It's no Mobile Iron, but Apple's free Configurator app provides good basic mobile device management to companies with modest needs.
A few months ago, a friend of mine who works for the IT department at his school had to prepare and deploy a handful of iPads. This meant plugging each one into a computer, syncing it, and doing whatever else it was he had to do. He called me for some quick advice, and at the time there was little more he could do than sit around and let the iPads sync up one by one and load them with the necessary apps. I'm sure he wishes Apple Configurator had been around back then.
Apple released Apple Configurator Thursday without an announcement. It's a free desktop application available on the Mac App Store that lets users set up multiple iOS devices at once. In a nutshell, it's mobile device management (MDM) software for iOS devices. It's designed to give an administrator the ability to update, configure, restore, and import files and apps to up to 30 devices at a time. My buddy really could have used Configurator to update all of his iPads and install the necessary apps simultaneously, rather than manually plug in and configure each tablet.
Of course, my buddy would have had to be running Lion, too--specifically the most current version. Install on anything less and you get, "Apple Configurator can't be installed ... because Mac OS X version 10.7.2 or later is required."
The interface is simple. In the Prepare menu, you will first set up your devices by naming them and installing or updating your iOS firmware as shown below. You can choose between No Change, Latest, and Other. This option is especially useful if you have to update multiple devices when new firmware is released.
You can then set up profiles for each device as well as any restrictions and Exchange ActiveSync.
The Prepare tab is also where administrators configure apps to be distributed to the iOS devices. In the example below we configured AP Mobile and Evernote for our iPhone and iPad. A business user, of course, might want to distribute his own in-house apps.
The Supervise screen lets administrators create groups for the devices. For instance, you might want to create two separate iPad configurations to suit the unique work needs of two different departments at your company. You can also restrict the computers that the iOS device will sync to--preventing it, for instance, from syncing to an outside computer.
Under the Assign tab is where you add your users and groups. Here is also where you can back up individual user data. For instance, if an employee needs to check out an iPad, her settings can be assigned to the device. When she brings the tablet back, Configurator can back it up so that if she checks another iPad at another time, she can get back her custom settings.
Applications that allow iTunes sharing, such as Evernote, can import and export documents between the app and your Mac. Again, it's a big time saver to sync multiple iOS devices rather than plug each into the computer, launch iTunes, and share files with each device individually.
Apple Configurator doesn't have everything it needs for full-on mobile device management. It's free, after all. I can see a couple of Apple engineers throwing this together and pitching it to their boss, just to test the waters. You will have to either use Configurator in conjunction with a full MDM console, or alongside a service such as Find My iPhone if you need to locate or remotely wipe a device. Professionals might want to go with more advanced MDM such as MobileIron.
That said, Apple Configurator is definitely a step toward Apple enabling the deployment of iOS in the enterprise. It's not for the average user, as it requires more than just the plug-and-play setup iOS fans have grown accustomed to. However, it will save businesses time and money. Just ask that buddy of mine who spent a good part of his work day updating and configuring iPads for his school.