Android users have been sideloading apps for a long time. What is sideloading? Essentially, it is the ability to install third-party applications from outside the built-in app store (such as the Google Play Store). Unfortunately, this feature has caused problems as some of those third-party app stores may contain apps with malicious code. This problem became so bad that Google decided to lock the feature for a while. Users can now enable the feature via Settings > Apps > Special app access > Install unknown apps.
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However, I would caution against enabling this unless you are sure the app you want to install is 100% safe. Otherwise, you risk installing an app with malicious code that could turn out to be ransomware.
Believe me when I say you don’t want to experience that.
So when it was announced that Apple – faced with new regulations from the European Union (particularly the Digital Markets Act, which comes into effect in 2024) – was considering allowing application sideloading in iOS, I was shocked. The company’s policy on sideloading has been clear (and strict) from the App Store’s inception. However, 9to5mac reported on November 10 that Apple hinted at moving forward with that feature in the upcoming iOS 17.2.
Since 9to5mac’s report, it has come to light that Apple has published a new document for Managed App Distribution, clarifying what Apple has in store.
Rather than allowing users to sideload apps, the company’s plan is for the feature to be limited to Mobile Device Management (MDM). In other words, this is not a feature that users can enable or disable. Instead, Managed App Distribution will allow mobile business device managers to push apps to phones.
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According to the Managed App Distribution document: “The Managed App Distribution framework works with declarative management to provide a list of managed apps assigned to a device. Your app can sort or filter the list of managed apps and create a view request from the Managed App Distribution framework to display. For more information, see Integrating declarative management.”
I think this is the smart route for Apple to take. Sideloading apps on Android has caused far too many problems for users who installed apps that had not gone through the proper security check that comes with the Google Play Store. That’s not to say malicious software won’t find its way into Google’s app ecosystem. That is indeed the case, but the chance of this happening is much smaller. The same goes for the Apple App Store. The chance of malicious code getting onto users’ phones is dramatically reduced thanks to Apple’s vetting process.
The Managed App Distribution feature allows managers to force the installation of certain apps on any user’s phone associated with the company’s MDM platform. And if 9to5Mac is right, this new API will give third-party apps permission to install other apps.
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While the original report suggested that Apple’s move could lead to the creation of third-party app stores, it was later discovered that this move was an MDM solution. That’s why I don’t think third-party app stores are in the pipeline as much as companies that are allowed to install their own apps (which would otherwise not be found in Apple’s App Store) from their MDM solution.
There is one wrinkle to this story, however, as iPhones already enable this process through MDM solutions. And since a regional lock has been discovered in the new documentation, Apple may be planning to allow application sideloading in specific regions. While my assumptions about this could be wrong – given Apple’s stance on sideloading – I would be shocked if the company allowed the creation of third-party app stores.
This new feature could be available as early as March 2024, and since Apple will be compliant with the Digital Markets Act, sideloading apps could very well open new doors for application distribution by the time iOS 17.2 rolls out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say exactly what will come from this new API: will it be location-limited, business-only, or open to everyone? Until iOS 17.2, we’re left to speculate and wonder if Apple will finally loosen the reins on iOS application distribution and installation.