Apple makes it easier to share 'unlisted' apps with employees, partners, and others

Apple’s most recent App Store changes should benefit business users, educators, researchers, and others who need to share apps with small groups.

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Apple’s most recent App Store improvement — adding support for unlisted apps — should help business users, educators, researchers, and others who need a consistent and limited way to share iOS or iPadOS apps with small groups of people.

Unlisted apps via the App Store

The company's decision involving unlisted apps is a welcome addition because it means you can exploit Apple’s internationally available App Store infrastructure to distribute apps to small and restricted audiences using direct links.

“Unlisted apps don’t appear in any App Store categories, recommendations, charts, search results, or other listings,” Apple explains. Instead, the company sees unlisted distribution as of potential use to specific organizations, special events, research studies, or apps used as employee resources or sales tools.

What this means is that a business that has built its own proprietary ordering-and-stock-control app, for instance,  should find it easier to furnish teams – particularly remote teams – with that or other apps they need. (Educators, researchers, and event organizers also benefit from unlisted app distribution.)

This isn’t entirely new. Until now, developers have been able to share beta apps and test software internally using TestFlight and the Developer Enterprise Program; it allows large organizations to develop and deploy proprietary, internal-use apps to their employees.

The problem is that some developers abused this facility, which avoids Apple’s app review process and, in some cases, led to the evolution of grey markets engaged in the distribution of pirated games, porn, or gambling apps on iOS. The latter is almost certainly the kind of Wild West chaotic reality that would be encouraged were Apple to be forced to permit sideloading of apps without restriction on its devices.

Unlisted apps work a little differently, as developers will be required to secure approval for their apps before they are made available as "unlisted" apps. These apps may also be accessed through Apple Business Manager and Apple School Manager.

[Also read: Triumph in adversity: Apple’s payment system opportunity]

Apple says unlisted apps can be accessed across all App Store supported regions, with distribution for limited audiences, including part-time staff, affiliates, franchisees, and business partners. It also lets you distribute apps to employee-owned devices that aren't eligible to be managed through either of the above Manager schemes.

How to get your app unlisted

Apple asks developers who want to create an unlisted app to submit a request to its busy App Store team, which some say already vets and approves 1,000 apps every day. If your app is already available via Apple Business Manager or Apple School Manager, you'll need to create a new app record and upload the software for distribution as an unlisted app.

Once your app has been approved, you will be provided with a link you can share to distribute the software. However, anyone who gets hold of that link can download and install your app.

Apple suggests “implementing a mechanism within your app to prevent unauthorized use.”

There are a couple of caveats: Apple will decline apps that are in a beta or pre-release state, so this cannot be used as a replacement for TestFlight. And Apple hasn’t yet made it 100% clear which apps will be accepted and which rejected for the scheme.

Perhaps the best guidance is that the company does stress the need for the app to be useful to a “limited audience." Conference and employee-specific apps sound like they’ll get through the process easily, but developers attempting to slip pirated copies of "Minecraf"t out via shadow app stores will have less luck, I expect.

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