The frustrations of App Store licensing

A reader who works in the world of Big Business (and wishes to remain anonymous) finds fault with Apple’s app licensing. He writes:

How is a business supposed to manage apps that have been purchased in the Mac App Store and iTunes Store, once an employee leaves the company? We have already concluded that the user has to use a company controlled user account, but if they leave I can’t transfer that app to another user. Currently we have maybe 100 iPad and phones, but we are getting more and more MacBooks and MacBook Airs. Some of the apps cost more than $200 and yet they aren’t transferable to another user. Can you shed some light on what some other larger corporations are doing to manage their apps and appliances?

Like yours, other large corporations have turned in the general direction of Cupertino and, in the kind of coordination seen only in the medal-worthy forms of Olympic water ballet, shaken their fists in impotent rage. And they have because Apple has created a limited system for transferring iOS app licenses and no good way to transfer applications purchased from the Mac App Store.

So, what options do you have? Apple has created the App Store Volume Purchasing for Business program, which allows you to purchase iOS apps in bulk using a corporate credit card and account. It lets you purchase a license for multiple copies of an app and keep track of when they’re redeemed. If apps are deleted from a supervised device, they can be added again without using an additional license. If you use Apple’s Configurator application to remove an app from a device, you can then assign its license to a different device that’s likewise supervised by the copy of Apple Configurator on a particular Mac. If someone in the company acquired an app in a way other than through the Volume Purchase Program, there’s no way to reassign its license—it’s tied to that user’s account. This program currently applies only to iOS apps, not those purchased from the Mac App store.

Outside of this program the company could set up a specific Apple ID and password for corporate purchases and pass out that information to those who need such and such an app. But that’s fraught with problems. First, by granting multiple users the ability to use a particular app, you’re cheating the developer out of revenue. You purchased one license and therefore should use only one copy (unless, of course, you purchased a volume license). Secondly, what’s to prevent employees, other than the threat of the sack, from purchasing anything they want—apps, movies, music, TV shows, books—using that Apple ID? Thirdly, there’s always the possibility that at some future date Apple may clamp down on the number of devices you can install an app on.

Another option is that you provide the IT department with a corporate purchasing ID and demand that IT—and IT only—purchase and install apps using this ID. That removes the danger of employees abusing an Apple ID (unless those employees work in the IT department), but it doesn’t address the cheating issue plus it then forces everyone to run to IT whenever they need a new app. This is a great inconvenience to employees and an unnecessary bother to IT, who have bigger fish to fry trying to keep the Windows boxes running.

Regrettably, what this issue really needs is a more flexible policy from Apple—a method that anyone can use to transfer licenses, not just those who qualify for Apple’s volume purchase programs for business or education. It wasn’t such a big deal with iOS apps in that the vast majority aren’t intended for business use, but with the advent of Mountain Lion and Apple’s push to direct users to the Mac App Store (and the many business applications within) there needs to be a method for license transfer for everyone.

Updated 7/23/12 3:50 PM to include accurate information about reassigning licenses using Apple Configurator.

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