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What to consider if Apple opens up the iOS app ecosystem

Third-party app stores, sideloading, and what it might mean for your team

There’s been a lot of buzz over the past day or two about cracks that may be forming in Apple’s walled garden. Reports [paywall] are emerging that Apple is taking concrete steps to allow app distribution outside their ecosystem, via third-party app stores and/or sideloading — a seismic shift that could be a reality as soon as the release of iOS 17. To be sure, this isn’t the result of Apple willingly opening up their ecosystem; rather they’re preparing to accommodate new rules forced upon them by certain regulators. This could mean they’ll only make these rumored changes in specific geographic regions, and it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll do whatever they can to make non-Apple paths as fraught with security warnings and hoops to jump through as is permissible under the new laws.

How exactly this all shakes out is anyone’s guess, especially when it comes to all of the technical details of how Apple will open up the platform while still maintaining some reasonable (and legal) measure of control. But, without wanting to speculate or gaze into any crystal balls, this is a subject our team has thought a lot about — and many expect a change here is a matter of “when”, not “if”. So, since this is extra top-of-mind for people right now, let’s take the opportunity to explore the ramifications a bit: what should your team consider if (when) Apple loosens their grip on app distribution?

Alternative distribution for iOS: what to consider 

It’s quite possible that a large chunk of teams will stick to distributing via the App Store for the foreseeable future, even once the ecosystem starts opening up. But as things play out, teams will naturally be curious about the other distribution options that become available to them, and it will be important for them to consider the ramifications of any new choices they make.

Below, we’ll explore some of the things teams will want to keep in mind as this brave new world unfolds. The possible impact of each one will vary by team, and by the particular new distribution method in question. For example, shipping via third-party app stores will afford more of the infrastructure comforts you’re used to now, but with less overall flexibility. With sideloading, you’d have full control over how you get your app into users’ hands, but doing that reliably and securely will demand more of your team, especially if you have a sizable user base.

Fragmented channels and support

It’s likely that teams who start exploring alternative distribution won’t immediately — or ever — pull their apps from the App Store. Suddenly, teams will have a mix of different channels to manage. Not only will this create overhead and extra work when it comes to shipping updates, but there will also be more store presences and metadata to manage, and different “inboxes” of customer support and feedback to deal with.

A lot hinges on exactly how Apple ends up changing things, but there’s potential for even more fragmentation if, say, distribution and requirements around it are relaxed in certain geographic regions but not others. Teams will face extra work not only managing the act of deploying different ways, 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

This is one of the most talked about parts of the whole topic. With its walled garden, Apple has always exerted control over the flow of money through its ecosystem, and they’ve alienated a lot of developers in the process. Certain kinds of apps and business models are more affected than others, but the idea of distributing somewhere that is hands-off when it comes to monetization will be attractive to many. Of course, many third-party apps stores that emerge will also look to take their cut, and then the relative advantages or disadvantages come down to specifics around how — and how much.

Even as distribution options open up, Apple may try to continue applying pressure around monetization. In a couple of markets where Apple has already been forced to loosen their grip, they’ve done what they can to add hurdles for developers looking to use third-party payment systems.

Discovery

The App Store gets eyeballs and, at least for certain apps, it can drive a lot of organic downloads. Walking away from that entirely could have a big impact for some teams. On the flipside, if teams diversify by distributing to various third-party app stores in addition to the App Store, that could only help get more users in the door. It remains to be seen how exactly third-party app stores arrive on the scene, and when (or whether) any of them mature into real traffic-drivers rivaling the official store.

In the case of distributing directly to end users via sideloading, teams will be on their own when it comes to discovery. For larger companies and well-known brands, this could actually be a great thing. Instead of needing to bounce people over to the App Store, you can surface direct links to download your app on high-traffic pages you already own.

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 App Store and the role it plays for production distribution, a general opening-up of the distribution ecosystem will surely create more ways for teams to get staging and pre-production builds into the hands of different kinds of testers and users.

Whereas now Apple imposes significant limitations on just how widely and easily teams can distribute pre-production builds — testers are capped, review is required if testers are external to your org — teams will have more options for getting test builds into more people’s hands, more seamlessly. Although Apple has offered plenty of different flavors of non-production distribution over the years, each one comes with drawbacks and tradeoffs — and those go away if teams have total control over how they distribute builds.

The same considerations around infrastructure and tooling will apply here. Depending on the approach teams take — distributing directly to testers or using some third-party platform — it’s likely that more resources will be needed internally to ensure distribution keeps running smoothly.  

Rules, guidelines, and App Store review

In opening up alternative avenues for distribution, Apple isn’t just giving up control over the delivery process, it’s also giving up its ability to apply rules and standards to the products being delivered. Of course Apple continues to exert control via its own software and frameworks, but it will have less say in exactly what and how people build. On one end of the scale, this could save teams from the occasional speedbumps and dings for trivial issues that come up during Apple’s review process; on the other, extreme end of the scale, certain kinds of apps which have been disallowed entirely on the App Store will now be readily available to users elsewhere.

Not having to play by all of Apple’s rules also means there’s no one checking whether you’re playing by all of Apple’s rules. That is, no more App Store review process! Even though review times are reasonable these days, it’s still a part of the process that introduces uncertainty and some slowness that teams won’t miss.

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 “App 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. Presumably any third-party app stores will look to implement their own version of the feature, and teams distributing directly to users could try to build their own updating mechanism into their apps — but that of course takes work.

Infrastructure

For teams who choose to distribute themselves, making binaries directly available to users at scale suddenly calls for a ton of infrastructure know-how and maintenance. Something that’s easy to forget is that Apple does a pretty good job of making our apps instantly available to many millions of users all around the world, with negligible downtime or other hiccups. A lot of work goes into that, and for teams stepping outside the Apple ecosystem, all that work lands on their plate.

Large, resource-rich and multi-platform companies might already be well-versed in this area so it wouldn’t present a huge challenge. But for much of the mobile world, especially mobile-first or mobile-only companies, suddenly needing to spin up this whole other kind of infrastructure would be a big adjustment. 

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 in a 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. Depending on the third-party app stores that spring up and who is behind them, other ecosystems may be able to offer adequate protections. But for teams who self-host and distribute directly to users, they’ll have to do the hard work to ensure their infrastructure is entirely secure and there’s no risk of shipping compromised binaries.

Finally, Apple itself may choose to add extra security warnings or require users to opt in to apps from third-party distribution platforms (much as Google does with Android today), and preparing your users for the extra friction should be part of the forward assessment.

So… what happens next?

It’s already clear that a more open future of iOS distribution could really shake up how companies decide to ship their apps to end users, but there are still way more unknowns than knowns. It makes sense to start thinking ahead to how some of the potential changes might affect your team but, beyond some directional considerations we covered here, any details will be limited to informed speculation until official announcements from Apple. We’ll be keeping our ear to the ground along with the community, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on what this might mean for the future of iOS development!

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