Apple iOS 7: What the new platform will mean for business

For something that Apple CEO Tim Cook predicted would “quickly become the world’s most popular operating system,” the company barely spent more than 15 minutes of its launch event on Tuesday talking about what iOS 7 could do. And predictably, not one of those minutes was devoted to what iOS 7, which will be available for download on Sept.18, could do for enterprise.

In some ways it might seem fitting that iOS 7 was only the opening act for the release of the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S. Everyone gets excited about new colours, few buttons and particularly the lower price point of Apple’s latest device. The problem is that most of the consumers who will pick up the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S are not merely making a personal choice, but one that will have an immediate and lasting effect on the software created by their employers.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, confirmed that iOS 7 will be available on Sept. 18 on both its new devices as well as iPhone 4s and later, iPad 2s and later, iPad Minis, and its fifth-generation iPod Touch devices. He walked through a number of its more than 200 features, including a multitasking view which looks sort of like shuffling through a deck of cards, and how consumers will be able to pull down to access search from anywhere on the home screen.

"Virtually overnight, hundreds of millions of people [will] download iOS 7,” he said. That was supposed to excite the audience, but it probably made a number of IT departments cringe a little. That’s because, unlike the mobile gaming and consumer app market, enterprise apps have a legacy problem. In many cases these apps -- productivity tools, sales force automation tools, customer relationship management systems and more -- were designed in the age of the desktop, when Microsoft Windows was still dominant. Now many of them are trying to repurpose them for smartphones and tablets, and are driven to work with iOS in part due to consumer demand.

According to J. Schwan, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Solstice Mobile, enterprises face at least three levels of readiness they need to reach before iOS 7 will bring them the maximum benefit. First is dealing with any compatibility issues: with each release, Apple has made some level of changes to its application programming interfaces (APIs) that would make certain features of older apps malfunction, or at least perform poorly.

“We’ve definitely seen with our customer’s apps that certain functionality needed to be changed just to ensure the app was running as expected,” he said.

Perhaps less obvious is the way Apple is demanding both consumer and enterprise app developers to put more thought into the look and feel of their software. Instead of replicating everyday objects -- like using an image of a file folder to represent a file folder in a computer, for example -- iOS 7 demands what Schwan calls a flatter, more content-centric design. “Most people are up on the learning curve of mobile. It’s not necessary to model them after real-world experiences,” he said.

The biggest impact, however, will be on the way Apple works to improve security and contextual awareness in iOS 7. Schwan pointed to the platform’s ability to allow “single sign-on,” which means using one password to access several work-related apps rather than logging in over and over. “Financial services clients in particular are interested in that,” he said. I would imagine the same will be true for government and retail customers, too.

Jan Dawson, an analyst with market research firm Ovum, said the addition of a fingerprint scanner in the iPhone 5S will also be welcomed by IT departments.

“There are no problems forgetting a fingerprint like you do with a password,” he pointed out. “There is arguably more security, so companies should either be neutral or positive about iOS 7, and we should see upgrades fairly quickly.”

Firms like Solstice Mobile, which offers an iOS 7 migration service for enterprises, will probably be working particularly closely on context. In other words, to what extent can the apps we use at the office not only understand what we need but offer up information to use without being asked? This is happening more and more in our personal lives with location-based tools that recommend nearby restaurants or help us speed up the process of shopping online, but it’s been slow in the enterprise space. As time goes on, the expectations of employees are being shaped by their consumer experiences, and iOS 7 may be the release that forces companies to finally catch up.

Will Apple help them? Not much, based on the scant information provided during Tuesday’s event. Schwan, however, thinks the company is slowly beginning to realize its place within enterprise IT.

“Very rarely is it part of the keynotes,” he laughs, “but it’ll definitely be part of the release notes of the SDK.”

Let’s hope so. Given the pressure for IT departments to satisfy demanding consumers lately, it would be nice if Apple would do more to “brighten their day” too.