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Beyond the App Store – the pros and cons of rival store fronts

Is it time for Apple to let you install iPhone and iPad apps and games from rival stores?

The iPad supports mice and trackpads, which you can use with desktop-quality iPad apps. Even an iPhone can feasibly be used to record an album, paint digital imagery, edit 4K video, or — at a stretch — pen a novel. In many ways, today’s Apple mobile devices therefore feel like equals to traditional computers.

One way they aren’t is in how apps (and games) are purchased. On a Mac, there is a Mac App Store, but you’re able to download apps from elsewhere. On iPhone and iPad, there’s only the App Store — assuming you don’t want to delve into the murky world of ‘jailbreaking’ and enterprise app distribution. Most people don’t.

On Mac, unlike iPhone/iPad, you can download apps from anywhere. (This is menu calendar Itsycal.)

Apple is under fire from anti-trust regulators and developers over its perceived monopoly, onerous App Store demands, and 30% cut. There’s never been more pressure on the company to open up iOS and iPadOS to rivals, so you could buy from alternate storefronts — perhaps alongside a Mac-style Gatekeeper system that ensures installs aren’t dodgy and that security is maintained.

This all seems unlikely — unless Apple’s hand is forced. But what it the company did move in this direction? What would be the pros and cons of being able to head beyond the App Store to buy your apps and games?

Pro: More competition

Competition is good. It keeps corporations innovating, rather than them becoming lazy. Apple has competition in the hardware space, but not for the App Store. If alternate options existed, that would force Apple to keep improving the App Store experience for everyone.

Con: More confusion

You know these days how it can be harder to find where you want to watch a TV show than figure out what you want to watch? Multiple storefronts would bring that to apps. The current single point of purchase simplifies everything.

Antstream is currently blocked from iPhone/iPad because Apple bans streaming games services.

Pro: More choice

Apple has limits on the kinds of app it will allow on to the App Store. It blocks apps it doesn’t deem useful enough, and even entire kinds of product, such as streaming videogame services. With multiple app stores, you would have more choice over what to buy.

Con: App Store shrinkage

If several app stores existed, there would be the risk of the App Store itself shrinking. We don’t mean in terms of the sheer number of apps/games available, but the most meaningful ones — for example, if lots of premium games jumped ship to ‘Steam for iPhone’.

Pro: Potential cost savings

Apple takes 30% of most App Store sales. With multiple app stores — and being able to purchase direct from developers — there’s potential for savings. This could mean lower prices — or more money for developers to reinvest in their apps/games, to make them even better.

Managing updates on iPhone and iPad is easy, since everything centers on the App Store.

Con: Wasted time

Time is money. We’ve already noted how moving from a single place of purchase could make it harder to find apps and games. But you’d also have to keep track of updates across multiple services. Over time, that extra busywork would add up.

Pro: More flexible terms

Developers and alternate stores could offer payment models Apple isn’t keen on, such as the update pricing model that’s long been popular on Mac and PC to reward loyal users. That’d certainly be one way to combat subscription fatigue!

Con: A risk of bad actors

Apple is trustworthy on privacy and security. Are its rivals? Are individual developers? Who knows? You won’t — and that’s a problem. A rogue app’s unlikely to wreck your iPhone, but bad actors could negatively impact your world in other ways — and you might not realize until it’s too late.