Installing a third-party app store on iPhone is ‘irritating and scary’

Installing a third-party app store is now possible for iPhone owners in the EU – but it’s not exactly a quick-and-easy process.

It seems a safe bet that this is a deliberate move on Apple’s part to deter people from doing it – something which is likely to land the company in court on antitrust charges …

Third-party app stores

The EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) requires Apple to allow third-party app stores on the iPhone, and the company has responded in a grudging fashion.

At the time Apple announced the change, back in January, we noted the company’s extreme reluctance to comply.

The wording of Apple’s announcement makes it clear that the company is only begrudgingly complying with a law it thinks should never have been passed […] The impression Apple seeks to create is that this is essentially the end of app civilisation as we know it.

The company also introduced an annual Core Technology Fee (CTF) of €0.50 (55c) per app install, which means that if you offer a free app which goes viral, you could be filing for bankruptcy rather than celebrating. Many freemium apps operate on a business model where a tiny fraction of their customers upgrade to a paid version, but if they hit over a million downloads, they pay for all the non-paying users too.

Third-party app stores themselves pay the CTF from the very first install, meaning that they are potentially running up bills of millions of Euros without any guaranteed revenue.

The EU has said it is not satisfied that Apple is complying with the law, and has opened a formal non-compliance investigation.

Installing a third-party app store

The Verge tried out the process of installing a third-party app store, and found that it was far from straightforward.

First, some stores will pass on the €0.50 fee to users. While this is a very small sum for an individual, it may be enough to deter a casual decision to take a look at an alternative app store.

Another potential roadblock to widespread third-party marketplace adoption is just how fiddly it is, with each store taking around a dozen screen interactions to install. 

It goes like this: you begin by clicking a browser-based link to load the alternative store. From there, you receive a pop-up informing you that your installation settings don’t allow marketplaces from that developer. Then, you head into Settings, enable the marketplace, return to your browser, click the download link again, and receive another prompt asking you to confirm the install. Finally, you can open the store and browse the available apps.

It’s not a tricky procedure to follow, but there are enough steps and scary language to make it irritating and act as a deterrent — especially when Apple’s App Store only requires a single click to get going. It’s hard to view this as anything other than the company’s attempt to sap people’s energy and dissuade them from carrying on, especially given Apple’s historical prowess at designing user experiences. 

And that’s just for apps created by the developer running the app store. Apps from other developers require an additional step to add them as an app “source.”

AltStore allows you to add sources, which are URLs developers share that contain JSON files holding app metadata. Once these sources are added, the apps they point to can be downloaded from AltStore. It’s a little Inception-esque: stores within a store.

But it could be worth it

I’m not a gamer, so was unable to share The Verge’s excitement at the Nintendo emulator, Delta. But the clipboard manager Clip sounds like a huge improvement on those available from the official App Store – because it can run permanently in the background.

For example, Paste [from the official App Store] requires you to open the app each time you want to add something you’ve copied to the clipboard.

This is where Clip thrives, by comparison. When you copy something, you immediately receive a notification and can swipe down to save it to your clipboard. This means you have the option to add it if it’s something useful — like an address — or dismiss the notification if it’s something you don’t want logged, like a password. I found saving your copied items like this into a centralized location to be incredibly useful, as it makes sharing and reusing these snippets painless.

Essentially, you’re getting jailbreak-style benefits, but with security measures like app sandboxing in place, and all apps still subject to review and notarization by Apple.

9to5Mac’s Take

I’d agree with The Verge’s assessment that Apple is deliberately making the process as difficult and scary as possible, to protect its own App Store revenues. With this sort of convoluted process, and a small fee on top, it’s likely only power users who will install third-party app stores.

On security, Apple is trying to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand, it’s saying all apps sold through third-party app stores will be subject to exactly the same app review process as those sold in the official App Store. On the other hand, it wants to tell users they should worry about the security of the apps … which Apple approved as safe.

The EU has already indicated that both the security warnings and fee are unlikely to be considered compliant. An official finding to this effect is a near-certainty, but could take up to a year. In the meantime, be prepared to jump through some hoops if you’re in the EU and want to use these app stores.

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