iPhone sideloading battle was pointless at best, harmful at worst

Home » iPhone sideloading battle was pointless at best, harmful at worst
iPhone sideloading battle was pointless at best, harmful at worst

Apple put up a lengthy fight against being forced to allow iPhone sideloading – the ability for owners to install apps directly from a developer’s website, in the same way we can a Mac app.

The company even went as far as arguing that Macs weren’t safe from malware because users can download apps directly. But ultimately the battle was pointless, and may even have been harmful …

Apple’s fight against sideloading

Apple has been facing growing antitrust pressure for years regarding the App Storewithin the US as well as elsewhere. Currently, if you want to sell an iPhone app, you can only do so through the App Store. Apple gets full control over what apps you can and cannot sell, for reasons that often appear arbitrary, and how much commission you must pay to Apple for the privilege.

It has long looked like the company would eventually be required by law to allow third-party app stores, sideloading, or both. Yet Apple has fought hard against both ideas.

Back in 2021, for example, when a bipartisan bill was announced in the US, Apple published a 16-page report that argued that only the company’s own app store could keep iPhone owners safe from scams and malware.

In the report, Apple takes readers on a guided tour of the potential dangers of life without the App Store by detailing the protection the App Store puts into place to prevent unauthorized purchases from children, the protection that Apple gives to your personal photos and videos from prying apps, and the possibility that you could be paying for pirated versions of apps without knowing it.

The company’s privacy head Eric Neuenschwander went as far as suggesting that iPhone users who wanted to continue to use the official App Store could be fooled into using third-party ones.

Even users who intend—they’ve consciously thought themselves that they are only going to download apps from the App Store—well, the attackers know this, so they’re going to try to convince that user that they’re downloading an app from the App Store even when that’s not happening.

Apple’s software head Craig Federighi went even further, throwing the Mac under the bus in the company’s desperation to win the argument.

Asked why the Mac can have multiple app stores, but not the iPhone: “It is regularly exploited on the Mac,” Federighi explained. “iOS has established a dramatically higher bar for customer protection. The Mac is not meeting that bar today. Today, we have a level of malware on the Mac that we don’t find acceptable.”

This was a fight Apple was always going to lose

The question was not who would win this battle – Apple or lawmakers – but rather how long the iPhone maker could delay the inevitable.

Things got real last summer, when the European Union passed the Digital Markets Act, which came into effect later the same year.

While the law is now active, there are a couple of further steps before Apple has to comply. First, the EU will declare which companies qualify as “gatekeepers” for apps – a decision expected to be announced around August or September of this year. It’s a foregone conclusion that Apple will be on this list. Second, companies will be given time to comply, with the deadline expected to be around February or March of next year.

It soon became clear that the company itself was fully aware of this, a report revealing that Apple has been working for some time on allowing third-party app stores.

According to a new report from Bloomberg, these changes will see Apple allow outside App Stores on the iPhone for the first time. The company is reportedly dedicating a “significant amount of resources to the companywide endeavor.”

This is described as a “major push to open up key elements of Apple’s platforms,” according to “people familiar with the efforts” who spoke to Bloomberg. “As part of the changes, customers could ultimately download third-party software to their iPhones and iPads without using the company’s App Store,” the report explains.

The iPhone maker also seems to have finally made peace with sideloading too, Bloomberg suggesting this will come with iOS 17.

Fighting this likely did more harm than good

When you know you’re going to lose a battle, the smart thing is to recognize that early on, and aim to control the narrative. Instead of everyone being able to see that you were finally forced into it against your will, make it seem like it was your idea, and you’re doing it simply because it’s the right thing to do.

This was the approach I argued Apple should have taken with App Store commissions. It still managed to get ahead of legislation, but only just – and only in part.

If Apple had very quietly allowed sideloading a few years ago, that would have removed the antitrust threat – while the overwhelming majority of iPhone owners would have continued to get their apps from the App Store, just as they always have. The percentage of iPhone owners who will ever sideload an app is vanishingly small, so Apple has spent a lot of time and energy fighting a battle that is completely pointless

Worse, by fighting the issue so loudly and for so long, Apple has actually given the issue way more publicity than it would ever have received otherwise. It has turned what would otherwise have been a boring technical detail covered only by the Apple press into a mass-media news story. Apple has effectively contributed to its portrayal as a bad guy, with zero benefit to the company.

That’s my view – how about yours? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo: Szabo Viktor/Unsplash

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