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Apple will soon let users in the EU download apps through web sites, not just the App Store | TechCrunch

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Apple is opening up web distribution for iOS apps targeting users in the European Union starting Tuesday. Developers who opt in — and who meet Apple’s criteria, including app notarization requirements — will be able to offer iPhone apps for direct download to EU users from their own websites.

It’s a massive change for a mobile ecosystem that otherwise bars so-called “sideloading.” Apple’s walled garden stance has enabled it to funnel essentially all iOS developer revenue through its own App Store in the past. But, in the EU, that moat is being dismantled as a result of new regulations that apply to the App Store and which the iPhone maker has been expected to comply with since early last month.

In March, Apple announced that a web distribution entitlement would soon be coming to its mobile platform as part of changes aimed at complying with the bloc’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). The pan-EU regulation puts a set of obligations on in-scope tech giants that lawmakers hope will level the competitive playing field for platforms’ business users, as well as protecting consumers from Big Tech throwing its weight around.

Briefing journalists on the latest development to its EU app ecosystem Tuesday, ahead of the official announcement, an Apple representative said developers wanting to distribute iOS apps directly will be able to tap into the entitlement through beta 2 of iOS 17.5.

In order to do so developers will have to opt into Apple’s new EU business terms, which include a new “core technology fee” charged at €0.50 for each first annual install over 1 million in the past 12 months regardless of where apps are distributed. App makers wishing to avoid the fee currently have no choice but to remain on Apple’s old business terms, meaning they are unable to access any of the DMA entitlements.

In earlier DMA changes, App has opened up to allow marketplace apps in the EU where developers can run their own app stores on iOS, including marketplaces composed of only their own apps.

Additional DMA-driven reforms include more flexibility from Apple around in-app payments, as well as a ban on its usual anti-steering measures. This means that iOS developers opting into the new T&Cs can inform their users of cheaper offers available outside Apple’s own App Store.

Returning to the new option of web distribution for iOS apps, Apple’s criteria for developers wanting to distribute their software directly include that they be in good standing with its developer program; attest to handle things like IP disputes and government takedown requests; and commit to providing iOS users with customer service, as Apple will not offer that kind of support for iOS apps downloaded outside its App Store.

Europe’s DMA rules for Big Tech explained

It also emphasizes that all apps distributed from the web must meet its notarizations requirements, which it says are intended to protect platform integrity.

An Apple rep described this as a baseline safety and security standard, which they said iOS users expect to help ensure their device is protected from external risks.

The company continues to argue that sideloading apps carries inherent security risks for mobile users, suggesting it’s trying to find a way to comply with the DMA while taking steps to limit risks the changes create for its users.

The first time an iOS user attempts to download an app from a developer’s website they will be required to authorize the developer to install apps directly on their device. Apple’s current design of the authorization flow involves multiple steps and requires users to verify that they wish to provide permission for developer via the iOS settings menu and by clicking “allow” on subsequent permission pop-ups (the other option, i.e. to deny permission, reads “ignore”).

After they have gone through this multi-step flow and approved a developer, any future direct downloads involve fewer steps, per Apple.

The design of the follow-on flow that Apple showed during the briefing includes a screen notifying users that “updates and purchases in this app will be managed by the developer,” combined with a suggestion they “verify the information below before installing,” which is displayed above a card showing some basic app info and screenshots, as well as a link to see “more” info.

Apple argues these steps and the information iOS surfaces to users during the authorization process for direct web downloads are reasonable security measures; the DMA permits gatekeepers to apply these steps in order to protect platform integrity.

However critics of Apple’s DMA approach have decried these sort of pop-ups as “scare screens,” arguing the flow it designs is intended to inject friction and dissuade iOS users from stepping outside Apple’s garden — such as by implying direct downloads are riskier than downloads through Apple’s own App Store.

Apple’s approach to a number of other elements of DMA compliance are under investigation by the European Commission, so at least some of these criticisms have spurred EU enforcers to take a closer look at its take on what the law demands.

Last month the Commission announced that it’s looking into Apple’s rules on steering in the App Store and the design of choice screens for alternatives to its Safari web browser, which is another regulated core platform service under the DMA. The EU also announced some “investigatory steps” in relation to Apple’s new iOS fee structure, but, for now, the new core tech fee stands.

Given Apple has only just started implementing web distribution for iOS apps, it remains to be seen whether the EU will step in for a closer look at this aspect of its DMA compliance, too.

It’s also unclear how much demand there will be among iOS developers for direct web distribution. Asked about this, Apple said it’s heard from some app makers they want to have the option but it also pointed out it’s a new capability, which is just starting to be made available, saying it’s unsure how many developers will actually want to take advantage of the option. The option sits alongside the existing (established) and still available option of App Store distribution.

In the EU, developers also now have a third route for reaching users: They can submit a marketplace app to Apple requesting to distribute their software through their own alternative store hosted on its platform.

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