Apple sidles into sideloading in the EU

While Apple didn’t rush to embrace sideloading, developers can get ready for it in the EU, as support for this is now live in the latest iOS 17.5 beta.

This is the first big improvement Apple has made to its originally stated plans to bring its business in line with Europe’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). Web Distribution lets authorized developers distribute their iOS apps to users in the European Union (EU) directly from a website owned by the developer.

Apple announced its initial approach to DMA compliance in March, spoke in Europe about its plans a little later, and received lots of feedback, which it is now acting on. Europe has also begun looking into its compliance with the DMA, suggesting Apple’s tweaks reflect the company’s ongoing dialog with EU regulators.

The basic idea is that developers can choose to offer their own apps to customers through their websites, though they must agree to various checks and must also handle customer support, tech support, taxation and more. In some cases, a fee may be payable. But users will want to know how the change will impact them.

What is the user experience?

Customers have become accustomed to the App Store, so it seems likely most people will want to keep using it. However, as developers peel away from the App Store, it’s possible some important apps will become solely available via independent portals, including developer websites. We must wait and see the extent to which this will complicate the user experience and dilute platform integrity. 

But, when it comes to web distribution, we can at least see how the system works by considering the customer journey Apple has described. That journey is far from being the miserable experience some of the company’s big-mouthed critics have said it is; it has been designed to inform and protect customers, as I see it.

According to Apple, when a customer chooses to download an iOS app from a developer’s website:

  • The first time they choose to download an app from a new developer they must navigate a series of prompt screens in which the significance of the decision is explained.
  • They then authenticate with Face ID to agree to give the developer permission to install apps on their device.
  • They go through a three-step process to install the app itself.
  • And those who want to download other apps from that developer’s website will go directly to the last three steps, as permission will already have been provided. 

Apple’s app notarization process actually benefits all parties in this. It does so by requiring the developer to provide clear information and screenshots to explain what the app does and how it works. That means customers should know what they are installing, while notarization means they can be reasonably secure the app has at least received some security vetting — albeit not to the same extent as the App Store.

Who can distribute apps on the web?

To distribute apps via their websites, developers must live in or be registered in the EU, or have a subsidiary incorporated there. They must also have been a member of the Apple Developer Program for two continuous years or more and have an app that had more than a million first annual installs on iOS in the EU in the preceding 12 months.

If they qualify, developers must agree to Apple’s new business terms. Among other things, this includes taking responsibility for customer support and refunds and agreeing to the Alternative Terms Addendum for Apps in the EU.

What about the small print?

With all that in place, developers must:

  • Only offer apps from their developer account.
  • Respond in timely fashion to questions from Apple concerning distributed apps, particularly around fraud, malware, or anything that could impact the safety and security of users or the platforms.
  • Agree to submit their apps to Apple’s notarization process, which aims to protect the company’s platform and its customers.
  • Publish transparent data collection policies and offer users control over how their data is collected and used.
  • Follow applicable laws, such as GDPR, taxation, and government enquiries.

What support does Apple provide?

Once a qualified developer has set up for business this way, Apple will supply the following resources to enable web distribution of apps:

  • Access to a series of APIs Apple has built to enable web distribution, integrate with system functionality, and back-up and restore apps.
  • Developers can only sell their apps via App Store Connect registered sites.
  • They must also agree to pay Apple a Core Technology Fee of €0.50 for each first annual install of an app once installations exceed one million in 12 months. (Most developers don’t move apps at that scale.)
  • A free exemption to non-profits, educational institutions, or government entities based in the EU that have been approved for a fee waiver.

Once set up, developers can download signed binary assets that they can then host for sale and distribution through their own website.

What else has changed?

Changes to Apple’s original proposals include:

  • Web distribution of iOS apps. 
  • A loosening of the rules so larger corporate developers don’t need to handle quite as much bureaucracy.
  • The ability of developers who want to build their own app marketplace to qualify without providing a stand-by letter of credit. 
  • Allowing developers to switch back to Apple’s traditional App Store business model one time. This is designed to protect developers against unexpected business changes, such as in the event a developer’s app sees downloads increase faster than expected.

What else is new?

Apple has promised a range of additional changes to bring its App Store business into strong compliance with the DMA. Among other things, the company will make it possible to delete Safari in favor of other browsers and will provide solutions to make it easier to migrate to other smartphone platforms.

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Apple, Apple App Store, iOS