How to Publish White-Label Apps in the App Store

Many companies and organizations would benefit by providing an app to supplement their core products or services. Better yet, broaden their customer base using apps. Among the common business cases are:

  • Restaurants, fast-food, and take-outs can provide table reservation or delivery services through an app. Including payment or pre-payment via Apple Pay – even real-time offers via push notifications.
  • Radio and television could broadcast wider through the Internet and at better fidelity than what FM and UHF band allocations can provide.
  • Magazine and newspaper companies can extend their subscriptions to electronic media and provide offline electronic copies to subscribers immediately upon publishing.

However “making apps” is not a core competence of these companies. Worse, many are small businesses couldn’t spare the budget to develop, maintain, and continuously enhance bespoke mobile apps.

Enter the white-labeled apps business model. These are generic apps each developed to serve a certain business stereotype — such as Generic Fast-Food App, Generic Radio App, or Generic Magazine App to name a few. The developer would develop the app once and re-sell it into many clients that fits the app’s stereotype. Better yet provide on-going maintenance contract to deliver bug fixes and continuous enhancements as long as the agreement is in place.

Unlike a full custom software development engagement, white-labeled apps affords a limited set of customizations. These are likely the company logo, application icon, and a custom color scheme. The tradeoffs are time and cost. By having a pre-made app, clients would quickly get a functioning app to complement their business without needing large up-front investment nor wait a long time for a custom app to get developed.

Sure these pre-made apps are going to look somewhat similar from one client company to the next, since they use the same code base. But as long as each instance of the app caters for different audiences, users aren’t likely to realize it.

Apple Hated White Label

Except for Apple. Notably the app reviewers – gatekeepers of the App Store. They would notice the same app being uploaded multiple times differing in name and icon. The company call this template-based apps and seems to have a dislike towards it.

Apple believes that each app would need to provide a unique user experience to earn a place in the App Store. Understandable for a company whose livelihood hinges on user experience and innovation. However that world-view doesn’t align with the white label business model which involves identical products which differs in packaging and marketing since they are offered for different target markets – however the all has the same core functionality. It clashes to an extent that Apple rejected white-label apps by means of Guideline 4.3 and label them as spam:

Spam … Don’t create multiple Bundle IDs of the same app. If your app has different versions for specific locations, sports teams, universities, etc., consider submitting a single app and provide the variations using in-app purchase…

A number of developers were “more fortunate” and treated with somewhat more attention than receiving a copy and paste from the App Review Guidelines:

We understand that your radio and TV apps are individually branded. However, they share the same concept and feature set. It is no longer appropriate to submit multiple apps that provide the same or similar feature set.

That was the end for all white-labeled apps from the store. Because “… multiple apps that provide the same or similar feature set…” is the essence of white-label. Indeed, a number of smaller software companies closed down and in other instances developers were dismissed because of this rule’s enforcement.

Government Intervention

Until congress-member Ted W Lieu sent a letter to Tim Cook on 1 December 2017 criticizing how the rules were enforced:

Recently, I was informed that Apple’s decision to more stringently enforce its policy guidelines regarding design and functionality (Guidelines 4.3 and 4.2.6 respectively) may result in the wholesale rejection of template-based apps from the App Store. It is my understanding that many small business, research organizations, and religious institutions rely on template apps when they do not possess the resources to develop apps in-house.

Then Apple made concession. Template-based apps are now allowed in the App Store as long as it is published by the company which owned its content. These client companies would need to have an Apple Developer Program (ADP) account and the app would need to be uploaded from that account. Therefore this should prevent an app developer from spamming the App Store with multiple identical apps yet allows organizations not having in-house software development capability to provide apps for their audiences via white-labeled apps.

The change is reflected in the updated App Review Guideline 4.2.6:

… Apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service will be rejected unless they are submitted directly by the provider of the app’s content. These services should not submit apps on behalf of their clients ….

The key phrase is ”… on behalf of their clients….” Apple expects to deal with the entity providing the content directly, by means of the ADP account.

Managing White-Labeled Apps

If you’re a white-label app provider, you would need to ask your clients to have their own ADP accounts. In turn you upload the client’s customized app bundle via this account, and thus have it appear to be provided directly by the client. You can ask them to register themselves to Apple or you can register it for them.

When you are registering for the client, be sure to have these ready:

  • A copy of the organization’s letter of incorporation showing creation of the legal entity (this should have the legal name of the entity, among other details).
  • The entity’s headquarter address.
  • The entity’s mailing address.
  • The entity’s primary legal contact.
  • The entity’s primary financial contact.
  • The entity’s primary marketing contact.
  • The entity’s primary technical contact (that’s likely you since you’re registering the account for them).
  • The entity’s primary senior management contact.
  • A D-U-N-S number for the entity — you can register for one at no cost.

When the ADP account is ready (or your client already has one), you would need to be granted access at least to the Developer and App Manager roles in the account. Unless your client has an employee filling the App Manager role, which in turn would create the app entry for you and assign you with a Developer role for the app(s) you are providing.

To add people to the ADP account and give access to these roles, follow these steps in App Store Connect:

  1. Open Users and Access.
  2. Click on the “+” button.
  3. Enter First Name, Last name, and e-mail. Note that the e-mail should also be an Apple ID.
  4. Tick the App Manager and Developer checkboxes.
  5. Click on “Invite”.

App store connect new user

That’s it. Apple will send an e-mail to the address that the person can signed in and access the ADP account.

Next Steps

If you currently have white-labeled apps in the store, you should prepare to transition your clients’ apps out from your ADP and into your respective clients’. Otherwise App Review would likely stop the next update with Guideline 4.3 “Spam” rejection. If you reach that point, you could ask for appeal and let that particular update go through, but likely App Review would give you about two months grace period to transition your apps out — which could be risky if any one of your client is lagging behind. To be safe, ensure that all of your clients to have their own ADP before you update any of the white-labeled apps.

When a client have its ADP ready, you can transfer the existing app into the client’s account. Preferably you would have transferred all white-labeled apps out before you update any of them (or before the release of a new major operating system version which requires you to update).

If you’re thinking to get into the white-labeled app business, take into account that clients need to have their own ADP and pay its annual fees. Either you:

  • register and manage these accounts for them (and build the subscription and management cost into your price structure);
  • get them to subscribe to ADP themselves and give you access to it; or
  • provide them with a binary build of the white-labeled app and have a competent IT person from their side to re-sign the build and upload it.

That’s all for now. Stay safe and stay in business.

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