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Alternate app stores and sideloading coming to iOS in the EU

So much for the Vision Pro being Apple’s biggest 2024 news.

Apple is officially bringing the possibility of third-party app stores and sideloading to iPhones in the EU —  sorry UK! — with the release of iOS 17.4 in March. With this, Apple is also cutting App Store commissions in the EU from 30% down to 10-17% if developers choose to leverage the new options available to them in the region.

What’s happening?

Apple has, of course, long resisted both allowing apps to be distributed outside of their own App Store, and altering the fairly hefty commissions they charge for subscriptions and transactions across all apps. That resistance is officially over. As announced on their site today, Apple is making a number of changes to comply with the Digital Markets Act in the EU. To quote Apple on those changes, they’re providing:      

  • New options for distributing iOS apps from alternative app marketplaces — including new APIs and tools that enable developers to offer their iOS apps for download from alternative app marketplaces.
  • New framework and APIs for creating alternative app marketplaces — enabling marketplace developers to install apps and manage updates on behalf of other developers from their dedicated marketplace app.
  • New frameworks and APIs for alternative browser engines — enabling developers to use browser engines, other than WebKit, for browser apps and apps with in-app browsing experiences.
  • An interoperability request form — where developers can submit additional requests for interoperability with iPhone and iOS hardware and software features.

Apple is also launching new safeguards meant to protect users from what they imply could become an emerging wild west of app distribution. We discuss some of those below.

What does this mean for your team?

Or for any team?

Many teams will likely stick to only distributing via the App Store well after March arrives. It’s also likely that most EU users will continue to download most or all of their apps from the official store, as has always been true on Android — where the Google Play Store dominates (though various third-party stores are already available globally, Apple and Google combine to own 95% of the market share outside of China). But it wouldn’t take much for a popular app like Spotify or Netflix to potentially convince lots of users to install a second or third store on their phones.  

It’ll be only natural for teams to start exploring what else is out there, but it’ll be very important for those teams to consider the ramifications of any new choices users make. The possible impact will vary by team and by the appeal and opportunities afforded by third-party services that emerge. Let’s consider some of what teams will want to keep in mind as this brave new world unfolds.

Fragmented channels and support

The App Store remains the only method of iOS app distribution in the US and most of the world, so unless a team’s app is EU-only, they may find themselves with a mix of different channels to manage. Developers will only be allowed to distribute a single version of their app across different app stores, but there will also be more store presences and metadata to manage, and different “inboxes” of customer support and feedback to handle.

Teams will face extra work not only managing the act of deploying to different places, but also keeping on top of and auditing their practices to be sure they’re not running afoul of specific requirements that might apply to certain channels but not others.

In-app revenue and paid apps

With its walled garden, Apple has always exerted control over the flow of money through its ecosystem, and they’ve alienated (or at least strongly annoyed) a lot of developers in the process. Certain kinds of apps and business models are more affected than others, but the idea of distributing in a way  that is hands-off when it comes to monetization is attractive.

This may be one of several reasons why Apple made such a significant cut to their (still arguably high) commission fees for developers on the new business terms. Many third-party app stores that emerge in the EU will also look to take their cut, and then the relative advantages or disadvantages will come down to specifics around just how much they’re taking versus what sort of distribution they’re able to offer.

Discovery

The App Store gets eyeballs and, at least for certain apps, it can drive a lot of organic downloads. On the flip side, if teams diversify by distributing to various third-party app stores in addition to the App Store, that could potentially help get more users in the door. It remains to be seen when and whether any third-party app stores mature into real traffic-drivers rivaling the official store. These will need to have real audiences of their own to arguably have any real impact, like Steam for gaming.

Pre-production distribution

This is perhaps one of the most interesting areas that could evolve in a significant way. Although a lot of the attention tends to be on the role the App Store plays for production distribution, a general opening-up of the distribution ecosystem could also create more ways for teams in the EU to get staging and pre-production builds into the hands of different kinds of testers and users.

Although Apple has offered plenty of different flavors of pre-production distribution over the years, each one comes with drawbacks and tradeoffs — and those may go away if teams have more control over how they distribute builds. If teams are able to use a third-party platform for distribution, it’s likely that more resources would be needed internally to keep up with different channel requirements and ensure that distribution keeps running smoothly.  

Rules, guidelines, App Store review, and Notarization

Opening up alternative avenues for distribution does not mean Apple is giving up full control over which apps can and cannot be run on their devices. Every single app will still need to be submitted for review through App Store Connect, and if you specify it’s only going to be distributed through a third-party store, Apple will still put it through a more basic review process they call Notarization. Notarization likely will not take as long as the standard App Store review process — which is usually reasonable these days — but it is still a review. Apple states that Notarization for iOS apps will check for:

  • Accuracy — Apps must accurately represent the developer, capabilities, and costs to users.
  • Functionality — Binaries must be reviewable, free of serious bugs or crashes, and compatible with the current version of iOS. They cannot manipulate software or hardware in ways that negatively impact the user experience.
  • Safety — Apps cannot promote physical harm of the user or public.
  • Security — Apps cannot enable distribution of malware or of suspicious or unwanted software. They cannot download executable code, read outside of the container, or direct users to lower the security on their system or device. Also, apps must provide transparency and allow user consent to enable any party to access the system or device, or reconfigure the system or other software.
  • Privacy — Apps cannot collect or transmit private, sensitive data without a user’s knowledge or in a manner contrary to the stated purpose of the software.

Apple will also encrypt and sign all iOS apps intended for alternative distribution to help protect developers’ intellectual property and ensure that users get apps from known parties.

Apple’s new rules also require that your binaries be the same across distribution platforms. Which means if your app is on the App Store, then the version you distribute through Future 3rd-Party Store will have to be exactly the same — the provided functionality can’t vary.

Auto-updating and longtail versions

One of the trickiest things about shipping binaries is that you have little control when it comes to getting users to update to new versions as you release them. Apple’s native “Automatic Updates” setting helps here, ensuring that users who have opted-in will be automatically upgraded to each new version you ship. Of course, if teams lose this functionality by distributing outside of the App Store, they’ll have a higher percentage of users lagging behind and all the overhead that comes with managing longtail versions.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that auto-updating mechanisms will be available outside of the App Store. One would expect third-party app stores in the EU to look to implement their own version of the feature, presuming that Apple allows them to do so.

Security

One of the loudest points Apple has made in favor of its walled garden is that opening up distribution is a security risk, and it’s hard to argue with the reality that there will be more to consider on the security front with this more open ecosystem.  

For teams choosing to distribute outside of the App Store, assuring users about the authenticity and integrity of their product — and actually delivering on that — will become a critical concern.

Apple is certainly already concerned, which is why they’ve announced several safeguards that will apply to all apps, regardless of how they’re distributed:

  • Notarization for iOS apps — a baseline review that applies to all apps, regardless of their distribution channel, focused on platform integrity and protecting users. Notarization involves a combination of automated checks and human review.
  • App installation sheets — that use information from the Notarization process to provide at-a-glance descriptions of apps and their functionality before download, including the developer, screenshots, and other essential information.
  • Authorization for marketplace developers — to ensure marketplace developers commit to ongoing requirements that help protect users and developers.
  • Additional malware protections — that prevent iOS apps from launching if they’re found to contain malware after being installed to a user’s device.

What happens next?

iOS 17.4 is in beta as we speak. Will new stores emerge the moment it’s officially launched in March? Almost certainly, though what that will mean is unclear.  

Tim Sweeney of Epic Games, which is one of the likelier companies to launch their own store, is arguing on Twitter that Apple is taking a “malicious compliance” approach to the DMA, maintaining an unreasonable level of control over which app stores they will or won’t allow on their mobile devices.

Will they still attempt to launch their own store? Will Steam? Amazon? Spotify? We won’t know for sure until we get closer to March.

What is Runway doing next?

The changes we’ve been talking about here are of course very relevant to the Runway platform. What will we do next as third-party app stores become a reality, at least for some of the iOS world? Well, we’ll continue doing what we’ve already been doing, for one.

Our launch last year of an Amazon Appstore integration (for the Android side), as well as more distribution integrations in general (including our own), have paved the way for big projects this year that will allow teams to take any given app and ship it any place they want. Some of those places could soon be the latest and greatest third-party app stores for iOS.

With the growing list of stores that teams might choose to distribute to, complexity and fragmentation around the release process will inevitably increase. Our mission, as ever, will be to help teams rein in that complexity and reduce that fragmentation. Runway will serve as your team’s mission control for everything store-related, from wrangling metadata and screenshots, to handling submission and release, to keeping tabs on those longtail versions we talked about above, to staying on top of shifting rules and requirements, and more.

Is your team planning on exploring third-party stores? Do you think this is all a bit much and no one will really stray far from the first-party Apple ecosystem?

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Release better with Runway.

Runway integrates with all the tools you’re already using to level-up your release coordination and automation, from kickoff to release to rollout. No more cat-herding, spreadsheets, or steady drip of manual busywork.

Don’t have a CI/CD pipeline for your mobile app yet? Struggling with a flaky one?

Try Runway Quickstart CI/CD to quickly autogenerate an end-to-end workflow for major CI/CD providers.

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