iPad Fleet Management for Music: MDM VS Apple Configurator


by Marin Fauvel

Fleet management: what it is and why you need it


Out with the old, in with the new. In the past few years, singers, musicians, orchestras, operas, music schools and ensembles of all kinds, be they amateur or professional, have made the switch to digital scores. Thousands have been seduced by their comfort of use, simplicity and convenience, among myriad other advantages. Like all significant changes, however, switching to digital scores requires adaptation and the learning of new techniques and processes. This is especially true if the change is to be adopted by entire ensembles and their staff.

Why do you need a fleet management solution?

It is no secret that iPads are not cheap. Their quality and reliability come at a price that can reach a significant amount when a full fleet is purchased. To make this investment last in time and harvest its full potential, continuous monitoring and periodic maintenance are required. If not optimized and done with the right tools, this necessary maintenance can be a tedious and time-consuming process.

Moreover, music is a world where excellence and, more often than not, stress, are an integral component. To foster the former and mitigate the latter, it is crucial to have control over the settings of devices in order to have them configured in an optimal way for performance. For example, it is necessary to download the required Apps and keep them up-to-date as well as the operating system, deactivate notifications, connect file-sharing services to share sheet music and media, etc. Again, setting dozens of iPads in such a way can be a dreary process, where mistakes can easily slip in.

Thankfully, fleet management solutions exist to greatly speed up such processes and ensure a uniformity of configuration, so that musicians and staff can focus on what matters: performance.

In this article, we will explore the differences between the two most common fleet management options: MDM programs and Apple Configurator.

MDM VS Apple Configurator


Definitions

What is an MDM?

MDM stands for Mobile Device Management. MDM solutions serve to remotely manage a fleet of mobile devices such as iPads. They can be used to wirelessly assign specific settings to devices (e.g. WiFi codes, restrictions, email settings, etc.), remotely update iOS and/or specific apps, remotely lock devices in case they are lost or stolen, etc.
They are also a good way to track inventory in real time and wirelessly.
There are many different MDM software providers on the market whose solutions vary in their array of functionalities, the simplicity of their user interface and, of course, their price. The great majority of them use a subscription-based pricing, charging per device and per month (usually ranging between $1 and $10/device/month).


An example of MDM: Fleetsmith


What is Apple Configurator?

Apple Configurator is a free desktop app designed by Apple to set up and manage several iOS devices at once. Contrary to MDM software, Apple Configurator cannot work remotely: the devices you wish to set up must be connected to an Apple computer (running MacOS 10.14 or later) via USB, and you can connect 30 iPads maximum at a time. To connect and sync multiple devices via USB, however, you will need a connection hub (or cart) with enough power. Keep in mind that your usual USB hub will most likely not have sufficient power to ensure safe syncing and charging of multiple iPads at once, and proper syncing hubs can be quite costly (often upwards of $500 for a capacity of 10 iPads).
Except for those who require a wireless connection, Apple Configurator’s features are similar to most MDM programs (assign specific settings and restrictions to devices, distribute and update Apps, update iOS, etc.).

Apple’s own free-to-use fleet management software: Apple Configurator


Thus, the main difference between using an MDM program or Apple Configurator lies in the ability to maintain devices remotely.


Pros and Cons

Both options have their own advantages and limitations, outlined in the two tables below.

Depending on the budget, size and needs of your institution, some of these should matter to you more than others and will orient your choice.


Apple Configurator
Some examples of syncing hubs: Bretford Powersync+, Cambrionix ThunderSync, Lockncharge iQ16
Pros Cons
Free (although requires a syncing hub to manage multiple devices at a time) USB connection necessary
Simple, intuitive interface that requires little training to use Syncing hubs can be quite expensive
Not very stable (some minor bugs)
Not the fastest option, since it still requires some manual handling of the devices

MDM
Some examples of MDM programs: JamF, Mosyle, SimpleMDM, Fleetsmith
Pros Cons
“Zero-touch” deployment Subscription to an MDM service can become quite costly with a lot of devices to manage
Wireless monitoring and reporting Some MDM solutions are not very user-friendly and require some technical knowledge
Ability to “push” updates remotely (“over-the-air”)
Ability to remotely lock or wipe devices is lost or stolen

Conclusion

As is shown in the table above, the main advantage of using Apple Configurator rather than an MDM program is the price: Apple Configurator is free to use, whilst MDM solutions incur monthly costs that vary depending on the number of managed devices. It must be pointed out, however, that although Apple’s software itself if free to download and use, the hardware that is needed to exploit its full potential is very costly: by way of example, Bretford’s best-selling syncing cart for 20 devices is priced at close to 3,000 USD. Of course, it is still possible to use Apple Configurator without high-capacity syncing carts: it is possible to set up a couple of devices at once using a computer’s USB ports. However, this will become very time-consuming as the fleet grows.

The Bretford Powersync + iPad charging cart, which we use at Newzik


This brings us to the next point: the savings made from choosing Apple Configurator over an MDM solution might quickly be offset by the costs in time that can arise with this option. MDM programs will definitely save you valuable time by offering remote deployment and monitoring. Being able to manage and update iPads “over-the-air” will be particularly handy if the members of your organization take their iPads home with them (as opposed to storing them at the rehearsal space). Indeed, it will save you the trouble of having to call back and immobilize the devices in order to conduct maintenance. Additionally, some MDM programs offer extra features such as the ability to track a device’s location and remotely lock and wipe it if it is lost or stolen. This is a big plus for security.

In conclusion, if you have a “small” fleet of less than about 30 iPads that are centrally stored (i.e. not taken home by musicians and staff), using Apple Configurator alone is a suitable option, provided that you purchase a syncing hub or do not mind putting in significant time for set up and maintenance. For larger fleets and/or if your staff take their iPads home with them, however, an MDM solution would be more fitting. It will save you a considerable amount of time and make your deployment and maintenance processes much smoother.

Unfortunately, Apple themselves do not offer an MDM solution: we would love to see a remote version of Apple Configurator… There is little hope, however, as even Apple use JamF, a third-party MDM program!