Apple’s plans for sideloading of apps via stores outside the App Store may now be emerging. The company is beta testing a Managed App Distribution (MAD) system that could support the EU-mandated practice of downloading apps from third-party stores onto iPhones.
What is app sideloading?
App sideloading means iPhone users might be able to purchase and acquire apps for their iPhones from third-party sources outside of Apple’s own curated App Store. Apple is expected to introduce some form of support for sideloading on iPhones/iPads in March 2024 in Europe, as required to do so by law at that point.
But acquiring apps will be a process, and Apple is unlikely to want to open up its platforms too much to enable the process. It owes it to users to maintain security and privacy on the core platform, which means externally sourced applications will need to be verified in some way. Currently in beta, Apple’s Managed App Distribution (MAD) suggests the approach it will take. Apple does not claim as much and has also altered its documentation since it was first published to say it is primarily intended to be for MDM scenarios.
All the same, the system as described seems to offer the foundations Apple could use for app sideloading.
Why MAD matters
Anyone who’s ever contracted a computer virus should already recognize that tech systems are interconnected. That means it is necessary to ensure “sideloaded” applications don’t undermine the platform or user, especially in the current tense international political climate. Apple has repeatedly warned that enforcing app sideloading on its devices might threaten the privacy and security of users. So, it’s no surprise it hopes to bridge the gap between supporting the practice (as it must in Europe) and protecting its users.
Failing to protect its users and platforms from the consequences of sideloading would be a mad idea.
What is MAD?
Currently in developer beta, Apple says its MAD system is being built to let enterprise, educational, and other institutional customers distribute apps to employees or students. The idea is that the organization can create its own app to act as a storefront and use the system to distribute apps to verified customers. A business might provide approved/registered employees with business-related apps via its own managed app distribution store, for example.
There are various code strings to support the system, including ones to fetch and display apps, organize app collections, and error messages in the case of a distribution error.
Who will get MAD?
The Apple system will not be made available to everyone. Apple is already warning that developers will need to register in some way to get MAD: “An entitlement is required to use this framework and is available in an upcoming release,” the company says.
Is this how third-party app stores will work?
If this sounds like how the App Store works, it’s because it effectively is. Once you install the app that relates to the managed app distribution store, you can access apps distributed by that smaller outlet. It really doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine that same system used to provide the infrastructure for third-party app stores. It also suggests how Apple thinks such stores should work:
- Download the third-party App Store from Apple’s own store — this enables the company to limit the chance of users being exposed to malware distribution hubs masquerading as stores.
- Customers can then choose apps from within the smaller store.
- The store verifies the purchase, lets the customer download the app, and can launch the app once it is downloaded.
- Store providers will likely be required to weave in their own choice of payment system within their application.
- Apple might insist on its own payment systems being offered as one payment alternative within such stores, supplemented by third-party systems. This seems a reasonable request.
I doubt very much that Apple will take any responsibility for apps downloaded via these sub-stores, but I also expect its tech support staff will still end up handling thousands of calls that relate to apps acquired there. As such, it seems inevitable Apple will seek some kind of charge from developers seeking an entitlement to distribute fee-based apps using its new system. In keeping with Apple’s existing pricing tiers, I doubt there will be a fee for free distribution of proprietary enterprise or educational apps.
Apple’s system makes use of the company’s Declarative Management foundations. In this case, it means all the apps assigned to a device are listed, which is how the device can recognize and run those assigned to it (or the user can use apps on the device). And it lets the Managed App Distribution system identify precisely which device is entitled to run which apps.
Not just iPhone
Apple’s Managed App Distribution system is in development for iOS 17.2+, iPad OS 17.2+, and Mac Catalyst 17.2+, which suggests it will be possible to distribute such apps for use across all three platforms, including Catalyst mode on the Mac. That seems interesting, given Apple’s comments several years ago that it seeks to introduce additional layers of security to protect the Mac platform. At the very least, it means an app distributed in this way will also be available for use on Macs, so long as the app concerned supports Catalyst.
How much will Apple charge to get MAD?
As I said, I don’t expect charges will be levied on distribution of free apps, apps for education, or apps for some form of social purpose. Commercial app distribution via the system will be a different animal, and I imagine the company will continue to seek a commission on those sales. Given it has created the ecosystem, user base, and software to make app distribution possible, it seems reasonable that Apple will continue to levy a fee for access to its systems, even via third-party stores.
That means the only question will remain the core question that has remained unanswered since Apple first came under pressure to open up: How much is it legitimate for Apple, or anyone else, from supermarkets to other apps stores to charge for inclusion on its digital shelves? That discussion will rumble on in the courts, but I can see little reason for the company to be obligated to offer a free lunch to others. Meanwhile, Apple’s customers won’t abandon its App Store ecosystem for any but the most compelling apps.