AP Photo/Richard Drew
- Apple has maintained control of every corner of the iPhone ecosystem in the name of user security.
- Apple is prepping to comply with EU regulations by allowing sideloading iOS apps, Bloomberg reports.
- This will put Apple’s walled garden to the ultimate test, and prove if it was right all along.
For 15 years, Apple has controlled every aspect of the iOS ecosystem — from the apps you’re allowed to install on iPhones and iPads, the look of your home screen, the payment systems you’re allowed to use, and everything in between.
The company has always said that this so-called “walled garden” approach was necessary to helping users have a good experience, protect against viruses and malware, and preserve user privacy. Steve Jobs himself championed this strategy, and is said to have needed to be convinced to bring an App Store to the iPhone at all.
But the European Union’s newly enacted Digital Markets Act is forcing Apple to relinquish its “monopolistic” control over developers and iPhones by 2024. This victory for European regulators also marks the largest hole in Apple’s heavily regulated ecosystem to date.
The new law takes aim at Big Tech companies with highly regulated platforms that serve as gatekeepers between businesses and consumers — encompassing all app store providers, including Google. Apple is reportedly making plans to comply with the new laws, according to a new Bloomberg report. Changes could come as soon as the iOS 17 update, expected to launch in the September of 2023.
This is a first for the iPhone maker, which has not always shown full compliance, even in places where new laws were enacted to curb some of its power over the App Store. Dutch and South Korean regulators, for example, have clashed with Apple, which has so far made few if any changes to how it does business in those countries.
Now, if Apple makes the changes outlined in the Bloomberg story, its walled-garden approach could be put to the ultimate test, as we see the actual effects of opening the floodgates to outsiders.
Sideloading apps and a lighter app review
Downloading software or apps outside of the App Store — also called sideloading — is currently not possible unless users manipulate an iPhone’s fundamental software to bypass Apple’s restrictions.
Apple has long maintained that allowing sideloading would undermine the iOS platform’s security and leave users exposed to the worst elements of the internet. The company’s critics, meanwhile, have argued that the security risks are minimal next to the benefits brought by increased competition in the App Store and more user choice. If sideloading is allowed, as Bloomberg reports is under consideration, we’ll get to see who was right.
Bloomberg reports that Apple is also preparing to support alternative App Stores, which would theoretically be full of apps not necessarily vetted by the company. That could, in a roundabout way, address the headache for developers that is the App Store review process, where the company audits all apps and updates before they’re allowed to reach customers.
Apple has a full website of security, privacy, and even content requirements that apps must meet in order to be granted a coveted place in the App Store. That process has been criticized as inconsistent and can leave apps pending review for weeks without much communication from Apple.
If sideloading apps is allowed, developers could have a much more direct way of reaching their customers via these outside app stores — though Bloomberg also reports that the company is kicking around the idea of doing some kind of review of apps hosted outside its own App Store, though the details of that plan are currently unclear.
—Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) October 3, 2022
The biggest pain for developers could go away
Sideloading would also address one of Apple’s biggest sources of criticism: The so-called “Apple tax.”
Opening up payment methods to third parties, as it will be required to do under the European law, would mark a major evolution for developers. The current set up requires developers to use Apple’s in-house payment processing service and give Apple an automatic 30% cut of almost all in-app purchases. Apple has defended its fee structure as both necessary and reasonable, given the major role that the App Store plays in the software economy.
Over the years, everyone from independent app developers to CEOs have decried this provision. The practice recently even caught the attention of new Twitter owner Elon Musk, who declared war against the system.
“It’s a very unique thing to have someone who’s also the richest man in the world to have the same problems that a small app developer — that maybe has one or two employees — is also experiencing,” said Rick VanMeter, executive director of the industry group Coalition for App Fairness, a frequent critic of the so-called “Apple Tax.”
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