Mobilisafe: Security Questions as Kindle Fire Pops Up in Workplace

The tech world is in the middle of a new device explosion, as manufacturers and retailers prepare for the crucial holiday sales season. And once people start firing up those new gadgets, it’ll set off a new round of security headaches back at the office.

That’s because employees are increasingly using their own smartphones and tablets to get access company systems and data, leaving corporate IT departments with a Pandora’s box of operating systems and applications to watch for possible vulnerabilities.

The trend even has its own acronym: BYOD, for “bring your own device.” To see how the latest round of product updates is affecting businesses, I checked in with Seattle startup Mobilisafe, a software-as-a-service provider that aims to help companies stay on top of their employees’ arsenal of gadgets.

Mobilisafe, which debuted its product this summer, was started by veterans of the mobile industry who came most recently from T-Mobile, and is backed by Madrona Venture Group and John Stanton’s Trilogy Equity Partners.

Mobilisafe’s tools let a company identify the mobile devices connecting to its network, with the ability to protect individual programs that employees might access, like e-mail or contact-management systems. Mobilisafe’s service also integrates with employee directory software to associate individual devices with the employees using them, giving the IT department a chance to ask workers to make security fixes or cut a certain device off from the network.

Other companies looking to make a mark in the BYOD security world include three-year-old Apperian, a Boston-based company that we profiled earlier today.

The big-picture story in mobile computing, of course, is dominated by two names: Apple and Google. The iOS and Android mobile operating systems from these companies take up the vast majority of the smartphone market. Apple is the clear leader in tablets with Android supporters trying to make inroads.

We’ve been talking a lot recently about the challengers to that two-headed beast, and the top contenders are both located in the Seattle area: Amazon and Microsoft. Microsoft has a chance to be the third crucial ecosystem in smartphones, with its hardware partner Nokia. Amazon, meanwhile, is making a strong bet on the tablet market with its Kindle Fire devices, which run a custom version of the Android OS.

So what does the new mobile landscape mean for the region’s two titans? Mobilisafe CEO Giri Sreenivas took some time away from digging into Apple’s new iOS 6 update to give me the rundown.

Sreenivas says Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets are actually starting to trickle in to the business world—an interesting development, since they’re produced and marketed primarily as a tool for consuming movies, books, and games.

That could increase with the latest round of Amazon tablets. Amazon says the new Kindle Fire HD line boasts major improvements over its first-generation cousin, including better wireless connections, faster processing, and integration with Microsoft’s widely used Exchange e-mail service.

That last part is probably the most crucial bit, since Exchange is so dominant in corporate e-mail, which is the lifeblood of most business communication.

But Sreenivas says there’s a quirk in the new Amazon Exchange client that makes it more of a challenge for IT pros—the Amazon version can be customized in a way that makes it appear as another device when it talks to a mail server.

“The Kindle Fire can masquerade as basically any mobile device you want,” Sreenivas says, making it that much more difficult for IT departments to keep track of where possible security holes might be lurking.

Amazon also runs its tablets on a customized version of the Android operating system, which is typically based on a version of Android that is one generation behind the most current release.

That means two things, Sreenivas says: The custom Amazon OS already has known security vulnerabilities that were fixed in later versions of Android, along with possibly bringing new weak spots with its own alterations.

That won’t matter much if it remains a niche product. But if Amazon can establish a strong position in the still-developing tablet market, malicious hackers might start to look for ways in.

“It’ll be interesting to see—are there vulnerabilities that are being introduced specific to Amazon?” he says. “We’ve seen this in other scenarios … it’s definitely a risk that they take on as they go down this customization path.”

As for Microsoft, the company’s Windows Phone 8 platform has a chance to make inroads in the business market, where BlackBerry once was king, Sreenivas says.

He notes the recently reported mobile policy at Yahoo, where new CEO Marissa Mayer told employees they could have an array of new phones including the Nokia Lumia 920 Windows Phone. But not any devices from the BlackBerry line.

In the broader business world, Sreenivas says Microsoft’s consolidation of software and services between Windows Phone 8, the new Windows 8 computer OS, and refreshed Office software suites could help the Microsoft phone platform’s chances of being encouraged or even supplied by companies.

That’s because, with Windows and its applications running on most business computers, it gives the IT department a more consistent thread to follow between in-office and on-the-move computing.

But make no mistake—the proliferation of mobile devices overall is now primarily driven by consumer demand, and Microsoft and Nokia have a lot of work ahead if they hope to crack the market hold of Apple and Android.

“Really, what it comes down to is, when someone walks into a carrier store—which is how the majority of Americans buy their phones today—what phones are being recommended by those reps?” Sreenivas says. “That’s going to have a significant impact on what the adoption of Windows Phone 8 looks like.”

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