Thu. Feb 29th, 2024

Freedom! Europe liberates developers from Apple’s tyrannical grip on the App Ecosystem! Or… have people not really thought through the actual consequences, and will Apple comply in the letter of the law without really giving anything away? Let.s talk.

What the law says.

Europe’s Digital Markets Act, or DMA basically means that Apple could be forced to allow alternative ways of getting apps on the iPhone and iPad for the first time, without using Apple’s own first party App Store to get them, whether free or paid. Since Apple launched the App Store the day before the iPhone 3G launched in 2008, it’s been the only way to get non-web apps on your iPhone.

Why could it be dangerous?

Apple’s argument for the App Store has long been that they have all the checks and balances in place to make sure that the apps in their store are safe, not scams and not going to take over your device. Their argument for the the value offered by the 15% that Apple takes from the payments of the platform. Wait, you’re surprised I didn’t say 30%? Well Apple only takes 15% of the first million dollars any given developer makes per year, with 30% on anything over that 1 million – but that means 98% of developers only ever pay 15%.

Apple’s track record with this hasn’t been perfect, but it has been a damn site better than the alternative with Google Play and the Android platform in general, where there are certainly ways to install apps that haven’t been checked by the platform’s team. Apple has VASTLY fewer scam apps, and when they happen, they don’t last for long.

So third party App stores would likely not have the same level of oversight and quality control going on that Apple’s currently does, but and many have said, if you don’t want to enable these third party stores, you won’t need to use them, so of course everyone can just choose to stay safe in that world, right? Apple can just throw in a couple of buried toggles in settings to enable them, and the non-power users can just stick to what they have right now? Well, it may not be that simple. 

What if major apps move?

So here’s the big problem, and of course there’s no guarantee that Apple would even be allowed to offer a “disable third party App Stores” in settings, or make it difficult for side loading. But either way, if there’s apps that people really want that are only in those other App stores, people are going to switch them on, if only in their minds to get those specific apps. I can’t imagine Tim Sweeney over at Epic Games isn’t already dancing for joy at the prospect of being able to add his own store to bring Fortnite back to the iPhone and the iPad. And yeah, it’s a decent game (though I prefer Call of Duty Mobile personally over the cartoon version.

We have the same issues though with Twitter – Elon seems pretty unhappy with the way Apple wants the content to be at least reasonably safe, so why not take it to a different store instead of the main Apple one, save all that cash on people paying to verify themselves too at the same time… Maybe?

Or Mark Zuckerberg builds a Meta store to get your Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, with out all that pesky Apple App Tracking Transparency that lets you control your data but costs Meta a fortune on lower ad revenues. You can see, it won’t take long for most people to need to switch on the third party app stores. But as soon as you CAN install non-Apple checked software, things could go south quickly.

Here’s where it gets scary.

We’ve all seen the “YOUR FLASH IS OUT OF DATE” pop ups on the desktop. They’re pretty obvious scams, and just like many email scams where you find that the FBI is trying to give you some money that’s being held for you after the death of a relative, they’re actually crap on purpose, so that only the easiest targets click, because they’re the easiest to exploit.

But what if you’re using your phone on an app, and you see an ad for another app you may find pretty useful. You click, and you see this. Looks nice and safe, like Apple’s store. But you’ve already enabled third party stores to install something that was well known and safe like Facebook or Fortnite. The thing is, this ISN’T Apple’s App Store, it’s a scamy third party one, designed to look identical to Apple’s and actually it’s downloading malware onto your iPhone. The same iPhone that has your bank details in your banking app, has constant GPS positioning, all your contact’s details, all your emails and text messages, and all your definitely not compromising images. Oh, and a couple of cameras and microphones on it, that Apple, until now has been making sure aren’t used without your knowledge. Just, bear that in mind.

And, its people like me, and if you’re watching this, probably you, who’ll be spending all your visits to family members trying to troubleshoot all the issues these things cause on your mom’s and your grandad’s iPhones. 

How Apple could hobble outside apps

Here’s what I have a feeling may be about to happen though. While Apple will have to allow apps to be side loaded or installed from other stores, they don’t have to make it that easy for developers who choose to. Right now, if you’re an Apple developer, you’ll get access to all those APIs and Frameworks that make the Apple ecosystem what it is. Imagine you’re trying to build a massive tower with a flag on the 20th floor. 

Apple’s frameworks are basically the first 15-17 of those floors, already built for you. Without an Apple developer account for the App Store – Apple is unlikely to let 3rd parties who want to use their own delivery methods access to those frameworks and APIs. Now, there could eventually be some proprietary frameworks and APIs built to let the software talk to iPhone’s hardware, but that will be expensive and time consuming. And while Apple’s frameworks get updated each year for the new iPhone and iPad hardware so that developers don’t have to rewrite their code every time new devices appear, That would likely not be the case without Apple’s own frameworks and API calls.

So if you were wondering what that cut Apple takes for App payments is, the 15-30%, it’s this. It’s paying for Xcode, and development resources, and teams of software engineers at Apple, as well as access to Apple’s 1.5 billion active devices and the audience behind them, and payment processing, and all that jazz.

Doesn’t seem like such a bad deal all of a sudden.