The Basics: Apple Business Manager

What is it, who's it for, and how to get started.

What is Apple Business Manager?

Are you working on an internal build-and-release process? Do you need an enterprise iOS app that's readily available and constantly updated, but you don’t want it open to the public?

The basic purpose of Apple Business Manager is to manage your enterprise app, your users, and their devices either from the App Store or from a custom distribution point, all via one platform. It integrates with any type of custom development you're doing, whether it’s in-house customizations or with partners and vendors.

If you want to push an update, you don’t have to rely on the users to do it themselves, it can be pushed via the Business Manager. Same for removing the app, or remote wiping, or onboarding new employees with a preloaded device.

Who’s it good for?

It’s built for mid-enterprise-level app use. If you're working for, say, a big insurance or health company with something like 5,000 employees spread out in separate locations, then a “closed-system” app built for sales or engineering or HR teams can be valuable.

If you’ve got 50 sales reps that are starting next month, you can push the app to all 50 devices simultaneously. A Department of Education can distribute the app to individual teachers to log grades and scores.

Who’s it not good for?

It’s probably a bit much for most small organizations (30 employees or less). Especially if they have a staff that isn’t globally dispersed.

Who manages and maintains it on your end?

Typically, your IT Department would set it up and own the management, maintenance, and distribution. In big organizations, however, it’s not uncommon for the management to be shared via view-only, app manager, or administrator roles. 

A sales team might have 10 Salesforce licenses, and an engineering team may have an enterprise license of Trello. Those can all be managed via Apple Business Manager, and a member of the respective teams can handle the responsibility of adding and managing users and their devices.

What’s its origin story?

Apple Business Manager grew from Apple’s Volume Purchasing Program, VPP, which allowed large companies to license a bulk set of apps all at once, then distribute those apps to users based on their Apple ID.

VPP is great, but Business Manager takes it a step further, so you’re not just distributing the licenses across devices, but actually managing the devices themselves.

How much does it cost?

It’s free. A lot of talk on the forums is about switching over to Business Manager from the Volume Purchase Program once those purchases have expired.

How painless is the setup?

Pretty painless. If you’ve ever distributed or set up an app on TestFlight, then the dashboard should be straightforward. The UI is very intuitive.

It’s really easy to manage, even for people who aren’t as technically savvy, because it’s a very simple user management kind of platform. You don’t have to use a scripting language, which helps. It’s dashboard-driven. That’s one of the improvements from the Volume Purchasing Program, which is very scripting-heavy. In the olden days (2017), your IT group would have a folder full of scripts that they had to run to get an app working. Business Manager has streamlined and created a lot of bulk actions.

What are my first steps?

You need to set up your Apple developer’s account, which will give you a distribution ID. Once that’s in hand, you can set up Apple Business Manager. Terms and conditions apply … and have to be accepted, of course. 

There are a few additional settings that you pick, like will you use MDM services. If so, will you have your own mobile device manager or will you use Apple’s new mobile device manager made specifically for Apple Business Manager.

Is Apple Business Manager for Apple devices only?

Yes. The automation that happens through Apple Business Manager only works for App Stores.

You can use Microsoft Intune, but it’s a pretty manual process. With Intune, I can’t tell if my employees downloaded it or if they’re on the right version. With Apple Business Manager there’s a lot more control. I can see when they installed it, or I can push the install for them. I can also see a list of all of my users and what versions everybody’s on. Consider Intune if your product plan requires iOS, Android, and Windows apps.

What should I think about before diving in?

Add buffer time to everything. The process of distributing an app always needs more time than you think:

  • Your developer builds it, you test it in QA, you make a package 
  • Upload that package to App Store Connect*
  • Submit your app for review
  • The app goes to Business Manager once the review has been accepted

The time between your submission for review and when it actually shows up in Business Manager can be tricky to predict. Sometimes the review will take two hours and it’s available on Apple Business Manager in 30 minutes. Sometimes not. So, if you have a tight release schedule, with sales reps and stakeholders waiting anxiously, build in that buffer time getting from points A to B to C. 

(*Connect, appropriately enough, is the connector between the developer and the actual app distribution.)

What could be improved?

The Help section, at present, is a little light. It’s just so new, everybody’s on a learning curve. Typically, when you call Apple Support you go through about five folks before you get to somebody who can tell you what you need to know. 

Again, that’s why buffer time is essential, because the error messages can be a bit vague. We recently got an error trying to distribute an app, and we went over the error again and again until we discovered it was because we did an update over the weekend. In App Store Connect, our settings were set to business days.

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