Mobile operating system fragmentation: More OSes, more problems

The more mobile OSes admins come across, the more problems they see. Mobile operating system fragmentation makes it tough to manage and secure users’ smartphones and tablets.

Mobile operating system fragmentation is an IT migraine waiting to happen, because of the problems it causes around support, management, compatibility and app distribution.

The mobile computing market is awash with various devices, OSes and wireless networks. Just head to your local wireless store and you’ll see a couple dozen smartphones staring back at you. Some are high-end, such as Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Nexus devices, but there are also plenty of lower-end models, from underpowered Android phones to the BlackBerry Curve and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. That’s not to mention tablets, which are also vying for a place in the hearts and minds of users.

IT has traditionally approached systems with a singular management method, such as using Active Directory to manage a Windows infrastructure. That’s not possible now, because there are so many different devices and OSes -- and so much variation between different versions of the same OS.

A look at mobile operating system fragmentation

There isn’t much fragmentation among Apple devices, because Apple alone is responsible for distributing operating system updates.

Android has a reputation for being the most fragmented OS, because its updates come from wireless carriers, who each have their own timetables. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is the newest version, but updates from older versions have been slow in coming. More than half of the Android devices on the market today still run Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

The BlackBerry operating system is slightly fragmented, but IT has control over distributing updates once they’re available in BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), so all corporate devices run the same version. And Windows Phone hasn’t been around long enough to have serious fragmentation issues, but as on Android, carriers control when updates become available.

How mobile operating system fragmentation affects management

You’ll likely never be able to enforce use of a specific mobile OS version company-wide, because user preference and carrier updates are such wild cards. But you can establish a sun-setting policy to support specific versions of mobile operating systems for specific periods. You may think about a three-year limit, for example. That is a realistic timeframe for most smartphones, because people are forced to keep their phones for two years under typical U.S. carrier contracts.

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You may also have to dictate support based upon your most-used mobile apps. Some enterprise apps are very forgiving, such as Citrix Receiver, which is compatible all the way back to Android 1.5 and iOS 4.2. Many Android business apps require OS version 2.2 and up, which is still fine for the majority of users.

If you are developing custom applications, you’ll want to note the multitude of screen sizes on Android phones and ensure you are not coding for a 5-inch screen if the majority of users have a 3.5- or 4-inch screens.

If your apps will use OS-specific features, test and confirm they work for every supported version of the OS. As an example, virtual private network connections are notoriously inconsistent across platforms and versions, and troubleshooting can be difficult. Admins can’t easily generate logs on a mobile phone, so you’ll need to find other ways to track problems.

Distributing certificates is different on every platform as well, so you’ll have to know how to approach them on every operating system. (It is often a manual process.) Encryption is another inconsistent feature. Most phones don’t have native encryption capabilities, so users will need third-party apps, which are often specific to certain models, or folder and file encryption. Apple’s iPhone doesn’t have encryption, so users will have to use apps that encrypt specific types of data within the app itself.

If you are like most IT pros, you’ll want to base your management approach around a central policy that will work with all devices. Luckily, many organizations can push policy via Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, which works with Android 2.2 and up, iOS 3 and up and all versions of Windows Phone. BlackBerry devices require management via BES.

How mobile operating system fragmentation affects apps

If you plan on distributing apps, the waters become even more muddied. Apple has an enterprise push method to distribute apps through its App Store. IT can distribute Android apps via Google Play or set up an enterprise app store to keep custom apps private. The Windows Phone app distribution program allows admins to privately publish apps and provide access via deep links.

Each of these mobile app delivery options offers a different way to distribute apps, a process that fragmentation complicates even further. Amazon’s Kindle Fire uses only the Amazon Appstore, for example, even though the Fire is technically an Android device. You may have to turn some users away if their devices aren’t compatible with IT’s chosen app distribution programs.

There are mobile device management suites that offer ways to minimize the hassle of controlling your data and the devices on your network, but the simple fact is there is still a level of manual setup. IT will have to outline the specific devices, features and operating system versions it will support.

Users may own the devices, but it’s IT’s sandbox. Just because employees have smartphones doesn’t mean IT automatically supports them. Admins can provide plenty of flexibility, but users’ devices will have to work within the rules and requirements of IT infrastructure -- not the other way around.

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