Why Apple's latest tweaks to app purchasing give it a big enterprise advantage

No longer required for bulk app purchases. Credit: Sean MacEntee via Flickr

In addition to making huge amounts of information about iOS security and deployment available to IT departments and launching a new enterprise-friendly zero-touch setup and management solution for iPhones and iPads, Apple tweaked its volume purchase and licensing program for apps this week. The change -- the ability for businesses to license apps using a purchase order -- may seem somewhat small and easy to overlook, particularly next to the enormous time-saving capabilities of the new Device Enrollment Program, but it's actually a very important change for many companies.

IT procurement, as well as other big and small purchases, is done using purchase orders in the vast majority of businesses, particularly large organizations and for bulk hardware or software purchases. Using a credit (or debit) card, which until now was the only way to buy or license apps through Apple's Volume Purchase Program for business customers, is far less common and often more cumbersome.

Earlier: Apple just got serious about listening to IT -- here's what you need to know | Why Apple's new Device Enrollment Program is a game changer for IT

The reason that purchase orders exist is to keep tabs on and limit how much money managers or rank and file employees spend. It also controls what they spend money on. A purchase order can buy new equipment, software, and supplies. It cannot be used for unapproved purchases like an extravagant dinner, a night of bar hopping or gambling, or buying expensive personal items like an 80-inch TV for your living room. A corporate credit can often be used for such personal or unapproved uses, but for that reason, most employees and even managers aren't given a corporate credit card.

Even in organizations that make such cards more available, there is often paperwork or hoops to jump thought to either have a card issued or to use an existing card. Managers need to justify that they need access to a credit card and cannot use another option to make a purchase. They also need to proof that they will use it in approved or appropriate ways.

By enabling IT leaders and line of business managers to make app purchasing decisions with a purchase order shows that Apple is listening to their needs. It is a movement to align the App Store with conventional business processes. In that result it's an extension of Apple's Managed Distribution that allows apps to licensed by an organization, assigned to individual users, revoked when a user leaves the company or no longer needs them, and reassigned to other users. You could call this evolution the enterprise-zation of the App Store.

As MobileIron's ?Vice President of Strategy Ojas Rege put it to me when iOS 7 launched in 2013, Apple's move in allowing a traditional model of app licensing is a "huge competitive advantage" that Apple is building into the iOS ecosystem. Allowing app licensing by purchase order extends that advantage significantly. Perhaps the biggest advantage for Apple with this shift is that it differentiates iOS from Android in a way that isn't technical. It's an argument that finance managers and executives can understand and quantify more than abstract technical concerns like platform fragmentation and security risks associated with Android. 

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