Sideloading is the process of installing apps on a device without using the official app store. For example, Android users can download APK files from websites and install them on their phones, bypassing the Google Play Store. Sideloading has been a feature of Android since its inception, but it has never been possible on iOS devices including iPhones, until now.
The team at 9to5 Mac spotted a new public framework called “Managed App Distribution” in the iOS 17.2 beta code which was released quite recently for those enrolled into the beta program of iOS. The API has basic controls for downloading, installing, and even updating apps from external sources.
However, on the other hand, Apple has published new documentation for the ManagedAppDistribution API on its website confirming that it is primarily intended as an MDM solution which allows installation of enterprise apps. The publication still claims that it could be used for other purposes, such as sideloading of apps or creation of new app stores.
What could it mean for Apple?
For context, the European Union passed the Digital Markets Act (DMA) back last year which restricts big tech companies from using their advantages to undermine competition. One of the requirements of the DMA is that users can install any apps they want from third-party sources.
While the act is already in place, Apple requested for more time to implement it as it claimed that its systems aren’t ready yet. The EU accepted Apple’s request on one condition where the feature would be introduced no later than the iOS 17.2 update which should arrive in early 2024.
Previous reports also corroborate the new development which stated that Apple has begun developing groundwork for sideloading of apps in iOS 17. Now, if Apple has to comply with the rules laid by EU, then allowing sideloading of apps would actually mean that the company would be giving up on a considerable amount of revenue it gains from the developers.
That is because Apple currently takes a 15% to 30% commission from all the purchases or in-app purchases of all applications that are present on the App Store. Sideloading would mean that Apps will have their own payment gateways and other framework that would not allow Apple to gain revenue from the makers of the app.
If Apple decides to against the EU’s rules, then the regulatory body could impose huge periodic fines on the company. Apple would be risking huge financial losses and potential regulatory interventions if it decides to go against the EU’s DMA act. It would also damage its reputation and trust among its customers, developers, and partners in the EU.
Not only that, but EU could entirely stop sales of Apple’s products in Europe, which would further hurt the brand in a major way. Apple definitely won’t be taking that risk and we think it would definitely comply with what EU wants, even though the company would argue that allowing sideloading of apps would be a potential invite to security breaches and the privacy of the user, something Apple is known for keeping at the top of its priority list.
What could it mean for Android?
While it does have its drawbacks, allowing for sideloading of apps could also result in a potentially positive move for Apple. Sideloading on iPhones could reduce the appeal of Android for some users who value the freedom and flexibility of installing apps from any source. Android has long been known for its openness and customization, while iOS has been seen as more restrictive and uniform.
Sideloading on iPhone could narrow this gap and make iOS more attractive for users who want to try new or alternative apps that are not available on the App Store. In addition, sideloading on iPhones could also benefit Android by increasing the competition and innovation in the mobile app market. It could enable more developers to create and distribute apps for both platforms, without having to comply with the rules and fees of the App Store or the Play Store.
It may also allow more apps to work on both platforms seamlessly, meaning users won’t have to worry about data transfer of that particular app if they want to make a switch from Android to iOS or vice versa. Further, it may allow certain Android exclusive apps to make their way to iOS, making it possible for iPhone users to try their favourite Android apps.
Sideloading on iPhone is a significant change for the iOS ecosystem, and it could have various implications for Android and the mobile app industry. Whether it will be a positive or negative change remains to be seen, as it will depend on how users and developers will adopt and use this feature.