Apple will reportedly allow sideloading apps with iOS 17

After vehemently fighting “sideloading” alternative app stores on the iPhone, Apple is now apparently looking to allow them with iOS 17, which will come out next year, to comply with European laws. The report from Bloomberg also noted that Apple is exploring opening up its camera and NFC (Near Field Communication) stack to developers.

Apple’s walled-garden approach has so far mandated that iPhone users must only download apps from Apple’s own App Store. Android, on the other hand, allows users to install third-party app stores on their devices.

The Bloomberg report states that Apple’s sideloading project has already started under the company’s engineering VP Andreas Wendker, who reports to Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior VP of Software Engineering. The project also reportedly involves senior executives such as Jeff Robbin and Eddie Cue.

Europe’s Digital Market Act (DMA) will come into effect next year, and companies will have until 2024 to comply. Under the new rules, Big Tech must allow alternative app stores on their platforms to provide users with more choice, and it’s likely that Apple is now preparing to comply.

Apple has already committed to supporting USB-C due to the EU’s push to standardize charging ports. Now, with the DMA on the horizon, this could force the Cupertino-based company to allow sideloading too.

A win for developers?

If Apple opens to other app stores, developers won’t have to pay a 30% (or in some cases 15%) fee to the tech giant for in-app purchases. This could appease a lot of companies — including Spotify, Tinder/ Match Group and, lately, Twitter — which have criticized Apple’s fee structure.

Apple currently allows some developers to use third-party payment systems in certain markets — for example, all developers in South Korea and dating app developers in the Netherlands. However, they still have to pay Apple a hefty fee.

If the DMA forces Apple to allow third-party app stores in the EU, there is every chance that regulators elsewhere will follow suit, and Apple’s current work to enable sideloading in iOS 17 could be extended to support other jurisdictions too.

This news comes as Portugal-based Aptoide, an alternative app store for Android, is launching an iOS version for jailbreakers. The company’s co-founder and CEO Paulo Trezentos told TechCrunch that he believes Apple will indeed open to third-party app stores.

The Bloomberg report also noted that the new EU rule could strong-arm Apple into opening up more parts of its ecosystem, including the camera, NFC stack and browser engine.

Currently, all browsers on iPhone, including Chrome and Firefox, have to use Apple’s WebKit engine. But Apple is considering removing that construct. We might have to wait for Apple’s official announcement to see how other engines could work on iOS and what features that could enable in other browsers.

Image Credits: Bloomberg / Contributor / Getty Images

Opening the NFC stack could mean that aside from Apple Pay, other payment companies could integrate their services for tap-to-pay. Apple has already faced criticism from the EU, which said in February that a standard tech for contactless payment like NFC should be open to all providers. This could allow Apple’s competitors like Stripe and Square to build their own integrated solutions for iPhone.

Apple’s reluctance

Apple’s executives have constantly opined how bad sideloading would be for users’ security. It even introduced a developer mode in iOS 16 to prevent users from “inadvertently installing potentially harmful software on their devices.” Issues including sideloading and App Store fees have been the center of focus in Apple’s long-standing Epic fight too.

In both Netherlands and South Korea, where Apple has been forced to open its platform just a little, the company has made it arduous for developers to adopt third-party payment systems. It mandated that app makers must show elaborate warnings to users when they are about to use an alternative payment system, and in some cases, Apple has asked them to submit a separate app file for a particular market.

While it’s technically complying with local regulators’ rules, the company is creating friction so that developers reconsider switching their payment system.

Apple App Store warning for using third-party payment systems

Image Credits: Apple

Similarly, if Apple does open things up to comply with EU regulation for iOS 17, it could choose to make life difficult for both developers and consumers, meaning that only the most technologically savvy users will choose to sideload. What’s more, the company could display banners and warnings about using third-party app stores, deterring would-be switchers from sticking with Apple’s App Store.

The Coalition for App Fairness — a collective fighting against Big Tech platforms such as Apple and Google for fairer distribution, with members like Basecamp, Match Group and Spotify — said in a statement that the reports about Apple allowing sideloading “is an admission that they have a chokehold on the competition.”

“It is clear that Apple will only yield their control over the distribution of apps on iOS devices, and their exertion of gatekeeper power within the App Store, in response to pressure from policymakers. The European Union’s passage of the Digital Markets Act is forcing Apple’s hand, and strong enforcement of the law is vital to leveling the playing field for developers in the mobile application ecosystem,” it said.

The organization urged lawmakers in the U.S. to take note and pass the Open App Markets Act (OAMA) — which could force Apple and Google to allow third-party app stores, sideloading and alternative payment systems — as quickly as possible. Epic’s Tim Sweeney threw his hat into the ring too, urging Congress to step up and follow Europe’s lead.

Apple didn’t respond to TechCrunch’s questions at the time of publishing, but will update here if or when we hear back.