App iOS & Mac

iOS 17.2 hints at sideloading apps from outside the App Store

Apple is under pressure in the European Union as antitrust legislation under the Digital Markets Act requires the company to allow users to sideload apps outside the App Store to increase competition. 9to5Mac has now found evidence in the iOS 17.2 beta code that the company is indeed moving towards enabling sideloading on iOS devices.

What is sideloading

For those unfamiliar, the sideloading process involves installing apps obtained from third-party sources instead of an official source. When it comes to iOS, the App Store is the official source (and the only one available to iPhone and iPad users). Apple has never allowed sideloading on iOS because it could allow apps to bypass App Store guidelines.

However, the European Union last year passed the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a new piece of antitrust legislation aimed at big tech companies so 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 indicated that Apple was working under the hood with iOS 17 to prepare the system for sideloading in Europe. In the iOS 17.2 beta, the 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 initial thought was that this API would be related to MDM solutions for installing enterprise apps (which is already possible on iOS), it appears that Apple has been working on something more important.

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By analyzing the new API, we discovered that an extension endpoint has been declared in the system, which means other apps can create these types of extensions. Digging even further, we found a new, unused permission that allows third-party apps 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 third-party sources. It can also check if 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 something else.

We also found references to a region lock in this API, suggesting that Apple could limit it to specific countries. This wouldn’t make sense for MDM solutions, but it would make sense if you only want to enable sideloading in certain countries when required by authorities, such as in the European Union.

Earlier this year, 9to5Mac reported that Apple had developed a new system to restrict specific iOS features based on the user’s location.

Apple Craig Federighi sideload
Apple’s Craig Federighi said: “Sideloading is cybercriminals’ best friend.”

When will this happen?

In theory, Apple must comply with DMA legislation by March 2024. The company 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 call on the European Union to include the App Store in the Digital Markets Act, which is no surprise. Apple will probably try everything to keep the iOS App Store. But eventually, iOS 17 will be ready for sideloading.

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