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It’s been almost four months since Europe’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) forced Apple to start allowing third-party app stores on European iPhones. While the DMA hasn’t quite helped make these alternative app stores available everywhere, they are a step towards a more open ecosystem. But what exactly do these alternative app stores offer? What led to the DMA and why aren’t we seeing more alternative app stores already? Here’s what you need to know.

How we got here

All of this started when the European Union decided to investigate Apple, Meta, and tons of other big tech companies (including Google) for gatekeeping various aspects of their app stores and data usage. For Apple, a lot of it came down to the controversy that companies like Epic Games helped rile up following the removal of Fortnite from the App Store in 2020. For others, it was down to more particular issues. But let’s focus on Apple for now.

The European Union wanted to figure out if Apple was locking down certain parts of its services—like access to user devices through the App Store and even iMessage—for legitimate reasons. One of the most important reasons that Apple kept citing was “user safety and privacy,” but ultimately, that wasn’t enough for the EU.

While the EU didn’t rule in favor of forcing Apple to put iMessage on other devices, it did say that Apple needed to back off and start letting companies distribute apps through third-party app stores and even the web, albeit with some caveats. This led to some big changes in how Apple handles things, but only in the EU. We saw DMA-forced features coming to iOS in the EU as early as iOS 17.4, including the option to sideload apps directly into iOS.

This ultimately means that developers don’t have to rely on going through the strict process of putting their apps on the official Apple App Store in order for it to be available on iPhone—at least for EU users. Anyone outside of the EU will still have to download apps through the official App Store, and there’s no guarantee that will change anytime soon.

This is potentially good news for indie developers, as Apple takes a set percentage of all the purchases made from in-app purchases when an app is downloaded from the App Store. Theoretically, being able to have their app in a third-party store—or even available through side-loading—gives them a way to bypass that cut and keep more of profits. This was a major part of Epic Games’ argument during the whole Apple vs Epic fiasco a few years ago, although Epic hasn’t been happy with Apple’s method of implementing third-party app stores, which still comes with hidden fees.

Are these third-party app stores worth checking out?

This is the real crux of the situation here. While we continue to see new alternate app stores released, including a new one that just launched this month, many of them don’t have a lot of apps yet. And, as I’ve mentioned several times already, they aren’t available to anyone outside of the EU—so the user base is already scaled down a lot from the overall number of iPhone users in the world.

Additionally, most of the alternate app stores released thus far aren’t exceptionally diverse in terms of what they have to offer. One recently released store, Aptoide, offers a freemium-type structure. But it only carries games, and at the time of writing, it has less than 10 basic games on the service. Other popular options, like Altstore, offer far more apps, including the option for anyone to release apps through unique URL “sources.” But, that “anyone can release anything” openness also makes it a bit of a breeding ground for possible bad actors to try to find a way in.

There’s also the fact that Apple has a bit of a high buy-in for developers that want to launch a third-party app store, and many of those are pushing that charge over onto their customers through monthly subscription charges. This is the basis of MacPaw’s Setapp Mobile, which is still in beta (and is slightly different from the existing Setapp service). It is one of the more highly anticipated options out there, but not everyone is going to be willing to pay a monthly subscription when they can just download things from Apple’s official App Store for free.

Of course, other app stores are expected to launch in the future. We know that Epic Games is working on a new Epic Games Store app, which it will use to release games and other apps, including Fortnite. But we don’t have a lot of details about how it will work, or when it will be available.

Ultimately, we’re still really early in the timeline to determine the usefulness of these app stores. There’s still a lot of room for them to grow, and while they might not seem all that worthwhile right now, that could change exponentially in the future as more third-party stores become available, and as already established stores find their preferred methods.

Are alternate app stores safe?

Another thing to keep in mind is the safety standards surrounding these app stores. Anyone who tries to install an alternate app store will find that Apple has made it exceptionally annoying to install these third-party marketplaces, with your device often requiring you to go through multiple confirmation pages before it actually installs. That makes sure you know what you’re getting into—third-party apps bypass all of the “safety” guidelines that Apple has in place within the App Store—but it also means the experience is extremely off-putting.

It’s an intentional move by Apple that some may take as a scare tactic to push users away from utilizing third-party app stores. It could also just be taken as Apple doing its due diligence to warn the general public, who might not be as tech-savvy about the dangers of side-loaded or third-party apps.

And there is legitimate danger here. We already see plenty of corrupted and malware-ridden apps making their way through the App Store’s strict requirements, and there’s no guarantee of how safe any of these third-party stores are, making it exceptionally important to research each one before you install it.

That doesn’t necessarily make these alternative app stores unsafe, but like anything, you need to be careful what you download and what kind of access you give these apps. Also, pay attention to the permissions that apps require (even ones downloaded from the official App Store), and if an app store doesn’t offer any information on that, try to do your own research to see just how trustworthy an app is before blindly downloading it.

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