You might be ready for sideloading on your iPhone, but your parents aren’t
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There are a handful of pros to accessing alternative app stores and sideloading on the iPhone, but a lot more cons — especially for tech support.
The magic of Apple’s no-nonsense App Store approach has always been its simplicity, which may soon disappear. If the EU gets its way, and it likely will, Apple will soon introduce the ability for users to sideload apps and use alternative app stores.
On the surface, this can be a net gain for users. More choice, competition and software previously only available on Android could be coming to iPhone.
However, it’s a bit more complicated than that. While we don’t have the details of Apple’s implementation, and won’t until they say something about it, some basic ideas are worth addressing.
Sideloading vs Alternative App Stores
An alternative app store would allow users to purchase apps and download them directly to the iPhone without jailbreaking or other changes to the operating system. Third parties will control these stores and offer alternative payment systems such as PayPal or cryptocurrency.
Side-loading is an even less centralized version of this and can be thought of in the same way as getting apps for the Mac. Users will be able to purchase software directly from a vendor’s website and download it without disruption.
Of course, there will still be restrictions and control from Apple. Instead of Apple acting like Walmart stocking its shelves with apps, it will act like a city choosing which stores can operate and how.
Side-loading will eventually allow users to install any app they want within reason. Again, Apple will still have control over the operating system, so unless these apps break the device’s security, they should only be able to do what is currently allowed.
Alternative app stores would theoretically be required to operate within a certain level of restrictions. They will offer similar apps to Apple, but use different payment systems and have policies for alternative content.
For example, an alternative app store may have pornographic material, or apps like “Fortnite” that were kicked out of the store for a variety of reasons. Emulators that don’t sell illegal game ROMs are also likely to be acceptable as long as users provide their own game files.
Unlike Google’s open Android operating system, Apple will likely still regulate and gatekeeper to some extent. However, it would have much less control, and more sneaky spyware or scams would creep in.
Expect absolutely every major tech company to spin off their own app store. Microsoft has already said it wants one, and given the battles Facebook has been waging with Apple for years, it’s likely they’ll remove their app from Apple’s App Store and create their own.
And how the in-app purchase model will work under this system is anyone’s guess.
Jailbreak lives on
Whatever Apple does to deal with EU law, it won’t be enough for everyone. Jailbreaking allows users to change how iOS works and bypass any restrictions set by Apple.
Apple will likely be required to unlock some aspects of its hardware and software previously held for first-party use. This will be done in the name of market justice, but opens the door for abuse.
So realize that sideloading and alternative app stores do not signal the end of Jailbreaking. Control over the operating system itself will still be limited.
Potential risks to users
Users should not worry about a sudden influx of dangerous viruses – as long as Apple executes this move correctly. Although fraud, gambling and privacy-infringing software are likely to be more accessible to users.
It’s not clear if this will be something available by default in iOS or if more creepy dialog boxes and hidden menus will have to be navigated first. The implementation angle done by Apple could mean the difference between it only affecting select geeks or your grandma.
Apple prevents certain apps from appearing on the App Store, but won’t have absolute control if other stores are in play. For example, Facebook may reinstate Onavo Protect and start collecting extensive data from users.
Not every threat needs to come in the form of an iPhone-destroying virus. For example, users may encounter fake versions of apps that collect bank credentials.
If you’re the family’s tech support, make sure everyone understands the risks and help block potential abuse in advance. Apple will likely eliminate some issues, such as giving parents control over whether a child can sideload at all.
Remember that no system is foolproof. Although Apple hides alternative app stores and page loading behind multiple levels of authentication, the most technically inept users can manage. Some scams may appear on YouTube or Facebook with videos or articles instructing users to bypass Apple’s restrictions. People may do this because they have been convinced to install a malicious crypto app, casino app or spyware via an ad.
Technical support will be uncertain after Apple’s App Store changes take effect.
None of this can happen
That said, Apple may not implement any of this. Or at least it’s not being implemented in the way we expect.
Apple is reportedly starting work on supporting sideloading and alternative app stores, but it doesn’t have to comply until 2024. More companies are likely to push against this regulation, and a lot can change in a year.
WWDC 2023 is likely to be the canary for these features. If Apple addresses alternative app stores or sideloading there, the features will already be implemented. Otherwise, Apple will wait until the last minute to comply.