In a new white paper published this morning, Apple lays out the case for privacy and security, and against its critics–at least, those who are in favor of “sideloading.” For context, sideloading is the process of installing apps on your device from sources other than the official App Store, like a developer’s website or third-party stores.
Currently, iPhone users can only download apps from the iOS App Store, something Apple says provides a level of protection against malware and scams. As a result, it says opening up the iPhone to third-party app stores would represent an existential threat.
“Some have suggested that we should create ways for developers to distribute their apps outside of the App Store, through websites or third-party app stores,” Apple says in the paper. “Allowing sideloading would degrade the security of the iOS platform and expose users to serious security risks not only on third-party app stores, but also on the App Store.”
The problem for Apple is that, right now, one of its largest critics is Congress, which just introduced a slate of antitrust bills aimed to curb the influence and power of Big Tech. One of the bills specifically takes aim at Apple and would require the company to allow users to download apps from websites and third-party app stores.
Apple certainly isn’t the only one making the case that the House should take a beat before moving forward on the bills. Amazon and Google released statements on Tuesday suggesting that the proposed solution to the problem of how much of our lives are influenced by Big Tech goes too far.
In a statement, Google’s VP of government affairs and public policy, Mark Isakowitz said that the current bills would “require us to degrade our services and prevent us from offering important features used by hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Apple, however, goes further by highlighting exactly what the future of the iPhone might look like if Congress gets its way. It’s not pretty. And, make no mistake, this white paper is a direct shot at Congress. It’s no coincidence that it appeared the morning that the House Judiciary Committee begins marking up the bills.
Apple’s message is pretty clear: We want to keep your iPhone secure but Congress is about to open the floodgates of bad stuff that could end up on your device. I’m obviously paraphrasing, but Apple isn’t shy about what it says might happen, and why it should concern iPhone owners. Here’s what it actually says:
Because of the large size of the iPhone user base and the sensitive data stored on their phones–photos, location data, health and financial information–allowing sideloading would spur a flood of new investment into attacks on the platform. Malicious actors would take advantage of the opportunity by devoting more resources to develop sophisticated attacks targeting iOS users, thereby expanding the set of weaponized exploits and attacks–often referred to as a “threat model”–that all users need to be safeguarded against.
Apple’s strongest argument is that requiring developers to submit their apps through the company’s app review process and distribute them through the App Store is about privacy and security. The company points out the fact that the iPhone is basically free of viruses or malware, something that many users consider an important benefit.
Of course, the flip side is that requiring developers to distribute apps through the App Store means that Apple is able to enforce its guidelines, especially those around in-app purchases (IAP). That requirement is how Apple is able to collect its 15 or 30 percent commission.
That commission is the main reason that Apple is facing such intense scrutiny in the first place. Developers like Epic Games, Facebook, Spotify, and Match Group have publicly called for regulation to force Apple to allow developers to bypass the App Store, and–in effect–the cut they pay Apple.
Losing that commission wouldn’t, on its own, represent an existential threat to Apple’s iPhone business. The company doesn’t disclose exactly how much money it makes from the App Store, but most analysts think it was more than $60 billion in 2020. That’s real money, but it isn’t necessarily true that Apple would even lose a large chunk of it. If Android, which has allowed sideloading for years, is an example, most people won’t go through the trouble.
Still, it would put a crack in the wall Apple has built around its platform–something the company has gone to great lengths to protect. To be honest, setting aside how you might feel about the walled garden approach, I’m not sure sideloading is the best solution and the security concern is one of the top reasons.
I do think it’s perfectly fair to argue that Apple’s control over the App Store has stifled innovation and even damaged its reputation. I’ve argued just that. I also think it’s reasonable to think the company should change the way it views the developers who build apps and services on its platform. Its relationships with iOS developers have never been more fraught than they are now, and that might be the real existential threat to the iPhone.
Finally, Apple has repeatedly emphasized that it follows laws in the areas it operates, but in this case, it isn’t a law–at least, not yet. Hence, the reason the company is making such an aggressive effort to educate and influence the group of people who could change that: Congress.