Apple’s Move Towards Sideloading: Implications and Expectations

By Roze 5 Min Read
Apple's Move Towards Sideloading

Apple has been navigating significant pressure in the European Union due to the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a new piece of antitrust legislation aimed at regulating big tech companies and promoting competition.

One of the key requirements of the DMA is to enable sideloading, allowing users to install apps from third-party sources, a practice that has long been prohibited by Apple on iOS devices. The recent discovery of evidence in the iOS 17.2 beta code suggests that Apple is taking steps toward enabling sideloading on its iOS devices to comply with the DMA.

Understanding Sideloading

Sideloading refers to the process of installing applications obtained from sources outside the official app store, in this case, the App Store for iOS devices. Apple has maintained strict control over app distribution on its platform to ensure compliance with its guidelines and security standards. Allowing sideloading would enable apps to be installed without undergoing Apple’s review process.

Digital Markets Act (DMA) and European Pressure

The European Union passed the DMA with the intention of regulating tech giants and preventing them from leveraging their market dominance to stifle competition. One of the DMA’s mandates is to grant users the freedom to install apps from third-party sources. This regulatory framework challenged Apple’s tight grip on its App Store.

iOS 17.2 Beta Code Hints at Sideloading

The iOS 17.2 beta has revealed significant developments that suggest Apple’s movement towards enabling sideloading:

  1. Managed App Distribution: iOS 17.2 introduces a new public framework known as “Managed App Distribution.” While initially thought to be related to Mobile Device Management (MDM) solutions for enterprise app installations, it appears to have a more substantial purpose.
  2. Extension Endpoint: The framework includes an extension endpoint in the system, indicating that other apps can create extensions of this type. This allows third-party apps to gain permission to install other apps, essentially opening the door for developers to establish their own app stores.
  3. Basic Controls: The new API provides basic controls for downloading, installing, and updating apps from external sources. It can also check compatibility with specific devices and iOS versions, similar to the App Store’s functionality.
  4. Region Lock: References to a region lock within the API suggest that Apple could restrict sideloading to specific countries when required by authorities, such as in the European Union.

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Timeline and Implications

Apple is theoretically required to comply with the DMA by March 2024. The company has acknowledged in a Form 10-K filing that it anticipates making changes that will impact the App Store’s business model. While Apple may appeal to the European Union to include the App Store in the DMA, it appears that iOS 17 will be prepared for sideloading.

The move towards sideloading carries significant implications. It may boost competition by allowing alternative app stores to flourish, giving users more choices. However, it also raises concerns about security, as sideloaded apps may not undergo the same rigorous review process as those in the App Store. Apple’s stance on sideloading has been met with opposition, with some fearing that it could become a “cybercriminal’s best friend.”

In conclusion, Apple’s journey towards enabling sideloading is a response to regulatory pressure, and it will undoubtedly shape the future of app distribution on iOS devices. While it represents a significant shift in Apple’s approach, the company will continue to defend the iOS App Store and seek a balance between competition and security. The upcoming months will shed more light on how this transition unfolds.

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