With ‘unlisted apps,’ Apple makes another enterprise move

The company’s decision to allow unlisted apps in its App Store could be a boon for smaller companies. But it could heat up rivalries between Apple other MDM players.

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Apple’s decision to allow “unlisted apps” in its App Store marks a major departure from the company’s decade-plus approach for app distribution and management. And while it might help the company bolster its enterprise push, Apple could find itself facing even more competition from other mobile device management (MDM) players.

In a nutshell, Apple’s plan allows developers to distribute apps through the company’s App Store that don’t show up in search or when users browse the store. Instead, developers get a URL linking to their app that they can then share with users. (The apps still need to go through the App Store review process and beta or pre-release versions aren’t allowed — Apple already offers developers tools for beta apps to be shared for testing purposes.) Apple also stressed that unlisted apps should be useful only to a limited number of people.

The likely beneficiaries of this option? Businesses and higher education who can use unlisted apps as a lightweight way to distribute software to employees, students, or business partners. The move to ease app distribution will probably be most useful for small to mid-size organizations.

Until now, Apple has relied on its MDM platform to provision and deploy apps. IT teams can either auto-install selected apps (both public and private, internal apps) or host an enterprise app store that allows users to browse and download apps to their Macs, iPhones, iPads, or Apple TVs.

MDM still offers important controls for app management. Chief among these is the ability to remove apps and securely delete corporate information (such as when an employee leaves the organization). Although Apple encourages developers to include a mechanism within any unlisted apps to prevent unauthorized use, doing so might not deliver the same security that can be applied using MDM.

Apple also specifically suggests that the feature be targeted at employee-owned devices that aren’t eligible for MDM enrollment.

Disincentivizing MDM and EMM platforms

Based on the information Apple has so far provided, it’s hard to see how the move won’t deprecate the use of MDM. In that sense, it follows a trend of Apple providing its own enterprise management solutions — especially the release of Apple Business Essentials, a device management system for SMBs (defined as having no more than 500 employees). The latter move has put Apple into competition with its enterprise mobility management (EMM)  partners.

When Apple unveiled its MDM platform in 2010, it stressed that it was doing so in a way that allowed other vendors to actually build the tools that plug into it. The initial wave of companies to take part has since contracted to a few, most of whom now offer comprehensive device management across an array of platforms that include Apple devices, PCs, Android handsets, and Chromebooks. Most also offer integration with other enterprise platforms — and several are included as part of a whole IT stack delivered by companies such as Microsoft, VMWare, Citrix, and Cisco.

Moving toward a larger MDM offering?

Although Apple’s moves here specifically target smaller organizations and those that are Apple-only, it’s easy to see how this could make the company a larger player in EMM. The existence of Apple Business Manager and its ability to connect Apple device management to other enterprise identity systems — Azure Active Directory or Google Workspace — shows that Apple has the pieces in place to develop a comprehensive strategy, not unlike Azure AD and Microsoft Intune.

It’s also easy to see this as an evolution of Apple’s defunct server platform, which did include Apple device management capabilities. The real question now is how this might evolve into a consolidated solution that works with larger organizations — not just those with fewer than 500 employees.

How does this affect the EMM industry?

Another big question is what does this mean for the EMM industry. When the company launched Apple Business Essentials, most EMM vendors — particularly those that focus on solutions for Apple products — were publicly welcoming. The overall sentiment was that many companies could start with Business Essentials and eventually outgrow it, effectively creating a feeder system for EMM firms.

But if Apple’s strategy continues to evolve around its own capabilities, it could wind up competing more directly with its enterprise partners for device management and app distribution (by expanding to larger organizations). That could also happen if Apple builds workplace collaboration tools that rival Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace. Apple Business Essentials includes document sharing via iCloud, and Apple’s iWork apps have collaboration capabilities and can work across different file types (most notably, those in Office).

Even though the EMM industry has consolidated over the past decade, those other management platforms aren’t going to disappear. They’ve already become integrated with other parts of the IT stack and offer support for non-Apple devices and computers.

Unlisted apps as a cost-saving move?

For mostly or all-Apple shops, a solid solution from Apple is going to be tempting — and it could be more cost effective than other options.

Cost is another issue with unlisted apps: companies (of whatever size) that don’t want to invest in a robust EMM solution can use unlisted apps as a way to distribute internal apps at essentially no cost. Until now, there wasn’t a way to do that except by using MDM platforms. Now, there is — and some companies will opt for the free option. In fact, having that option could even spur more organizations to invest in developing apps.

A niche play, or more?

Apple is portraying its rollout of unlisted apps as a sort of niche solution and specifically mentions what it sees as the immediate use-cases (part-time employees, franchisees, partners, business affiliates, higher-education students, or conference attendees). But that doesn’t mean unlisted apps will remain a niche solution; it’s easy to see how they could be used more broadly.

Though it’s too soon to know which way the App Store/MDM/EMM ecosystems will evolve, it’s easy to see the big picture: Apple is spreading its enterprise roots deeper and more broadly into the business space.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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