Deploying Apps at Work

Companies recognize that apps can help their mobile employees do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. Commercially available solutions are relatively easy to find and download—just go to the App Store. But the delivery of custom-developed apps isn't always as simple and straightforward. There are multiple approaches to this and each has its own advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation.

Commercial apps: App Store self-service

Let's say that an organization wants to deploy a cloud-based solution like or in order to give their employees access to the systems and data they need to be productive wherever they might be. Since both and, as well as thousands of other cloud software providers for businesses, have apps in the App Store, the company can simply direct their workers to the App Store to download those apps. They can even send out e-mails that include direct links to those apps in the App Store. The advantage of this approach is that it is really simple. However, it only works for commercially available apps and each employee must have an iTunes account.

Custom Apps: Enterprise distribution

Some organizations want to develop and deploy their own in-house solutions. These include customer databases, sales order entry, executive dashboards, employee directories, requisition requests, help desk requests, and even apps for things like accessing the daily cafeteria menu. Distributing this type of app through the public App Store may not be appropriate. Fortunately, iOS 4.0 gives enterprises the ability to set up their own internal enterprise app catalogs with over-the-air deployment and app installation. While the actual installation of apps requires the user to select them to be installed, the app catalog itself can be deployed over the air via the iOS Device Management APIs.

This capability is very powerful, but Apple has very strict controls over who can receive an enterprise certificates. To be able to do this, Apple requires that companies have at least 500 employees.

Custom apps: Ad Hoc distribution

Companies with less than 500 employees need to use Ad Hoc distribution to deploy in-house apps. The limitations of Ad Hoc deployments are as follows: they require the UDID (Universal Device IDentifier) to be signed into each custom application; deployment is limited to 100 devices; and they cannot be installed over-the-air requiring a physical cabled connection using either iTunes or the iPhone Configuration Utility.

This presents a difficult challenge to organizations with less than 500 employees but more than 100 devices that need custom apps. For organizations that only need to deploy apps to less than 100 devices, this approach can be adequate although it's not quite as user-friendly as the enterprise distribution model.

Future possibilities

Over-the-air deployment of in-house enterprise apps has been a long-awaited feature that was only recently implemented by iOS 4.0. In the future, Apple should continue to improve these options by including the ability to centrally deploy enterprise apps and install them on iOS devices without requiring any user involvement. Additionally, they will hopefully provide better solutions to organizations with less than 500 employees.

Understanding the options for app distribution

January-February 2011
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