Apple's walled app market makes bulk buying 'tough'

Industry watchers say Cupertino's cloistered App Store would deter schools from its recently launched Volume Purchase Program as it complicates the already bureaucratic and complex nature of the education sector.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Apple faces an uphill task convincing schools to adopt its Volume Purchase Program because its closed, rigid app store environment make access and digital rights management a pain for schools' IT administrators, said industry watchers.

Cupertino announced in August its Volume Purchase Program for schools to buy apps for students' mobile devices such as the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.

According to a report by ZDNet Asia's sister site ZDNet, schools need to appoint an "authorized purchaser" to handle the procurement and management process. The role of purchaser is important as the person's credit account will be used to buy vouchers, which will then be used to purchase apps in bulk. This adds another layer to the usual app buying process, where users just pay for their apps via their credit card instead of using vouchers, noted the report.

Once the apps are bought, the purchaser will then receive a spreadsheet of activation codes from Apple to disburse to the students, the report stated.

However, Ryan Wuerch, chairman and CEO of Motricity, said that this system is inherently flawed. He noted in an interview that the bulk buying program does not factor in the "complexities" of the education system in general, which include many layers of bureaucracy, and the integration of the mobile apps with institutions' legacy IT systems.

As a result, the smooth running of the schools' IT systems would be complicated, he argued.

Compared to other more open app marketplaces, the education sector would find Apple's walled-up App Store the "toughest" to navigate for their needs, Wuerch noted.

"Other challenges [for schools] include determining which of Apple's devices the apps should run on, the control of access to the apps and the management of such apps once students graduate," he added.

Wuerch's view is reiterated by a software designer and educator, Fraser Speirs, who blogged about the challenges he faced while using Apple's new program.

Pointing out that the process was "capital-H Hard", the Scotland-based developer said the "fundamental problem" is that App Store purchases are tied to App Store accounts. This is exacerbated by the fact that apps can only reside on five main Apple devices. Speirs painted various scenarios that could possibly address the issue but each solution had presented its own inconveniences.

"This is a hole in Apple's App Store infrastructure that the massive interest in iPads for education is exposing, in a way that the iPhone and iPod Touch never did," Speirs concluded in the blog post.

In a separate interview with tech blog Ars Technica, Speirs pointed out that the Volume Purchase Program only solves the problem of "how to buy X number of copies" of an app but does not address other issues the school faced.

"Can you bulk-create accounts that the school can 'own'? If you can't have 'institutional accounts', do you have to re-buy the app every year you get new students?" the developer wondered.

iPad not class material
Besides challenges in purchasing and management of software, the suitability of Apple's hardware, particularly the iPad, for teaching purposes was also questioned.

Paul Leong, head of department for information and communication technology at Maris Stella High School in Singapore, told ZDNet Asia in an interview that while mobility is certainly one of the iPad's main plus points, its lack of USB ports and connection to screen projectors and printers negated the device's advantage in the classroom.

He revealed the school had earlier bought two apps to test the viability of using such software to teach its students but realized that, besides the lack of hardware features mentioned earlier, the iPad does not have enough memory for the students' needs, too.

The school's current policy of working with third-party vendors to facilitate the sale of MacBooks, which come pre-configured with the required software, to students, is sufficient for now, Leong surmised.

Apple did not reply to ZDNet Asia's questions for this report.

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