New Windows Phone security necessary, but not groundbreaking

Microsoft, which is far behind Apple and Google in the smartphone market, has introduced a number of security features in Windows Phone that are not groundbreaking, but necessary to attract businesses.

The improvements are part of Windows Phone 8.1, which Microsoft executives unveiled Wednesday during the opening keynote of the Build developer conference in San Francisco.

For consumers, a major feature in the upgrade was the Cortana talking personal digital assistant. Similar to Apple Siri and Google Now, Cortana will assist Windows Phone users with their scheduling, reminders, Web searches and other services.

For businesses, the critical features revolved around security and mobile device management (MDM).

For MDM, Microsoft has built a client that IT organizations can use to manage devices from their system of choice, such as Windows Intune, MobileIron, Citrix, SAP and Sophos. Through enrollment in the MDM system, IT administrators can take charge of a large set of configuration policies, email, Office 365 accounts, certificates for user authentication, VPN and Wi-Fi profiles and apps.

The operating system also supports remote business data removal when a device is lost or stolen and sandboxes apps to protect against malware.

Microsoft has also added support for S/MIME, a standard the vendor is using to encrypt and sign email from the Outlook client. IT staff can also configure S/MIME policies to comply with company policies.

"This is sound, standards-based encryption, including in-transit and in the cloud, but is not very widely used, even in enterprise settings," Ted J. Eull, vice president of mobile services at viaForensics, said.

Other features include app-specific virtual private network (VPN) capabilities through support of IPsec and SSL VPN gateways. Through the MDM system, the VPN tunnel can be initiated automatically when an app is accessed.

VPN vendors supporting the Windows Phone capabilities include Checkpoint, Dell SonicWall, F5 and Juniper Networks.

The latest OS also supports certificate management through the MDM system. Certificates can be used to authenticate against an Exchange Server, Intranet Web server, VPN, Wi-Fi and line-of-business apps.

"These security features are not dramatic or industry-moving updates, but expected standards that Windows needs to have to compete with iOS for enterprise market share," Eull said.

Wolfgang Kandek, chief technology officer for security firm Qualys, agreed the security features were important for Windows Phone, but would unlikely have much of a market impact, as long as people preferred iOS and Android devices.

"Great new features for IT administrators for Windows phones, but the battle for the smartphone customer will not be decided by IT admins, but the end-user, which will have to be convinced through consumer features," Kandek said.

The global market share for Windows Phone is just under 4 percent, while Android is almost 80 percent and Apple is 15 percent, according to IDC.

Companies choosing Windows Phone 8.1 will have the option of registering with Microsoft for an enterprise account that establishes a private app catalog for securely distributing apps under the control of the MDM system. Each app can be pushed to the device, updated or removed. Apps from the Windows Phone store can also be published through the catalog.

For developers, Microsoft has designed Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update, also introduced at Build, so that the OSes share 90 percent of the application programming interfaces (APIs). This means applications can be created for both platforms more easily.

Windows Phone 8.1 will be available April 8 on new phones, Microsoft said. Current Windows Phone users will get the update at no charge in the next few months.

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