What is Single App Mode?

David Ruddock
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Single App Mode is a way to force an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV to remain “locked” to a single app. You may know this feature as Guided Access, kiosk mode, or app lock — but there are differences that distinguish each of these terms. Specifically, Single App Mode is only available on iPads, iPhones, or Apple TV devices set up in supervised mode.

Kiosk Mode for Android & iOS

Activate Single App Mode for iPad, iPhone, or Apple TV

To activate Single App Mode on an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV, you must prepare the device for use in supervised mode. You can do this with the Apple Configurator tool and a Mac computer using a direct USB connection to the iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV you want to set up. To start single app mode, follow these steps.

  1. Download and install Apple Configurator for Mac
  2. Connect the device you wish to set up to the Mac computer via USB
  3. Open Apple Configurator and wait for your device to appear
  4. Right click on the device and select “Prepare”
  5. Follow the instructions on screen to prepare your device for supervision (Note: This will factory reset the device!)
  6. Once the device reboots, it is prepared and will appear under the “Supervised” list in Apple Configurator
  7. Right click on the device and select “Start single app mode” and follow the instructions on screen

If you’re unfamiliar with the device preparation process or what it means to supervise an iOS or Apple TV device, Apple has a basic explainer in its Apple Configurator user guide. However, if these settings are unfamiliar or you are not managing many devices, you may instead want to use Guided Access.

Single App Mode vs Guided Access: What’s the difference?

Single App Mode is a feature of Apple device supervision that locks an iPad, iPhone, or Apple TV to a single application on the screen. Device supervision is the framework by which large groups of iOS and Mac devices can be managed by an organization (such as a school, enterprise, or other business). 

Guided Access is a feature of iOS devices that allows the owner of that device to lock an iPad or iPhone (but not an Apple TV) to a single application on the screen, similar to Android app pinning.

The differences between Guided Access and Single App Mode may seem superficial, as both can enable a “kiosk mode” use case on an iPhone or iPad. However, there are noteworthy distinctions between the two — especially when used on a larger scale. This table breaks down the core features distinguishing them.

Feature Single App Mode Guided Access
Lock iPad or iPhone to a single application ✔️ ✔️
Lock Apple TV to a single application ✔️
Lock Apple Watch to a single application ✔️
Enable and control via Apple Configurator ✔️
Disable hardware (power, volume) keys ✔️ ✔️
Disable touch, keyboard, accessibility, autorotate ✔️ ✔️
Force screen to stay on or to auto-lock ✔️ ✔️
Disable specific area of touchscreen ✔️
Cannot be disabled by user on device ✔️*
Automatically starts at bootup (i.e., survives shutdown or reboot) ✔️
Can be deployed and enabled automatically with device blueprint or MDM ✔️
Can be remotely configured and controlled via iOS MDM ✔️

*Except Autonomous Single App Mode — see section linked here.

A few of these distinctions are very important, particularly the limitations of Guided Access — any user with the screen lock code can disable Guided Access (unlike Single App Mode, which is permanently locked unless released via Apple Configurator or your MDM). Guided Access will also not automatically restart the app after a device reboots (i.e. after the battery drains to zero). This makes Guided Access a poor fit for organizations managing many identically-configured devices. Imagine keeping individual unlock codes for every iPad you want to lock down to Guided Access, or needing to re-enable the mode every time an unexpected reboot or battery drain event occurs. That’s not scalable.

There are also hardware restrictions to consider. Apple TV does not support Guided Access — the only way to lock an Apple TV to a single app is by using Single App Mode as part of Apple Configurator or your MDM solution. And the Apple Watch does not support Single App Mode or Guided Access at all.

One feature that Guided Access offers that is not available in Single App Mode is the ability to disable specifically selected areas of the touchscreen (as opposed to the entire screen). If this feature is critical to your kiosk use case, you should strongly reconsider the implementation of your solution.

Single App Mode vs Kiosk Mode

Single App Mode is Apple’s branded term for a set of features that enable a kiosk mode use case on iPhone, iOS, and Apple TV devices.

Kiosk mode is a broad term for any computer, smartphone, or tablet locked to displaying a single application on the screen. Kiosk mode could refer to an Android tablet using MDM or app pinning, an iPhone using an iOS MDM or Guided Access, or a Windows desktop computer using dedicated kiosk mode software. 

What is Autonomous Single App Mode?

Autonomous Single App Mode is a particular version of Single App Mode that can be selectively enabled and disabled by the end user of a supervised iPhone or iPad (as well as MacOS computers). Think of it as a temporary or “on demand” Single App Mode. This may sound counterintuitive at first, given one of Single App Mode’s distinguishing features compared to Guided Access is that an end user cannot disable it. However, there are use cases where this may be appropriate. For example, a doctor may want to hand a patient an iPad to collect information, but not for the patient to be able to look at any other information on the device — that is, to temporarily enable Single App Mode. Upon returning the iPad, the doctor can disable Single App Mode to continue with their authorized usage.

Think of Autonomous Single App Mode as a “best of both worlds” managed device solution — in normal operating mode, the iPad or iPhone works as a managed employee device with access to all necessary apps and services. Then, on demand, that employee can set the device to a far more limited “kiosk mode” (Single App Mode) for use by customers or other users in a precisely defined and restricted mode.

However, Autonomous Single App Mode requires a more significant investment to enable. Whichever apps you’ll allow to turn Single App Mode on or off must specifically be developed to support this functionality. That's because the feature is implemented at the app level, as the application is responsible for turning Single App Mode on and off. Configuration of Autonomous Single App Mode also requires an iOS MDM, as this feature is not a part of Apple Configurator, and the code to “unlock” the device from Single App Mode is defined at the device management level.

Single App Mode for Android

The Android operating system does not support Single App Mode as defined by Apple, because Single App Mode is a feature specific to Apple devices. The correct formulation of this question would be: “Does Android have a feature similar to Single App Mode?”

While Android does not have a native “kiosk mode” in the specific sense that iOS devices have Single App Mode, the operating system is highly configurable to recreate this experience — see our guide on Android Kiosk Mode. Doing so generally requires using an Android MDM — third-party software to control, configure, and manage large groups of devices.

If you want to manage iOS devices in Single App Mode or Android devices in kiosk mode, you should try Esper. You can get started with a 30-day trial today.

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More Kiosk Mode Resources: 


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David Ruddock
David Ruddock

David's tech experience runs deep. His tech agnostic approach and general love for technology fueled the 14 years he spent as a technology journalist, where David worked with major brands like Google, Samsung, Qualcomm, NVIDIA, Verizon, and Amazon, reviewed hundreds of products, and broke dozens of exclusive stories. Now he lends that same passion and expertise to Esper's marketing team.

David Ruddock
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Hardened device lockdown for all devices (not just kiosks)
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Custom reports and granular device alerts for managing by exception