Apple is cracking open the walled garden that is its iPhone ecosystem… but only in Europe.

Up until recently, the only official way to install apps on an iPhone was through the App Store (or with a developer account). But now, in order to comply with the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA), Apple is allowing users to sideload apps and even install third-party app stores. But Apple would really prefer if you didn’t.

iOS 17

The company’s press release announcing the changes puts as much emphasis on why you shouldn’t take advantage of the new features as it does explaining what they are.

According to Apple, allowing “new options for processing payments and downloading apps on iOS” will “open new avenues for malware, fraud and scams, illicit and harmful content, and other privacy and security threats.”

Nonetheless, Apple notes that when iOS 17.4 rolls out in March, 2024 it will allow developers to make apps available outside of the App Store, and allow users to sideload apps or app stores. An iOS 17.4 beta is available for testing starting today.

In order to enable this change, Apple is providing developers with new APIs and tools to make apps distributed outside the App Store work with iOS and a framework for third-party app stores to manage app updates.

Other changes in iOS 17.4 for European developers and users include:

  • Support for alternate browser engines: iOS has supported 3rd-party browsers for some time, they’ve all had to use the same WebKit rendering engine as Safari until now. But this change opens support for Google Chrome to use its Blink engine, or for Firefox to use Gecko.
  • The first time users open Safari, they’ll be greeted with a browser selection screen allowing them to choose a default browser
  • New APIs that allow developers to use NFC technology for third-party banking and wallet apps
  • Apps can use third-party payment service providers as an alternative to the App Store

Apple does spend a fair amount of time pointing out why it thinks these concessions to the DMA are bad ideas… and spells out a whole bunch of additional changes it’s making that the company claims will help minimize the risks that come with opening up the ecosystem. For example, there’s a new notarization “baseline review” processor for all apps, no matter where they’re distributed, allowing Apple to provide users with uniform descriptions of apps before they’re installed.

Apple really doesn’t like the idea of browser selection screens, noting that “EU users will be confronted with a list of default browsers before they have the opportunity to understand the options available to them. The screen also interrupts EU users’ experience the first time they open Safari intending to navigate to a webpage.”

The company also notes that it “will not be able to issue refunds” for app, game, or other purchases made using a third-party payment service. Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get a refund… it just means you’ll have to request it using a third-party service and/or directly from the developer rather than Apple.

The company is lowering the cut of revenue it takes from apps and subscriptions purchased through the App Store for developers that opt into the new rules. Instead of taking a 30% commission, the company says it will get a 20% commission on purchases that use Apple’s payment processing or 17% for those that use third-party payment services. But don’t be surprised if some developers decide to skip the App Store altogether in order to keep more money… if they can find a way to do that under the new rules. Even then, Apple plans to charge developers a fee of €0.50 for every user per year whether an app is downloaded from the App Store or an alternate marketplace. The first million app installs are exempt from this fee, so it might not affect smaller developers, but developers of popular apps and games could end up paying Apple quite a bit of money under that rule.

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney says Apple’s new rules suggest Apple can “choose which stores are allowed to compete with their App Store,” possibly blocking the Epic Games Store or other competitors. But Epic Games does plan to launch an app store for iOS users in Europe later this year, bringing Fortnite and other games back to the iPhone.

Game Streaming and mini apps and games

There is one big change Apple is making that isn’t restricted to Europe: iPhone users around the world will now be able to use game streaming services like Amazon Luna, Xbox Cloud Gaming, or NVIDIA GeForce Now.

Apple is now allowing developers to “submit a single app with the capability to stream all of the games offered in their catalog.” Previously the company had effectively treated these sorts of game streaming apps like third-party app stores and insisted that developers who wanted to allow users to stream games over the internet could only do that if they submitted an individual app for each and every game offered.

Developers can also now use Apple’s in-app purchasing system for content or services offered through in-app mini-apps, mini-gams, chatbots, or plugins.

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  1. Everything that f*cks Apple is always a good news, even if it’s small :).

    Maybe someday they are forced to open their OS in a way they can’t have any control anymore.

    A single court can bend their will no matter how big they are. It’s someway comforting 🙂

    1. Hopefully this will mean iOS Devices get improved. They need more powerful Apps, choices, and options. The Web Browser decision is one they really hate, but I do think it will lead to better things, like a stripped-down/privacy Chromium/Brave Browser or an alternate engine with all the additions tacked on from Firefox.

      It’s also good for Gamers.
      With the native support for controllers, and the invitation of AAA-Gaming it sounds enticing. Also having Microsoft’s xCloud Streaming service would be a boon for high-end/modern gaming anywhere or anytime.

      Me personally, I’m interested in emulation. The likes of the iPhone 8+ should be able to handle upto Nintendo Wii easily, whilst the upcoming iPhone 16 Max should be to emulate well above that. Whereas the rumoured iPad Mini 7 which is supposed to be slightly larger, fit into the GameSir G8 controller, and have a powerful M1 chipset should be able to do NSwitch Emulation as good/better than the likes of the Valve SteamDeck.

      Overall, good things are coming to iOS Customers, and just customers in-general, as I suspect this will have knock-on effects.

      1. I very much doubt that under the current rules Apple will allow any emulators (as in, a software package that allows you to load your choice of read-only memory dumps from game cartridges) on iphones. It’s still up to Apple to sign off on anything anyone wants to run on an iphone regardless of where the package is hosted, and Apple would prefer you pay it for each game no matter how old it is or what it was originally for.
        Doesn’t mean that “alternative marketplaces” won’t be hosting old games with an emulator as part of the package, but if they allowed an emulator on those “alternative marketplaces” then no one in the EU would have a reason to buy an individual game on the app store.

  2. I’m going to say this though. This one time. Climate change is a huge lie.

    You can’t have plastics without oil, and there’s no way that the major governments of the world wont fuel their militaries without fuel.

    We are on an uptick in CO2 levels and temperature, yes. But that’s a regular cycle that the Earth has seen for billions of years.

    The Earth is polluted, yes, but we are not responsible for these storms and uptick in temperature. There was a study many years ago done, that did carbon ice samples, and showed the Earth goes through cycles over millenia, centuries and millions of years. We just so happen to be on the uptick cycle right now.

    When the dinosaurs died, they saw temperatures and CO2 levels that far exceeded where we are now. We go through an ice age about every 32,000 years. We are currently melting from it.

    Just saying. Oil isn’t going away. Earth is going to get hotter. But it’s a natural cycle, not done by man. Don’t be decieved.

    1. It’s funny (not) how we’re all taught that the Earth has gone through extreme changes since the beginning of time, without the aid of any humans, and now all of a sudden every single weather event that happens is due to “climate change”. Which of course the name itself is so generic that you can’t argue against it, climate change, yes of course the climate is changing all of the time. What’s next? “Water Wet”, “Grass Grow”, “Earth Spin”…
      Don’t worry, the powers that be have a plan to reduce global warming, Stratospheric aerosol injection! It’s totally not the same thing as “Chem Trails” that wackos have been pointing out!

  3. Apple — ugh! It’s sickening that so many people still look to it to supply their phones and computers.

  4. I’m saying something that would normally be antithetical to my beliefs, but in this case, I think because of security, Apple’s closed garden might actually be better for consumers on iOS devices.

    With all those apps that were found to have malware at the google playstore recently, I think this really opens the door to infecting iOS devices.

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. But it still looks like Apple still has total control over the software EU users install. Only that they can now download stuff from URLs other than Apple’s. If malware did get uploaded, it would be for the same reason there’s malware on the play store: the repository maintainers didn’t do a good enough job enforcing their own rules.
      And consider the following:
      1. Most people are going to just keep using the app store because it’s right there, and it has almost everything (under these rules there’s no point in not uploading an app there unless the developer was paid not to). These changes really just open the door to getting software without an icloud account.
      2. Google might offer a play store for iOS, but it’s going to be full of completely different software (even if a lot of it will be clients that connect to the same services) than their malware ridden android repository.
      3. The iPhone will assuredly warn you that downloading anything from an “alternative marketplace” will be risky.
      4. “don’t download anything not from the default store” is simple enough advice for someone who can’t really use a computer.
      5. For those who can’t follow that, there’s parental controls.
      6. For those who can’t get someone to help take care of their devices or are too proud to do so, well…at what point can we begin to suppose that they bought it on themselves?
      7. If it’s better for phones, why is it not better for every other device? Is Microsoft failing consumers by allowing you to run unsigned binaries on windows? Is Apple failing them by letting you run unsigned binaries (after jumping though a couple hoops) on MacOS? Or, is it okay that phones are walled gardens because personal computers aren’t? Consider that many people don’t actually have access to personal computers, they live under circumstances where phones are the only realistic option to buy.
      8. As long as the competition is doing similar things, a walled garden approach allows them to make the walls higher at any time. For example, governments are increasingly ordering bans on services they consider “dangerous”, and people use VPNs to get around that, but VPN clients are being banned because of this and Apple could be ordered to remove them all. This would be less of a problem if you could load a VPN client without an Apple signature.
      So, I think Apple maintains its walled garden stance purely for the sake of money. It wants to sell you the games that you might otherwise emulate or stream, plus there’s the revenue lost from other software EU users can now buy from other sources. It also gets paid to remove access to content that advertisers consider harmful to their brands, which means they can’t fulfill the relevant contracts if they don’t maintain such rigid control. They’d do it to personal computers, too, if the circumstances were different and this wouldn’t lead to a lot of people abandoning MacOS.

      1. Well, no….. not exactly… Good god Some Guy, I really can’t be bothered to answer this wall of text. I made my point. 😛 You’ve offered nothing compelling at all to counter my argument.

        1. Well I would appreciate it if you did anyway, because I want to know why I’m such a moron who shouldn’t be repeating such nonsense.
          I suppose I might have not fully considered that you said “for iOS users” and just extrapolated that to “for the world”, but I don’t really know why it’s better this way for iOS users and not Android users.
          I would prefer that the greatest good for the greatest number of people be done, so if there would be more people facing greater harm from installing malware than the harm done from not having access to certain software than okay, sure, iOS should continue to be what it is. I just haven’t encountered anything that might convince me of that.

          1. First of all, I know you’re not a moron. And secondly, I already made my point. There’s two things.

            Apple came under a lot of pressure to disable their end-to-end encryption from the FBI. Even Trump’s DOJ head, I can’t remember the f*ck his name, really pressured Apple to walk that back.

            I’m just saying. I think in this rare case, the Apple walled garden might actually be good because it would protect others from malware and state or other nefarious actors from trying to install malware — into your Apple devices.

            That’s all I have to say….

  5. Yep. Exactly what I thought. Malicious compliance.
    Before you can even “sideload”, it says “Users can install marketplace apps from a website owned by the marketplace developer after approving them with the Allow Marketplace from Developer control in Settings.” That took a while to even find.
    But the way they did it is hardly sideloading at all. Everything developers want to distribute on “alternative marketplaces” has to go through App Store Connect, all alternative marketplaces have to go through Apple’s approval, and all apps on them have to go through Apple’s approval or it won’t be allowed to run on iPhones.

      1. Apple is going to get hit hard with these malicious restrictions that are meant to prevent sideloading. They have redefined sideloading to mean if Apple has approved it. They are going to lose big in the EU courts and once they do, they will get hit similarly hard in the US when people here complain about not getting the same features as their EU counterparts because reasons.

        1. Problem is they’ll just continue to figure out ways to maliciously comply and raking in millions in revenue while the EU wastes resources trying to fight them.
          It’s a bit unrealistic but I wish we just banned all sales of their products until they choose to play ball, only way this will get dealt with.

          1. People keep using the phrase “maliciously comply” who haven’t done the work required to actually review the DMA as laid out. I have and leading legal experts as well, and the verdict is clear: Apple is in clear defiance of the terms of the DMA. Above all, they cannot restrict third party app stores via cost-prescriptive fees and services. Apple is effectively acting like a market arbiter to the third-party app store ecosystem which is in clear defiance of said terms which vilify and outlaw such restrictive abuses. Give it by end of year and Apple will be nicely and rightly fined—just as Microsoft has when trying to tangle with the EU who doesn’t put up with this load of malarkey—and will be in compliance. Ignore the Apple fanboy chicken littles who started this malicious compliance rumor which is hilariously wrong and grossly misinformed.