How IT should prep for Apple's public OS betas

With new versions of iOS and macOS soon to arrive, here's how to get ready

As has become Apple's standard practice in recent years, the company will soon roll out public betas of iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra. Both are expected to arrive by the end of June.

Public betas can be useful for Apple and other tech companies. They accelerate feedback and can ensure that bugs — including ones that internal testing might not spot — get fixed before the final version of an operating system ships. And because public betas are exciting for early adopters who want to play with new features of an upcoming upgrade before everyone else, they tend to generate useful buzz.

While its public betas may offer a lot to Apple and to cutting-edge users, they pose big challenges for IT.

When users install betas, they can encounter bugs, issues with existing apps, and confusion about new, missing or altered functionality. That's all part of the beta-testing experience, but it can lead to any number of problems for IT when betas are installed on users' primary work devices. Devices might not function properly with existing business and enterprise apps, or even with infrastructure such as Wi-Fi networks or VPNs. They may be unstable and affect back-end IT systems in unknown ways. They could outright prevent users from accessing mission-critical work or break important company processes.

The result: increased support calls, employee downtime, unexpected problems and even a souring of the relationship between employees and IT.

In an ideal world, it would be possible to simply block users from installing betas. With some company-owned devices, that may be doable, but with BYOD and mixed-use devices, it isn't.

If banning employees from using betas isn't an option, IT needs a plan for dealing with users who install them. The best way to do that is to engage users who plan to install betas, working with them to avoid major problems. With the right relationship, these employees can even become a resource for IT in terms of preparing to support iOS 11 and/or Mac OS High Sierra the day they ship. (That's when the vast majority of users will install them.)

First, an information campaign

The first and most important step in dealing with public betas is to inform users. Make sure that every employee understands that all betas are a work in progress, that existing features may be missing, that apps may not work (or not work right), that users could experience serious problems, and that they may not be able to access key enterprise systems. In addition to focusing on these issues in the office, IT staffers should warn would-be beta-testers that they may experience all these problems at home, too.

The best piece of advice for users who still want to sign up as beta-testers is that they do so on a secondary device — not one they rely on for critical work and personal tasks.

This message should be delivered across as many channels as possible, including during support calls or other one-on-one interactions. And the tone needs to be friendly and helpful, not adversarial. Users should see IT pros as offering advice, not trying to stop them from doing something. If the message comes across as the old notion that IT is the "department of no," it could alienate workers and persuade them to go rogue.

The goal is for IT and beta-testers be on the same side. Tone matters.

You can't stop the beta from getting through your doors

Regardless of your efforts, some people are still going to sign up for Apple's betas, and some will install them on their primary devices. Most likely, many of these workers are relatively tech-savvy users, though their savviness may vary. As a result, your organization will encounter the public beta at some point this summer.

You should be able to identify who has installed the betas by using your enterprise mobility management (EMM) or network management tools. When you do, make an immediate effort to reach out to them. Alert them to potential challenges, and again recommend that they use a secondary device for any beta use. If there is a major issue with a particular beta release — and someone in IT should be tracking those issues — you can and should highlight that problem.

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Recruit beta-testers

If users insist on bringing in devices with early versions of iOS 11 or macOS High Sierra installed, you may be able to turn that to your advantage. Since you will need to be ready for most users to install a final release as soon as it comes out, you have a limited window of opportunity to work with the betas yourself, test enterprise and key third-party apps, and build a knowledge base of issues that your support teams may encounter.

That's a tall order, but if you recruit beta users, they can do a lot of that testing for you. They can see which apps have issues and which workflows need to change, and they can report to you any support issues. That gives you greater ability to prepare in terms of updating apps and developing support approaches and other resources ahead of time.

To be successful, IT staffers need to develop a close relationship with these users and actively seek their feedback. On the plus side, in addition to helping IT prepare for this fall's releases, these steps can also help build a closer relationship between IT and employees who are early adopters. This could become a useful relationship if you need beta-testers, employee advisory groups or users to take part in pilot projects.

It also helps establish IT as an ally and resource rather than an enemy, which is always of value.

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