Why Apple Allowing Third-Party iPhone App Stores Is Such a Big Deal

And all thanks to Europe

  • Apple may be planning to open up the iPhone to third-party app stores. 
  • This is the result of the EU’s Digital Markets Act. 
  • Developers might choose to stick with the App Store anyway.
Yellow iPhone on a white terrazzo surface surrounded by greenery.

Vựa Táo /Unsplash

Apple is on the cusp of opening up the iPhone to alternative app stores. Yes, that's the sound of ice forming over a really, really hot place. 

Just a year ago, this kind of change seemed impossible. Apple has held its line for so long, against so much pressure, that there must be a really good reason for it to open up its completely closed platform. And guess what? There is a great reason: The European Union.

"This is another regulatory push from the European Union. Apple has been adamantly opposed to opening their devices to third-party apps essentially since the iPhone launched," Ben Michael, attorney at Michael and Associates, told Lifewire via email. "Users are going to have access to a lot more apps than they did previously. Most of them are going to be smaller ones with niche uses rather than big mass-market apps, but this still opens up a lot of business and IT applications."

Big, Bigger, Biggest

Apple might be the largest company in the world, and it might be American, but the European Union is still more powerful, as it should be. This turnaround, reported by extremely well-sourced Apple reporter Mark Gurman but as yet unconfirmed by Apple, is down to the EU's Digital Markets Act, a piece of regulatory regulation that, among other things, demands more open platforms and interoperability of services like messaging apps.

Apple has refused to budge even a fraction of an inch on its App Store position but is now being forced to capitulate. And thanks to the international nature of big tech, these EU laws will end up affecting everyone around the world, doing what the US government seems unable to do, which is to champion the rights of citizens over the profits and control of large corporations. 

Users are going to have access to a lot more apps than they did previously.

Right now, the only way to get an app on your iPhone or iPad is via the App Store, although there are workarounds for businesses that want to deploy their own internal software. This means that Apple can reject any app for pretty much any reason, charge 30 percent for sales and in-app purchases, and developers have no alternative.

Apple has defended this position by claiming that installing apps from outside its store (a process it calls "sideloading") is a security risk and that allowing customers to make in-app payments directly to vendors is dangerous. For the record, the Mac has allowed the free installation of apps since forever and is doing fine. And when you buy stuff from the Amazon app on your iPhone or via Safari, somehow Apple's apocalypse fails to materialize. 

Thanks to EU laws, likely set to affect Apple in 2024, this will soon have to change. 

How Will It Work?

Apple might have to comply with these laws, but it doesn’t have to like them. It will probably hide a control deep inside the iPhone’s Settings app that allows side-loading and will accompany it with all kinds of warnings. To get an idea of this, take a look at the Mac’s System Settings app, which has controls for allowing non-App-Store apps to run on your computer. 

Even when you have enabled them, you still get a warning the first time you launch a new app, and even then, the app has to be "notarized” by Apple. Non-notarized third-party apps can be run, but it’s not easy. 

An iPhone open to the app screen sitting on a wood surface with earbuds in a case nearby.

Thom Bradley / Unsplash

In practice, many people will be happy to keep on using the App Store, with its familiarity, its easy payment system, and its non-mysterious subscriptions that can be canceled at any time. But the more adventurous will enjoy apps that just can’t be made right now because Apple would not approve them.

For developers, the advantages are clear. No more 30 percent Apple tax on every sale, but also no pre-made payment system and no easy way to reach potential customers.

If you are Adobe or Microsoft, then you already have enough of a name to sell from anywhere. But smaller devs might stick to the App Store for the convenience and built-in audience, especially if Apple has to clean up its own act in the face of the new app-store competition. 

However this ends up, the results are going to be pretty big. 

“If this pans out, it’s not only a ground-shaking change to a major chunk of Apple’s Services revenue but also a 180-degree change to what has been probably the most contentious element of the company’s business,” says Apple tech reporter Dan Moren on his Six Colors blog.

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