Sideloading in iOS 17: Will Apple ever play right, and can the iPhone succeed if it does?

WWDC 2023 has come and gone, meaning iOS 17 should be upon us sooner rather than later (unlike Apple Vision Pro sadly). Overall, my overall impression is that this iteration is a somewhat incremental update and offers far less to get excited about than last year’s iOS 16. However, during the main keynote, I couldn’t help but wonder: why is there no mention of sideloading, the one thing I was genuinely excited about? For reference, the latter is a fancy way of describing the process of downloading software from third-party distributors. In the context of iOS, it means allowing Apple’s proprietary App Store and alternative third-party App Stores to coexist.

By extension, implementing sideloading in iOS means affecting the Apple ecosystem and forcing the Cupertino company to reconsider (at least in part) its corporate strategy, which it would never do willingly.

For better or for worse, the European Commission knows a thing or two about regulating American tech giants and is pressuring Apple to drop one of its most anticompetitive practices. So much so that Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman said sideloading would be introduced with iOS 17, hence my expectations.

Needless to say, this prediction did not materialize. That might not seem like a big deal at first, but, considering how dominant iOS has become in recent years, I beg to differ. In this article, I’ll take a look at the sideloading conundrum the Cupertino-based company is grappling with and what’s really at stake here.

Sideloading: why is it necessary?

First, I need to explain as concisely as possible why omitting the sideloading feature is problematic. Essentially, it all boils down to Apple’s current business model. After the death of Steve Jobs, the company began placing a greater emphasis on services and, by extension, the App Store.

As a result, this has made it all the more important to preserve Apple’s grip on the software its users can access. What was once controversial (namely banning third-party software channels) is now a de facto cornerstone of design philosophy and an important source of profit.

However, the lack of sideloading has a number of extremely negative implications for users. The main one is that it limits what they can do with their devices. The second is that it can indirectly increase the amount of money they have to spend on apps.

The reason for this is that there is a sizable Apple tax that every developer has to pay if they want to make money using the proprietary App Store. Consequently, these costs are often ultimately paid for by the end user. To offset the Apple Tax, developers have to charge more — frankly, it’s as simple as that. It should be noted that this is not unique to the App Store, and that a similar (albeit to a lesser extent) arrangement exists in the world of Android via Google Play.

This has serious consequences for market competition and for developers, who are forced to play by Apple’s rules, because not doing so would mean losing access to billions of users. If that sounds anti-competitive, you’re right: the European Commission thinks so too.

Sideloading: the ultimatum and the solution

This is why European regulators are trying to curb Apple and put an end to this business model. Sideloading will do nothing but good for both users and developers. In my view, it might not even be all that bad for the tech giants’ bottom lines (more on that later). Indeed, it would be infinitely more damaging to Apple to risk having the iPhone banned from what is currently the company’s second most important market.

This is why sideloading will forcefully make its way to iOS in later years, one way or another. But it looks like Apple is trying to delay the inevitable for a little while longer. The only concrete mention of sideloading came from Craig Federighi on the Live From WWDC 2023 Talk Show, where he said that Apple is working with the EU and will do the right thing for its customers.

The look on the senior vice president’s face says everything you need to know about sideloading. It makes Apple uncomfortable because it will have to reconsider one of its most defining features. Anticompetitive practices have a part to play in Apple’s power: it has learned to monopolize people’s lives and become a billion-dollar company in the process.

The App Store is just one of countless examples: iMessage, Lightning Port, Apple Ecosystem. These are all different facets of the same problem. And none of them should be tolerated.

Apple and the right thing for its customers

So why exactly aren’t third-party app stores the right thing for Apple customers? The company has made many arguments over the years against sideloading, most of which boil down to the concept of safety.

Essentially, software downloaded from a third-party app store would not be monitored by Cupertino and would therefore pose a potential danger. Admittedly, this is indeed a genuine concern. However, it is ultimately up to the customer to decide whether they are willing to take risks with their device. Directly removing the option to do this is not and cannot be the solution.

Furthermore, the vast majority of users will probably never resort to third-party app stores. The iPhone is successful because it does what it does well and without additional problems. If Apple adjusts its App Store to match the much-needed competition sideloading will introduce to the ecosystem, the feature will never be an issue to begin with.

Only if Apple decides to continue imposing unreasonable terms on developers (and users) will third-party app stores become a problem. This is why iOS 17 had to implement sideloading: it will force the company to accept some form of competition in its ecosystem.

The lack of third-party app stores creates a perverse incentive for Apple to exploit the current status quo. By extension, all users (not just those who aren’t interested in sideloading apps) simply need to trust Cupertino not to abuse its position. Unfortunately, we all know that only willing companies should self-regulate.

Ultimately, sideloading will ensure that Apple is on an equal footing with all of its competitors in this regard. Frankly, I think Cupertino is good enough to win even if he plays by the rules. If Craig Federighi thinks otherwise, he should continue to work against the sideloading implementation.

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