How to handle software for small business employees in an app store world?

Written by Jason Grigsby on

App stores have been great for consumers and developers. One-click purchasing is awesome. But as a small business owner, they cause us nothing but grief.

In the boxed software world, I knew that if we bought iWorks, that the company owned it. It became an asset of the company. And if we were really good, we could keep track of the serial numbers of the software we bought so that if anything happened to the physical media, we could still install the software.

The app store makes this much harder. All of us are on Macs here at Cloud Four. And while the computers we use are owned by the company, we all use our Macs to buy music, videos, and software that is for personal use.

In fact, it is much easier for everyone to simply use their personal iTunes account so that their purchases sync across multiple devices. It isn’t perfect, but it works well enough.

Until we need to buy some software for work. If the we buy the software using our personal account, it is encrypted and tied to our personal iTunes account. There is no way to transfer it to another person if we leave the company or if we simply no longer have use for the software and someone else does.

In truth, the software should be owned by the company. The company should be able to buy software and move it to whatever machine makes the most sense now or in the future.

But as far as I can tell, there is no way to do this. There is a business volume purchasing program, but that only applies for a minimum of 20 license purchases which doesn’t make sense for us. There is a similar business app store for iOS, but only certain apps participate and if they don’t, then you’re out of luck.

I’ve talked to another company that buys employees gift cards so they can buy apps. But whether it is gift cards or reimbursements, it doesn’t get around the basic problem that the software is cryptographically signed and associated with someone’s personal account instead of the company account.

Does anyone have a solution for this? Is there some obvious solution for small businesses that I’m missing? How do other companies handle this?

Jason Grigsby

Jason Grigsby is one of the co-founders of Cloud Four, Mobile Portland and Responsive Field Day. He is the author of Progressive Web Apps from A Book Apart. Follow him at @grigs.

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Very curious to hear how this is solved (by others).

We certainly run into this where I work (product development team for the online portion of OregonState University). We’ve acquired two ipads, and various apps on them, and it’s all setup with my work email for account, a office manager’s department credit card, using a separate gmail account for actual email. I store the ipad accout’s password within each cover, so that I can just hand them off to coworkers. (I have a totally separate personal apple id and iPad/iPhone/etc., which I use at home). It’s been mildly frustrating to make sure each iPad stays updated with each downloaded app.

Seems like it would make most sense to create a corporate virtual person, with their own email address, credit card, and fake physical attributes – since all purchased assets should belong to the company in the end. (while I’ve tried to do this, I can’t secure a unique work email without paying some other department to maintain it. And a few weeks ago I logged into google drive to help edit some meeting notes – and google+ stopped me to demand more personal details. and then suspended my account for review (probably because i used a nonstandard name? or refused to specify gender? I dunno).

The only “real” solution, from both an economic and legal perspective, is for the Company to purchase the hardware and to clearly state that it owns (the licenses to) all software installed on the device; and it owns all work produced and stored on the device.

Employees can use their own personal device for music and games. Not the business-owned device.

BTW, I think there are more bulk licensing options if you are PC based. You’d probably save a heck of a lot of money and never notice the difference (except for the glares you’d get in coffee shops).

The BYOD evolution has not addressed either software license ownership nor work-for-hire requirements to safely protect a business. Separate devices remain a necessity.


I can’t speak for everyone at Cloud Four, but I couldn’t perform my job on a PC. Some of the software I need only runs on OS X. I’d comment on your assertion that we’d never know the difference, but that conversation would likely devolve into a religious argument.

I was under the impression that the B2B program solved these issues. From what I saw, I thought any App Store app can be purchased through this program. I need to do more research into this — I did some previously but need to review again — so remind me next time we talk and ill tell you what I found out.

Why not just set up a new iCloud account for each employee, and don’t give them the password? They can leave their iDevice logged into their personal account most of the time for music and stuff. When it comes time to buy or update corporate software, an IT minion goes to Settings>iTunes & App Stores, logs them out, logs them in with the new account, buys what the company needs them to have, then logs them out again. Employee logs back in with personal password.

If an employee leaves, you use the existing duplicate iCloud account to load the purchased software onto the new employee’s iDevice. That leaves a rogue copy of the app out there in the world, but since the ex-employee doesn’t have the password, it’ll succumb to Update Rot within a year or so.

It’s a bit of a PITA, but I wouldn’t think it’s unmanageable.

Well and this is why piracy flourishes within small to medium sized companies more or less. This is why Microsft and Apple i guess have complete legal departments with communicators on phone for whole days just calling around to companies and check what software they are using.


I’m *so* sorry all of you Apple folks are having so much problems handling the business acquisition and usage of Apple apps!

I run a small web shop. We’re all Android users, by the way, since if the entire world were using the Apple model, we’d all be veritable serfs of corporate overlords, unable to even share apps between coworkers that the corporation had ostensibly bought outright.

Here’s how we do it in my small shop:

1. Someone sees an app they like and requests permission to purchase; it’s granted.
2. The corp purchaser logs into Amazon’s (preferred) or Google’s app store and purchases the app using the corporate Android account, corporate credit card, etc.
3. The purchaser then downloads the APK install file, and copies it to the shared Network drive.
4. Everyone interested in the app will download it from the drive, stick it on their devices.
5. If multiple people want it, since they’re usually so cheap, we almost always go ahead and buy an additional copy per active seat.

I’m so sorry you can’t do that with Apple, but we knew that from the get-go and I believe we made the right choice by steering clear of that lack of first sale rights.

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