially innovative, and they do not appear to have won a conspicuously high number of admirers in previous incarnations.

AT&T launched a dual-persona service, Toggle, in the US at the end of 2011 which uses the Enterproid Divide app to partition work and home profiles. Meanwhile, VMware has tested a mobile virtualisation layer Horizon in partnership with Telefónica which does the same thing at the hypervisor rather than the application level.

Most, if not all, of the challengers recognise the need to provide both business and consumer subscribers with lower-cost smartphones which simplify the end-user experience and are designed to support a small number and range of mission critical apps, though some also see app stores offering hundreds of thousands as a necessary requirement if they are to compete with iOS and Android.

According to Collins, there are reasons other than security why companies may be iOS-averse. "Apple iOS has a very confusing user interface which prevents people migrating off a feature phone," he says. "[Business users] do not want complex and critical access, or care about thousands of non-essential third party apps that drive performance down into the hardware platform. And iOS does not run as well on lower-cost devices."

Canonical is targeting Ubuntu at two segments: high-end so-called 'superphones', but also entry-level devices equipped with single core CPUs that run a small number of mission-critical applications without powerful processors or large complements of RAM to guarantee performance.

Initial Firefox OS devices are likely to be in the sub-$100 and sub-$150 smartphone price points, with the operator working with Mozilla to make sure that the performance of Web-based HTML5 apps matches that of core software optimised to run on the device itself. Many of the other challengers, including BB10, Jolla, and Tizen will also support HTML5 apps, which can be tweaked to run on a range of different devices and OSs.

Sailfish's China connection

Sailfish, the mobile OS from Finnish start-up Jolla – staffed by former Nokia employees and which resurrects Nokia's own MeeGo smartphone OS project – is due to launch in 2013. With Jolla's initial focus on selling smartphones into China (it has partnership deals with Chinese handset maker D-Phone, Chinese online company Tencent and Asian mobile phone chip maker ST-Ericsson) price points will have to be low, but the company may expand into Europe at a later date. The Tizen Association will look to deliver a broad range of devices at every price point which will vary according to geography.

"Smartphones remain very attractive at every price point, and we are working on a range of different profiles, including entry-level, which will help us get to lower price points," says Eliott D Garbus, vice president of Intel's architecture group. "We are going to see a wide range of business models which will vary by carrier and by country."

BlackBerry's BB10 is following a similar path, with changes to the BB10 UI designed to speed-up navigation and multi-tasking by allowing users to swipe from one app to another. The new Z10 also offers access to the Blackberry Hub, which centralises emails, social media updates and SMS messages into a single interface, a universal to-do list, and an out of application pop up notifications window. Jolla too focuses on improving the user interface, providing gesture-based 'tiles' and tools to change the look and feel of the device, including customisable buttons within Sailfish.

"We are aiming to simplify the way the user interacts with the device," says Jolla chief information officer Stefano Mosconi. "Both iOS and Android are easy to use, but there is space for improvement there. The first thing the user will notice is what we call 'effortless interaction' – true multi-tasking that allows the user to interact with apps even when they are minimised."

Ultimately, an additional primary driver for new mobile OS development is to break the stranglehold that Apple and Google hold over mobile app distribution through their respective app stores. Mobile operators, handset makers and app developers are desperate to find new ways of rerouting mobile software licensing revenue their way, and are looking at a variety of ways to do it.

While most will retain the app store model, they will also explore others such as embedding software market places into the hardware itself (and allowing it to be migrated to other devices) and allowing third parties, including enterprises, to build their own app stores or cloud service portals. Microsoft, for example, has introduced the idea of Company Hubs into the WP8, a sort of internal app store for the enterprise where employees can access and download approved mobile apps for their devices.

Wresting control of the mobile software market back from pervasive players like Apple and Google will not be a doddle, and the two companies are likely to come out fighting with similar initiatives of their own. But few in the mobile industry would argue that the current status quo is tolerable either for suppliers or subscribers.

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