Apple releases iOS 7.1 - Exchange administrators applaud (or not)

Apple has released iOS 7.1 and I am sure that all the iPhone and iPad users will extend their thanks to the technical wizards of Cupertino. Exchange administrators might cast a cold eye on the news though, mainly because of Apple's stellar track record in coding mail interaction with Exchange via ActiveSync. This release might be great. Then again, it might not. Time for testing...

The news that Apple has released iOS 7.1 creates an opportunity for Exchange administrators to get ahead of any potential problems in the interaction between the iOS mail app and Exchange ActiveSync (EAS). The rule is simple – test the new release before your users upgrade their iPhones and iPads and check that everything works, including the usually problematic areas of calendaring.

For those who don’t remember previous issues, iOS 6 capped a series of problems over several releases with “meeting hijacking.” The severity of this problem had an upside in that it forced Apple and Microsoft to sit down and work out how Apple could improve the code in their mail app that calls EAS to synchronize with Exchange while Microsoft worked on server-side improvements to bulletproof EAS against the demands of errant clients. iOS 7 came along with the new iPhone 5s. There haven’t been so many problems of issues with this release but it did create a new challenge in providing users with a way around EAS security.

Microsoft's work on EAS seems to be of value as fewer problems with issues such as bad client transactions causing excessive growth of transaction logs are seen, especially with the latest versions of Exchange 2010 and Exchange 2013

Apple delivers operating system updates to devices through iTunes in the same way as updates to apps are provided. Users don’t think too much about upgrading their devices and Apple boasts an impressive record of the percentage of devices that run the latest operating system when compared to Android. By the end of December 2013, 78% of Apple iOS devices were reported to have upgraded to iOS 7, which is pretty good by any yardstick.

The fact that users (and iTunes) drive the upgrade pattern poses some challenges for Exchange administrators. Sure, you can put EAS device access rules in place to block devices running the new software, but who’s going to do that when it’s likely that senior executives will be among the first to upgrade their devices. The hassle and the heartache wouldn’t be worth the user reaction.

Having made the switch to Windows Phone a long time ago because I consider it a superior operating system and care not a lot about the vast majority of apps available to iOS users, I am not in a position to make any comment about the value of iOS 7.1, especially in a corporate environment. But that’s not really the point – the new release is there, users will upgrade whether you like it or not, and the consequences of any lurking bug will soon be revealed.

My recommendation is that Exchange administrators make it their practice to upgrade iPhone and iPad devices as quickly as they learn about new software updates and then test, test, and test again. It’s better if you find a bug and get ahead of the game before users do. Or maybe you like risk. Be safe. Upgrade and test. I bet the Office 365 people are doing that - after all, they support a hell of a lot of iOS users!

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Tony Redmond

Tony Redmond is a senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and the author of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press) and Microsoft Exchange Server 2013 Inside Out: Mailbox...
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