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Report: Apple plans to support sideloading and third-party app stores by 2024

Enlarge / Apple HQ in Cupertino, California.

Employees across Apple are working on changes to iOS that would open the iPhone to apps outside Apple’s App Store, a report in Bloomberg claims. Citing people familiar with the efforts, the article claims that Apple is attempting to take action by 2024, in response to regulations from the European Union, such as the Digital Markets Act. In fact, the changes could go wide as soon as the release of iOS 17 late next year.

This would mark a dramatic shift from Apple’s long-standing position that third-party app stores and sideloading apps from outside the App Store would pose security and privacy risks for iPhone owners. However, Apple is exploring ways to limit users’ exposure to potentially malicious apps. For example, the company is discussing the possibility of still requiring outside apps to be “verified” by Apple, with specific security requirements.

Some version of that approach might look something like the situation on the Mac, where you can install any app you want, but you have to jump through some hoops to install something that Apple hasn’t verified.

Whatever the specific outcome, Bloomberg’s sources say that the initiative to make this happen is not popular within the company, even though numerous people across several teams are involved in it. Some workers agree with the company line about privacy and security, while others see it as a distraction from adding other features or addressing other issues in Apple’s software.

Additional changes are planned in response to the Digital Markets Act, like the opening of several features via API to third-party developers that were previously only available to Apple. For example, near-field payments would be possible for third-party apps, and third-party camera apps would gain more access to the camera’s features.

There are still more changes called for by the Digital Markets Act that Apple hasn’t yet made specific plans to address, though. Regulators have called for interoperability between messaging systems like iMessage, but Bloomberg’s sources say Apple engineers fear that those changes could jeopardize end-to-end encryption and other privacy and security features of the messaging platform that help distinguish it from alternatives.

Another part of the Digital Markets Act would seem to require Apple to allow app developers to include third-party payment systems in their apps. Apple hasn’t decided how to approach this either, beyond the small concessions it made that let reader and cloud-based apps direct users to web-based payments as part of a recent agreement with Japan’s government.

Further changes in that area will likely impact Apple’s bottom line, as, of course, would the availability of third-party app stores and sideloading.

The article suggests these changes might only take effect in Europe and that they might not yet impact users in North America or other regions unaffected by this specific legislation. That would also be a departure for Apple, which (with a few exceptions) has largely offered mostly the same features and experience in each operating system and device across regions. That said, many of the specifics about Apple’s plan are likely still in flux.

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