In an amazing about-face for a company that has traditionally focused solely on the consumer market, Apple is showing signs of courting the enterprise. Apple's latest overture is a volume purchasing program and portal for custom iOS business-to-business apps.
The program, though, comes with a caveat: Apple gets to review business apps.
Last week, Apple introduced its App Store Volume Purchase Program for Business. The program lets a company buy a business app in bulk via a credit card. Apps come in the form of App Store redeem codes that the company emails to employees.
The volume purchase program complements Apple's existing iOS Developer Enterprise Program ($300 per year) for allowing companies to create in-house business apps for the iPhone and iPad. Apple's volume purchase program isn't live yet, but it shouldn't be too long because it's really an extension of an existing volume purchasing program aimed at the education market.
For years, Apple has forsaken the enterprise, so what's behind the turnaround? Answer: The iPad's surprisingly rapid rise in companies. Apple has claimed that three out of four of the Fortune 500 are testing or deploying iPads. Indeed, iPads have been found on the job at some of the most unusual places.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs also sees the iPad becoming much more than a consumer-friendly media device—perhaps replacing laptops in the near future. In order to do this, development, distribution and management of enterprise iOS apps must be part of the equation.
Apple's volume purchase program is a good first step toward this goal: No company cares to process thousands of expense reports that have a few dollars worth of iPad apps.
"Someone actually told me, 'I've got employees buying a $20 app with their credit cards on the App Store, expensing it, and then it costs $25 to process the expense report,'" Cimarron Buser, vice president at Apperian, an enterprise app developer platform vendor, told CIO.com.
But Apple still has far to go on the enterprise front. CIOs must make sense out of thousands of iPad apps available to employees, mandating some and recommending others. Drafting user policies on iPad apps took a lot longer than expected at one major law firm.
The volume purchase program also has a few holes. For starters, a company can't use the program for apps that are free, simply because free apps don't have a redeem code option. Without the program, a company may run into app management and record-keeping issues. After all, what's preventing anyone from downloading a free app?
Another problem is that a company on the volume purchasing program will receive basically a spreadsheet of redeem codes—not the best way to manage codes. Of course, this is an opportunity for management vendors like Apperian to fill the gap. "Emailing individual redeem codes to 30,000 employees for 10 different apps becomes fairly onerous," Buser says. "We'll be supporting this with a code management system."
Finally, there's this little gem (or wrench?) in Apple's description of the volume purchase program for custom business-to-business apps:
"Each app, as well as each version (update) of the app, submitted for custom B2B distribution goes through an app review process with Apple. The same app review guidelines for App Store apps apply to custom B2B apps... To verify that custom B2B apps meet the review guidelines, Apple will need to log in and operate the application. Work with your developer or business partner to determine how to meet this requirement with appropriate handling of proprietary or sensitive business data. You may want to provide generic test accounts or sanitized sample data to protect confidentiality for the purposes of app review."
That's right, Apple has inserted itself into the enterprise iOS app development process. Apple reviewers will need access to the app and test data. Not only will this extend an app's time to market, some companies might be turned off at the thought of being on the receiving end of Apple's infamous bullying tactics. Who can forget Apple's reactionary bikini ban?
Buser, though, isn't a critic of Apple's app review process. "Unlike the Android environment, Apple does review and curate the apps," he says. "I think it's one of the reasons you don't see a lot of the security issues that are on other platforms."
App developers can choose to forego the volume purchase program for custom business-to-business apps by staying with the in-house iOS Developer Enterprise Program. To Apple's credit, the company fixed many problems in the iOS Developer Enterprise Program, and may make similar changes to the volume purchase program down the road.
"Apple is really making an effort to reach the enterprise," Buser says. "They are creating channels and mechanisms for targeted business apps."