Do alternative app stores undermine security in iPhones 

Apple is making way for alternative app stores on its iPhones in compliance with the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). This move, though aimed at levelling the playing field for developers, comes with a set of security risks. 

Published - March 22, 2024 02:13 pm IST

After nearly 17 years of unchallenged dominance Apple in app marketplace, the company is making way for alternative app stores on its devices.

After nearly 17 years of unchallenged dominance Apple in app marketplace, the company is making way for alternative app stores on its devices. | Photo Credit: Reuters

After nearly 17 years of unchallenged dominance Apple in app marketplace, the company is making way for alternative app stores on its devices. The shift, currently limited to the EU market, will let users download apps from other stores that alongside Apple’s App Store. Behind the iPhone-maker’s move is the EU regulator’s stick that can fine non-compliant companies 10% of their global annual turnover.

The European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA), which came into force on March 7, sets out obligations and prohibitions for Big Tech firms like Apple, Alphabet, Bytedance, Meta Platforms, and Microsoft. The Act provides penal provisions and aims to break the domination of tech giants that play the role of ‘gatekeepers’. It puts an end to the unfair practices that restrain growth of new and alternative platforms.

Apple, over the years, has stood its ground when it came to controlling users’ experience by limiting where they could download apps. But developers, mostly large ones like Spotify and Epic Games, have criticised Apple over its tight control and high commissions. So, allowing rival marketplaces on iPhones is a big change for a company that has long cherished its walled-garden ecosystem.

Apple’s iPhones come pre-installed with App Store and it is the only place for iOS users to get their applications. The company charges up to 30% commission on all App Store transactions, a lucrative source of revenue for the company.

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Developers cringe

Alternative app stores , on the other hand, allow developers to sidestep commissions by enabling them to reach prospective users through alternate means. Sideloading, a feature that allows users to download apps from outside the marketplace, allows developers to provide alternative payment methods that will lower the cost of selling apps.

With thousands of apps being added to app stores every month, alternative stores provide improved visibility for smaller developers. They can even reduce the cost of development and other associated costs like marketing a new app and complying with stringent rules laid down by OEMs.

For users, alternative app stores allow for easier transition between iOS and Android devices, as several Android apps, especially in the gaming sector, find themselves cut off from Apple’s app store due to the company’s App Store policy. An example of this is Fortnite, a popular game whose parent company was banned from Apple’s App Store in 2020 because it attempted to lead users to purchase virtual currency on its own website, a move that violated Apple’s policy.

Users also have the benefit of choosing between different app stores that improves competition. Users also get the option to opt for cheaper apps and subscriptions and utilise alternative payment methods that may cost less than what they cost in the official apps stores.

Sideloading side-effects

However, sideloading apps and alternative app stores are not problem free. Apps distributed through Apple’s App store undergo a review process which may not be available or stringent enough on alternative stores, to curb the spread of malware.

“The best thing about having a single app store that undergoes a review process for every app by Apple would be that a lot of scammy/malware friendly apps wouldn’t make it out to the public which was the case with Android”, said Abhishek Dharani, an online security engineer. “Probably a lot of apps would [now] just bypass such reviews and checks and make it onto a million devices and cause havoc down the line.”

Apple has claimed that sideloading, through direct downloads and third-party app stores, would “cripple the privacy and security protections” and “expose users to serious security risks.”

The iPhone-maker further said that users may not get accurate information about apps downloaded from alternative app stores since these stores may not require developers to provide the necessary information that are displayed on its App Store’s product pages and privacy labels.

So, while Apple is opening its ecosystem to comply with regulations in the EU, the true impact of the move can only be seen in the light of how aware users are in spotting ‘spammy’ apps.

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