Apple is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Epic Games that could affect the future of the iOS walled garden. The question is how Apple exerts total control over the software that runs on its phones, and CEO Tim Cook touched the disagreement in a recent interview with a YouTube channel called Brut. According to Cook, sideloading apps “is not in the best interest of the user.”
The iPhone has been around for over a decade at this point, and Apple has never supported installing apps it hasn’t approved. Even before the App Store, the first generation iPhone could only receive apps when they were jailbroken. It is still possible to hack iPhone to install third-party app stores, but the security measures on the platform make it much more difficult than before. If you don’t want to follow Apple’s rules, you can’t distribute software on iPhone.
That’s why Epic and Apple are fighting in court and reporters are asking Tim Cook to transfer apps. Android has always allowed sideloading, which is a process by which you manually install apps from outside the Google ecosystem. Cook isn’t sure this will work for Apple. “As I look at the tech regulations that are being discussed, I think there are good parts and then I think there are parts that aren’t in the best interest of the user,” he said.
Cook also pointed to malware as a reason to stick to the Apple model. He came up with a stat that states that Android has 47 times more malware than iOS. I don’t know the source of this statement, but it doesn’t seem impossible. There are a few wild west Android app repositories, mainly in China and Russia, where malware flows like water.
Cook points to App Store features like privacy labels and app tracking transparency as things that might not exist in sideloaded apps. That’s right … unless you get them from a third-party app store that has implemented similar functionality. The problem is, we don’t know how it would work because no one has been allowed to develop a full replacement for the App Store.
It could be argued, as Apple often does, that it can manage its platform however it pleases, and the incredible success of the iPhone proves that people like the walled garden. However, this success is itself a problem. The iPhone has become so popular that Apple has a solid majority of smartphone users in the United States. For many, those smartphones are their primary computing device, and Apple decides which software to run. Apple and Tim Cook may have the best of intentions, but should more than half of the country be barred from running software that Apple hasn’t approved?