Technology: The Apple Developer Program: What professionals need to know

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Anyone who has considered developing software for an Apple platform has likely visited the Apple developer website, which is filled to the brim with documentation, tutorials, tips and everything an aspiring iOS, macOS, watchOS or tvOS developer needs.

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The sheer volume of content available on the Apple developer website can make using it tricky. When you add to that a somewhat fuzzy boundary between the developer website and the actual Apple Developer Program, things can get even more confusing. (Note: This article on what professionals need to know about the Apple Developer Program is also available as a free PDF download.)

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There's a big difference between using the developer website to learn the basics of building software for Apple devices and being a member of the Apple Developer Program. This guide will clear up the distinctions.

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What is the Apple Developer Program?

The Apple Developer Program is, in Apple's words, the "code to customer" pipeline. Membership in the Apple Developer Program gives developers everything they need to build, test and deploy apps for its OSs.

There is a lot that comes with Apple Developer Program membership, including:

  • access to beta builds of iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS;
  • the ability to publicly beta test apps using TestFlight;
  • access to Apple's myriad app extensions like CloudKit, Game Center, Apple Pay, Maps and more;
  • code-level support that gives developers access to an Apple developer who can help troubleshoot and streamline code;
  • the ability to publish apps on the Apple App Store;
  • developer signing for macOS app releases outside the App Store;
  • ad hoc app distribution (to 100 of each device type per year); and
  • access to Apple Store Connect's App Analytics program and other App Store management features.

Along with these benefits, which come with any standard membership in the Apple Developer Program, Apple also offers two other programs that fall under the Developer Program umbrella: The Enterprise Program and the MFi Program.

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The Enterprise Program offers benefits like those included in the standard Developer Program, and it adds the ability for enterprise customers to develop in-house proprietary apps for deployment on employee devices.

The MFi, or Made For iPod, iPhone, and iPad, Program is for companies that want to build Apple-certified hardware accessories. Apple considers any third-party device that connects electronically to an Apple device to fall under the MFi program; this doesn't include devices that use the headphone jack or standard Bluetooth profiles and non-electronic devices.

Note: Manufacturing a device that falls under the MFi program doesn't require companies to enroll; however, products that aren't MFi certified cannot claim to be Apple certified, nor will they be given access to technical specifications necessary for building a fully-compatible peripheral device.

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Do Apple software developers have to join the Developer Program?

Strictly speaking, developers who want to build macOS, iOS, tvOS or watchOS apps don't have to become a member of the Apple Developer Program. Not opting for a membership, though, comes with a lot of restrictions.

The Apple Developer Program benefits listed above are all off-limits to devs who aren't members. Most critically, it means there's no way for non-members to distribute or monetize their apps on the App Store.

According to an Apple Developer Program representative, non-members who sign up for access to the Apple developer website get access to Xcode, Apple's development platform that's also available in the macOS App Store, and not much else--even apps built by a non-member are restricted to devices tied to that particular developer's Apple ID.

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If you're new to Apple development, or just interested in learning how to develop for Apple devices, there's no real need to join the Developer Program. You can still build apps for all of Apple's operating systems and install them on your personal devices, but that's it—no extensions, no support, no beta OS builds and no App Store.

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Enterprise customers who want to roll out in-house apps to their employees' Apple devices are stuck as well—there's nothing you can do without buying an Enterprise membership.

How much does the Apple Developer Program cost?

This is the unfortunate part: joining the Apple Developer Program isn't cheap.

An individual membership will cost you $99 USD per year, which is a steep price to pay if you aren't sure you'll be able to recoup that investment, which would largely come in the form of app purchases. Developers keep 70% of sales proceeds unless enrolled in the App Store Small Business Program, which allows them to keep 85%.

Enterprise Program membership is billed per organization and costs $299 USD per year.

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The Apple MFi Program has no fee to join, but there are two costs associated with membership; a company wanting to join has to pay for a third-party identity verification and pay royalties to Apple once approved, and neither cost is mentioned in Apple's MFi FAQ documentation. Royalty fees in particular are covered by an NDA, making finding actual pricing difficult.

According to an Apple Insider article from 2014 (which is the newest pricing source available), MFi royalties run $4 USD per connector (e.g., a lightning port) on a device. It is unknown if this information is still correct. I contacted Apple and received this response:

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All publicly-available information about the MFi Program is available on our FAQ page: http://mfi.apple.com/faqs. Unfortunately, we are not able to provide further details about the MFi Program beyond those provided in the FAQ.

How do I join the Apple Developer Program?

Developers who want to pay the $99 USD fee for Developer Program membership can begin the process here.

Enterprise customers interested in deploying in-house apps can begin the Enterprise Program signup process here.

Hardware manufacturers can begin the MFi registration process here.

Those who want to simply experiment with building software for Apple devices can sign up for access to the Apple developer website for free, which grants access to Xcode.

The Apple Developer Program is open for developers around the world.

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