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Apple has been under pressure in the European Union as the Digital Markets Act antitrust legislation requires the company to allow users to sideload apps outside the App Store to increase competition. The iOS 17.2 beta code that the company is indeed moving towards enabling sideloading on iOS devices.
Update: Apple has published new documentation for the ManagedAppDistribution API on its website confirming that it is primarily intended as an MDM solution. As we suggested in our report, it could still be used for other purposes. You can read the original article below.
What is sideloading
For those unfamiliar, the sideloading process consists of installing apps obtained from third-party sources instead of an official source. When it comes to iOS, the official source (and the only one available to iPhone and iPad users) is the App Store. Apple has never allowed sideloading on iOS, as this would allow apps to bypass the App Store guidelines.
However, the European Union last year passed the Digital Markets Act, or DMA, a new piece of antitrust legislation aimed at big tech companies so that they don’t use 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.
Previous reports revealed that Apple had been doing under-the-hood work on iOS 17 to prepare the system for sideloading in Europe. With the iOS 17.2 beta, internal code suggests this is true.
iOS 17.2 seems ready to allow alternative app stores
iOS 17.2 has a new public framework called “Managed App Distribution.” While our first thought was that this API would be related to MDM solutions for installing enterprise apps (which is already possible on iOS), it seems that Apple has been working on something more significant than that.
By analyzing the new API, we’ve learned that it has an extension endpoint declared in the system, which means that other apps can create extensions of this type. Digging even further, we found a new, unused entitlement that will give third-party apps permission to install other apps. In other words, this would allow developers to create their own app stores.
The API has basic controls for downloading, installing, and even updating apps from external sources. It can also check whether an app is compatible with a specific device or iOS version, which the App Store already does. Again, this could easily be used to modernize MDM solutions, but here’s another thing.
We also found references to a region lock in this API, which suggests that Apple could restrict it to specific countries. This wouldn’t make sense for MDM solutions, but it does make sense for enabling sideloading in particular countries only when required by authorities – such as in the European Union.
When will this happen?
In theory, Apple is required to comply with DMA legislation by March 2024. The company has even admitted in a Form 10-K filing that it expects to make changes that will impact the App Store’s business model.
At the same time, Apple will also appeal to the European Union about including the App Store in the Digital Markets Act, which is no surprise. Apple will likely try everything to preserve the iOS App Store. But ultimately, iOS 17 will be ready for sideloading.