The market for Mobile Device Management solutions is heating up, with a number of significant announcements at Mobile World Congress suggesting that the big mobile technology vendors are no longer willing to let niche players control the field.

Traditionally, MDM has been the preserve of specialist vendors such as AirWatch, Good Technology, MobileIron, Absolute Software and Zenprise (now owned by Citrix). These companies help organisations to cope with the influx of new devices into the workplace by enabling over-the-air distribution of applications, data and configuration settings.

MDM technology plays a key role in the transition to bring-your-own-device (BYOD) within organisations, because it allows the IT department to maintain control of the company's data assets, even when this data is being accessed remotely from a mobile device, over a public network. 

Interest in the technology has been growing rapidly over the last few years, and the companies that play in the space have been doing very well out of it. AirWatch announced only this week that it has raised a massive series A round of $200 million (£132m) led by Insight Venture Partners, in what is thought to be the biggest investment in an enterprise company this year.

Larger software vendors such as SAP and IBM have also developed MDM offerings, but these are often just addendums to their existing offerings and focus primarily on protecting and managing their own applications.

The handset vendors have now decided that they want a piece of the pie. On Monday, Samsung announced an improved version of its SAFE management and security system for Android smartphones and tablets that allows users to adopt a dual persona or “containerisation” approach, where corporate and personal data are kept in separate spaces on the Android OS. 

Known as KNOX, Samsung said its new software protects against data leaks, viruses and malware. The company has written more than 700 APIs that can be used to help IT shops customise BYOD security policies in partnership with existing MDM vendors. 

“KNOX demonstrates Samsung’s growing appreciation of the security and management needs of enterprise users and the value of integrating such features into its Android smart devices out of the box,” said Tony Cripps, devices and platforms analyst at Ovum. 

“This could be an important differentiator over most of Samsung’s Android device rivals, for which bring-your-own-device and other enterprise mobility initiatives largely take a back seat.”

In fact, KNOX has been interpreted as a strategic move against BlackBerry, whose dominance in the enterprise has been waning in recent years. BlackBerry is making a concerted effort to win back customer loyalty with its new operating system, BlackBerry 10, which includes a similar dual persona feature called BlackBerry Balance.

The idea of both Samsung KNOX and BlackBerry Balance is that enterprise applications and personal applications are kept completely separate on the operating system. No data can be passed from one part of the phone to the other, so the enterprise data is safe from any malware that is downloaded on the personal side of the phone.

When a member of staff leaves the company, the IT department can wipe the enterprise section of the phone, leaving the personal section intact, and critical business data safe within the company.

Given that the number of distinct Android malware specimens detected is expected to reach one million this year, IT managers will no doubt welcome Samsung's attempt to introduce better corporate controls for the platform. However, there is one fatal flaw, which is that the MDM offering only works on Samsung's own handsets.

This may not have been a problem in the days when enterprises would regularly bulk-buy mobile handsets for their employees, (Blackberry's original route into the enterprise), but in a BYOD world IT managers need solutions that will work cross-platform.

BlackBerry Enterprise Server does just that, so Samsung's move is an effort to challenge BlackBerry not just at the handset level, but as the mobile platform of choice at the heart of the enterprise. Despite BlackBerry's recent woes, that will be a hard task.

Citrix's new XenMobile MDM solution meanwhile claims to eliminate the need for businesses to procure multiple point solutions by bundling MDM with Citrix CloudGateway. The company claims that this gives organisations complete mobile freedom, because all devices, apps and data can be managed and secured with a single solution.

“In today's complex enterprise mobility environment that includes a mix of corporate and employee-liable devices, companies need solutions that allow them to manage devices, data, and apps,” said Stephen Drake, program VP mobile enterprise at IDC.

“By offering a platform for mobile enterprise management that gives options, Citrix can help give customers the peace of mind that, if their needs change, the platform can adjust.”

It does seem more logical and cost-effective for IT managers to adopt this approach. Even Samsung seems to acknowledge this, and is working with Citrix to deliver integrated solutions that leverage the Citrix enterprise mobility portfolio.

However, even a company as well known as Citrix will have to work hard to prove that XenMobile is better than any of the existing MDM solutions offered by the likes of AirWatch and Good – companies that already have a firm foothold in a lot of enterprise markets. 

It is not yet clear who the winners or losers will be in the MDM market. While many vendors have cottoned onto the idea that this is a lucrative area, the models for distribution are still relatively untested. As security experts often point out, the biggest threat to mobile security is malware, so future solutions that manage to combine anti-malware and MDM are likely to be very popular.

One option might be for the more autonomous vendors to become MDM brokers, pulling together packages of interoperable solutions that are tailored to fit the needs of particular organisations. This would allow vendors to concentrate on providing management solutions for their own products without having to worry about anyone else's.

Ultimately, it will be the solutions that offer the greatest flexibility and broadest protection and control, with the least amount of costly integration work needed, that will win out.