Down to business: Apple products consumers don't see

Down to business: Apple products consumers don't see

A look at Apple's products and pages that aren't meant for the general public, but could be of interest to businesses and IT managers.

Everyone knows the public face of Apple. Shiny stores packed with smiling people in brightly-colored shirts. Television ads backed by carefully selected pop hits of the moment. The fashion-forward home page. The App Store. iTunes. These are all--with the exception of iTunes, which is kind of a calamity--part of a studied and practiced approach. Apple is consumer focused, and the focus shows.

Then there's the other side of Apple. I won't call it a seedy underbelly, because that's not quite right. But it's accurate to say that there are parts of Apple's connection to the world that are not consumer facing. Some of these are good, some bad, but they're all part of a backstage area that most Apple customers will never, ever see. Presenting the hidden faces of Apple...

Apple Configurator

The Apple Configurator is a Mac-based utility that lets you configure and deploy iOS devices en masse in a school or enterprise. It lets you lock down devices so they can only connect to the configurator Mac, set up a bunch of devices with identical settings, import apps and preinstall them on devices, and much more.

Volume Purchase Program

In the early days of the App Store, every single purchase was a one-at-a-time consumer purchase. I know a school tech administrator who had to create dozens (hundreds?) of Apple IDs and purchase needed apps on each one of them in order to roll out apps to every iPad in his school.

Fortunately, Apple has come a long way since then. The Volume Purchase Program lets businesses buy apps and books in bulk. Once you buy a bulk license, you can either distribute redemption codes to your users or install directly onto devices using Apple Configurator or other distribution apps.

Apple Store for business

If your business needs to buy Apple gear, don't just send an intern to go to that nearby Apple Store. Apple retail stores have dedicated employees who deal only with businesses, and have been trained to better understand business needs for Apple technology. From the outside, Apple retail does look like an entirely consumer channel, but it's not--if you know to schedule something with your business rep.

Apple online store for business

Yes, if you want to pre-order a new iPhone you can go to, but Apple has a dedicated online store for businesses, too, tied into the retail business-rep network. And if you're in higher education, there's an Apple online store for education, too.

Apple Developer programs

Apple's developer program is obviously targeted at software developers, but it's a great resource for IT managers, too. For $99 per year (for iOS and Mac, and yes, you have to pay separately if you want both) you can get access to early builds of forthcoming iOS and OS X releases. This lets you test and file bugs, hopefully sparing your users some pain when the releases go public.

These days Apple also does a public beta program, which you can have access to for free, but the pools are limited and the releases are generally limited, too. (They're fewer in number and lag behind the developer betas.) Joining Apple's developer program also gets you access to the private developer forums, which can be a great resource for solving weird technical issues.

In order to install an iOS beta, you need to go through some additional hoops. Using Apples' web-based developer tools, you need to register that device in your developer account via its unique identifier, or UDID. You can register up to 100 devices using this approach. When you install an iOS beta, the device phones home to make sure it's authorized--and if it isn't, it won't boot.

iTunes Connect

If you're not a developer you probably won't see iTunes Connect, the web-based tool that you use to submit your software to Apple. That's probably all for the best--it's a bit of a rat's nest, though it has been improved in the past few years. Apple developers like to complain about all the code-signing and profile-generating they used to have to do, and iTunes Connect can still be a source of frustration.

(Also, iTunes Connect is where developers see the status of their apps when they're in review by Apple's App Store team. I've never experienced a more frustrating moment with Apple than the moment one of my apps was rejected. I admit, it's given me a visceral dislike for iTunes Connect. Probably unfairly.)


Formerly an independent tool that helped iOS developers beta-test their apps, TestFlight was bought by Apple and integrated into its own offerings.

The result is a process that's largely better than the one that came before. TestFlight is now an iOS app that you install, and log in to with your Apple ID. Developers invite you to be a part of their TestFlight beta group via email. Each developer can have up to 100 Apple IDs in their beta group. This is a huge improvement over the old approach, which--as I mentioned above regarding iOS betas--limited each company to 100 devices per beta group.

In the old days, every time a beta tester got a new iPhone--including every fall when most of them would buy the new iPhone--you had to add those new phones and remove old devices. What's worse, removing a device didn't instantly free up spot--it took a year for those old devices to age out. It was awful.

Now it's better. Since beta groups are associated with Apple IDs, each of those 100 testers can install the beta on any of the devices associated with their Apple ID--an iPhone, two iPads, whatever. New betas are announced to testers via a push notification, and installing updates is as easy as updating an app in the App Store.

The one downside of TestFlight is that Apple has to approve betas. It appears that after an initial approval, subsequent builds are approved rapidly--but it's still an additional party in the process, sitting between developers and users.

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