Rumor has it that Apple is going to open up iOS to third-party app stores in the near future, possibly as part of this year's upcoming iOS 17 update in response to the EU’s new Digital Markets Act. This could be the biggest news at Apple's WWDC 2023 event, which kicks off June 5, other than a possible Apple headset.
Supporting third-party app stories is something Apple has always ardently resisted for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it would cause Apple's walled garden to come tumbling down.
But despite that concern, Apple shouldn’t feel that threatened. In fact, opening up to third-party app stores might make things better for everyone — users, app makers and even Apple.
Why iOS 17 supporting third-party app stores is good
Having third-party app stores on iOS will undoubtedly be a good thing for consumer choice. Apple has routinely kept the App Store on a tight leash, strictly controlling what is and isn’t allowed. Sometimes, this makes sense, especially when it comes to harmful or outdated apps, and something it doesn’t — like the time Apple refused to allow a Game Pass app that allowed cloud streaming.
Also, do your remember the whole Apple vs Epic Games fiasco that led to Fortnite getting kicked out of the App Store? Presumably that game could be back, though you may have to go ti Epic's own app store to get the title and buy various upgrades.
Access to third-party app stores means that such decisions would have less of an impact on consumers. In fact, Microsoft itself has recently announced plans to launch its own Xbox Game Store for Android and iOS — one that would be free of the constraints of rules laid out by both Apple and Google. Presumably the iOS store will have a Game Pass app that allows cloud streaming without the current web browser-centric workaround.
Apple doesn’t want to cede control
It’s easy to recognize why Apple has always fought against the idea of opening iOS to third-party app stores. In fact, the main reason gets brought in public every time this debate happens — device security. By controlling what is and isn’t available on the App Store, Apple claims it can make sure people aren’t inundated with malicious apps and software that would compromise their security and privacy.
It’s a noble sentiment to have, even if Apple’s process doesn’t always stop malicious apps from sneaking through. Earlier this year, for instance, a bunch of crypto scam apps made their way onto the App Store, and that’s far from the only time this has happened. Still, not letting users install whatever they want from wherever they want is a very easy way to keep them safe, especially since you can’t always trust people to be clued into the dangers of strange software.
Third-party app stores are out of Apple’s control, and that means the privacy and security measures in place are a complete mystery. Maybe they are just as good as Apple’s, possibly even better, but there’s a far greater chance that they’re not.
Of course, being out of Apple’s control also means that third-party app stores don’t generate any revenue for Apple. The company infamously charges a 30% commission on all App Store purchases, which includes subscriptions and sales from within iPhone apps.
That’s why services like Twitter Blue cost more on iPhone, and why the likes of Netflix won’t let you subscribe outside of a web browser. It’s also why Fortnite was kicked off the App Store, after Epic Games found a way to circumvent Apple’s cut, leading to a lengthy lawsuit.
Android tells us third-party app stores aren’t that big a threat
While Apple certainly doesn’t want to cede any control over iOS app infrastructure to third-party stores, odds are potential rivals won’t be that big a threat to Apple. Android has supported third-party app stores since its inception, and so far, they haven’t been able to hold a candle to the popularity of Google Play.
These app stores aren’t exactly small-time start-ups either; they come from some of the biggest names in the tech world like Amazon and Samsung. But Google Play still reigns supreme.
According to Statista, Google Play offers significantly more apps than Amazon, its closest non-Apple rival. You'll find 3.5 million in Google's Play Store compared to a little more than 483,000 on Amazon. While that figure measures quantity not quality — a large number of those Google Play apps are undoubtedly trash — it suggests the developers are going where the users are. And the users want to use Google Play.
It helps that having access to Google Play is the default option for virtually every Android phone, and you can’t uninstall it. The store is a major component of Google Play Services (as the name suggests), which is the service that controls everything from user account authentication and security to location services — plus app updates.
It’s worth noting that third-party app stores aren’t available to install from Google Play either. They either come pre-installed, as is the case with Amazon Fire tablets or Huawei devices, or you have to physically install them yourself. The latter option requires you not only to know that those stores exist, but where you need to go to download them as well. Unless there’s something very specific that you can’t get on Google Play, it doesn’t really seem worth the effort.
Third-party app stores don’t tend to keep up to date with Google Play either, and they only got the ability to automatically update apps with the release of Android 12. Android 14 will also be giving third-party app stores a little bit more feature parity with Google Play — including checking update permissions and letting stores “claim ownership” over apps you download.
Apple could learn some things from Google
Just because it may be forced to allow third-party app stores doesn’t mean Apple isn't going to go down without a fight. The company isn’t going to make it easy for users to access third-party app stores, while everything else pushes you toward the officially-sanctioned iOS App Store that’s seemingly been around forever.
Not to mention the fact third parties are at a disadvantage. Apple has 15 years of experience with the App Store, and has been constantly curating that app catalogue ever since. Newcomers will automatically be at a disadvantage, starting everything from scratch and likely coming across as very unappealing as a result.
But more choice is better for the consumer, especially if the iPhone does get access to high-quality app stores as a result of this rumored change. Whether that’s because third parties offer apps and services Apple refuses to or make subscriptions cheaper, it means iPhone users won’t have to go to Apple if they don’t want to.
Most of them probably will go to Apple’s App Store anyway, because it’s hard to break those old habits. But there will always be the option to go elsewhere.