Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

iPhone sideloading isn’t the freedom you think it is

Published Feb 22nd, 2024 1:56PM EST
iPhone 15 Pro Max Screen
Image: Christian de Looper for BGR

If you buy through a BGR link, we may earn an affiliate commission, helping support our expert product labs.

With each iOS 17.4 beta that Apple releases, Europeans are getting closer to what’s considered to be the holy grail of Apple’s iPhone for many longtime users: iPhone sideloading. That’s the ability to install any app on your phone, like you do on Mac and Windows. Third-party App Marketplaces will emerge to compete with the App Store. Third-party payment systems will also be available, and many people think that will make apps cheaper. Apple confirmed all that, so it’s happening in Europe this March when the Digital Markets Act (DMA) goes into effect.

But most of that is just wishful thinking. In reality, this is a potential nightmare waiting to happen, as malware could become much more prevalent on iOS.

iPhone sideloading is hardly as good as some people might expect it to be. And that’s actually a great thing for users like me who want nothing to do with it. Apple’s new deal for developers has plenty of provisions in place that might keep malware away from the iPhone despite opening it to apps outside of the App Store.

If you’re excited about iPhone sideloading, like some of you clearly are, you should temper your expectations. Your iPhone experience won’t change all that much. You’re not getting the freedom you wanted. And those third-party App Marketplaces? It’ll be a while before there are any good options out there.

A report from PhoneArena detailed some of the new iPhone and iPad experiences coming in iOS 17.4. But, again, most of it is just wishful thinking.

First of all, when the final iOS 17.4 release drops, nothing will really change. Furthermore, much of the report is flat-out wrong. For example, PhoneArena says that the DMA provisions will unlock the iPad to its full potential. Only that’s not what’s happening. iPhone sideloading isn’t coming to the iPad. Neither are third-party app stores.

Is iPad sideloading a thing?

Apple iPad Pro Display
The iPad’s only source of apps is the App Store. Image source: Christian de Looper for BGR

Apple went out of its way in its newly-published DMA documentation to mention changes for each operating system. Sideloading and third-party app stores are not coming to iPadOS.

The iPad will get alternative payment systems, and iPad apps will support links to third-party payments. But that’s it. You’re not going to unlock anything on your iPad. You won’t get Epic’s store when it finally launches. At least, not unless Apple expressly allows it.

Say Apple does make sideloading available on iPhone and iPad in the EU. You still won’t be able to install any app you want, whether it’s Fortnite, a torrenting service, or virtualization software. Not unless the developer goes through a laborious process of launching their own app marketplace to sell those apps.

I’ve already explained all the reasons why iPhone sideloading is basically dead on arrival. Again, Epic is the only exception, and that’s despite the strong criticism. Others aren’t ready to launch their App Store rivals just yet, considering all of the technical and financial requirements. The more popular that marketplace becomes, the more money these companies will have to pay Apple each month.

The many hurdles of iPhone sideloading

PhoneArena’s report exudes excitement about iPhone sideloading. It says iOS 17.4 will let you make your iPhone “truly your own; no limits, finally.”

While it might be annoying to hear it again, I’ll say it: when the final iOS 17.4 version drops, nothing will change. At all. Nothing. You won’t be able to make your iPhone “truly your own.” The limits are massive, and it’s not up to you, the user.

Developers that want to help you with that will have to go through a complex approval process that entails, among other things, proving they have €1 million on hand to support customers. Developers won’t do that if the economics aren’t in their favor. And since they’ll still have to pay the “Apple tax,” albeit in a different way, they will have to consider the bottom line of these App Store alternatives.

By the way, a developer can’t start a store solely to sell its own apps. Due to the requirements, it would need to open that marketplace to any other developers that want to use it.

Long story short, iPhone apps aren’t likely to get cheaper. That’s almost impossible, considering the new deal that’s on the table.

iPhone 15 Plus Display
The iPhone app experience will remain largely unchanged for most users. Image source: Christian de Looper for BGR

With that in mind, iPhone users in Europe should absolutely not expect to run anything they want on their devices come March. Especially the old retro games PhoneArena talks about in its report. Not unless someone makes a lot of money from such an endeavor. And if they do, so will Apple.

I’ll also say something else that I have said before. For most developers, the current Apple deal — the one that predates the DMA and is available right now — is going to be the better option.

Oh, and if you’re a developer that goes for the new deal, you won’t be able to switch back to the old one.

So, no, “more freedom of choice for everyone” on the iPhone isn’t really coming. It can’t happen under the current changes Apple has in place for the EU block. The only thing that will happen right away is support for game streaming apps. These are now allowed on the iPhone globally, and it has nothing to do with the DMA. Game streaming apps will work via the App Store, not third-party marketplaces.

If you want to understand the DMA changes Apple is implementing in the EU, you’ll want to start at this link, which explains everything Apple plans to make happen come March.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.