9 ways to get more out of Apple's Volume Purchase Program

Credit: Ben Garney via Flickr

When Apple designed the iOS App Store nearly five years ago, the company focused on creating an effortless way for individual users to find, purchase, and download apps. In the years since the store was launched, however, the iPhone and iPad have become critical business tools. In trying to reconcile the App Store's consumer-oriented approach with the needs of businesses (and schools) that need to bulk purchase app licenses, Apple created its Volume Purchase Program (VPP).

The program allows a company or school to purchase redemption codes for specific apps. When users redeem those codes, they can download the apps at no cost in much the same way that they could redeem a gift code for a song or movie (or app). The codes, which are delivered in a spreadsheet, can redeemed manually or in conjunction with mobile management solution. The program is an uneasy marriage of consumer and business approaches to software licensing, particularly in how it handles app ownership. Outside of a few exceptions the user redeeming a code becomes the effective owner of each app - even if the device belongs to the employer.

Although the Volume Purchase Program may not be the best app and license management solution, these tips and lesser-known features can help make the VPP work for most offices or schools.

The needs and workflows of a company or non-profit organization are typically different than those of a school or university. As a result there are some key differences between the business and education programs. 

  • Apps and books - The education version of the VPP lets schools and universities buy books as well as apps for students and teachers. This feature, which is primarily designed for purchasing electronic textbooks, allows ebooks to purchased and distributed to devices in the same manner as apps. There is one caveat to buying ebooks and that is that ebook codes must be redeemed by students (or instructors) using their personal Apple ID. Once redeemed the codes cannot be reused and the students maintain ownership of the ebooks.
  • Ebook updates - One interesting feature of Apple's iBookstore is that it allows publishers to update books. This is a particularly useful feature when it comes to textbooks, which are periodically updated by their publishers. This means that students, who will continue to have access to their digital texts and reference books after taking a class will have access to the latest versions of them. Although this is a nice feature for any student, it probably has the most value for high school and college students.
  • Bulk education pricing - Another key difference between the business and education versions of the VPP is that Apple allows developers to offer education discounts. Provided a school purchases 20 or more licenses for an app, the developer can offer a discount. That discount can be as much as half the standard pricing for the app.
  • Tax-exempt purchases - Depending on the country and region, schools and other organizations may qualify to purchase good or services without paying sales or other taxes. This generally affects non-profit organizations or NGOs. As a general rule, Apple will grant VPP customers in a jurisdiction where apps and ebooks are subject to taxation the ability to purchase apps tax-free if they meet government tax-exempt requirements.
  • Program management and purchasing - The education VPP separates program management and app purchasing into distinct roles. Enrolling in either program requires that an organization define at least one program manager and one program facilitator (there is no limit to the number of additional program managers or facilitators). Program managers are tasked primarily with creating and managing accounts for program facilitators. Facilitators are generally the people selecting and purchasing apps. Each program manager and facilitator account requires its own unique Apple ID (existing personal Apple IDs cannot be used). Even if a single person is performing the tasks of a program manager and facilitator for a school, he must use the Apple ID associated with each account to accomplish role-specific tasks. Purchases can be made with a credit card, procurement card, PayPal account, or with special education vouchers that program managers can purchase and provide to facilitators. The business VPP is more streamlined and essentially merges these two roles, but, like the education VPP, it does require unique Apple IDs. Business purchases can be made with a credit card, procurement card, or PayPal account.
  • Organization-owned apps vs. personally owned apps - One of the biggest issues organizations have with Apple's VPP approach is the fact that app ownership is tied to the user who redeems a VPP code. This means that organizations need a strategy to define app ownership. The easiest approach is to use organization-specific Apple IDs, in which case all apps and devices are owned by the employer or school. But this system breaks down quickly in a BYOD scenario where the employees or students own an iPhone or iPad and rely on their own Apple ID to purchase personal apps as well as to link the device to their iCloud account and other devices at home.
  • You can mix app ownership models - It is possible to mix the two approaches, particularly if you use the free Apple Configurator utility (or a mobile management tool that supports Configurator workflows) to deploy apps and/or device configurations. In those situations, users retain the ability to use employer-purchased apps along with personal apps. In iOS 6, Apple simplified this mixed ownership model somewhat by not requiring a user's Apple ID and password to perform certain app-related tasks like installing app updates. Even with these tweaks, however, there is room for improvement.
  • Reclaiming app licenses with Configurator - The greatest advantage to using Configurator for app deployment is that it allows organizations to reclaim app redemption codes when a device is retied from service. While Configurator may be a good choice for app deployment, it isn't without its own issues. One of which is that unless an iOS device is explicitly removed from supervision via Configurator, it cannot be easily restored using iTunes another Mac or a PC (though a DFU restore has been shown to work around that issue).
  • Custom B2B apps for business - One issue with the consumer focus of Apple's iOS developer program and the App Store is that they're designed around a mass market approach to selling apps. Create an app, get it approved, and then anyone can buy it. The other alternative is to develop an app in-house and distribute it to employees privately. But customized versions of apps that have tailored to a specific company or industry and sold through a business to business channel are problematic because they don't fit into either of those two molds. Apple has chosen to address this issue rather quietly. The business VPP allows companies to sell business to business apps, though the process is still done via the App Store and VPP program.
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