If we know anything about iOS as a platform, it's that if you want to run apps on it, you need to download them from the App Store. (If you missed it, it turns out that this decision continues to be controversial!) The iPhone and iPad have never been platforms defined by a combination of Apple-approved apps and third-party apps from random sources.
But what if that's what iOS was to become? Certainly, as legislators and regulators circle around Apple and its practices, it's possible that someone will force Apple to allow apps onto the platform without them going through the App Store.
It's almost unimaginable. And yet… what if that calamity ended up being the best thing for the App Store, and improved it–and the base iOS experience–for most users?
The only game in town
It's nice to be the monopoly, sure. But it also adds pressure. Every App Store decision is momentous because there's no alternative. If a developer spends a year building an iOS app and is rejected, there's nowhere to go. All that work may amount to nothing.
Think of all the negative coverage you've seen of Apple regarding the App Store–apps being rejected, developers unhappy and complaining. When every app review decision is no longer a death sentence, the gravity of the situation is reduced. What was once a story about Apple ruining someone's business for capricious reasons is now just Apple declining to be someone's marketing partner. That makes it a much less juicy story, and that's good for Apple.
If developers don't have to bet it all on an App Store acceptance, it also means that they might be more willing to build daring and interesting apps that currently are too risky. Sure, being on the App Store would remain the goal of most developers (it's hard to imagine it wouldn't remain the most important real estate on iOS), but many more things are possible if the all-or-nothing gamble is gone.
Allowing sideloading could open the iPhone and iPad to apps that are more daring and original.
It might seem counterintuitive, but in a world where an App Store rejection is no longer fatal, Apple might also feel free to adjust its own rules even more. The company has spent more than a decade trying to balance its preferences for the App Store with the dual threats of bad publicity and making iOS look bad compared to the competition. The App Review process has gotten a reputation as a capricious and draconian system, but Apple has probably approved many apps that reviewers aren't thrilled about–either because they don't want the trouble or because they're concerned they'll be limiting the utility of iOS itself if they don't.
A no-longer-exclusive App Store might tighten its rules and become more opinionated. It might even be more willing to reject shady developers, blast scam apps, and decline certain types of apps altogether. Apple acts as if today's App Store is just curating the platform, but it's not–it's judge, jury, and executioner. If you can fall back on telling developers to release their apps on their own, it's easier to be a curator.
Nice, but not essential
If you want to see what the iOS App Store might be like in a non-exclusive future, consider the Mac App Store.
(I'll wait for you to stop laughing.)
Unlike the Mac App Store, the iOS App Store is at the center of the iOS experience and has been since the day it launched. I can't imagine it won't remain so, even if it is no longer the only game in town.
But the Mac App Store… is nice? It's just not essential. The pressure is off. Don't want to put your app in the Mac App Store? Apple's cool with that.
But it's more than that: Apple pays close attention to the apps that aren't in the Mac App Store. Over the last few years, it has approached developers who aren't in the store, asked them why they aren't, and has adjusted its policies and technology to get them inside. Apple has invented whole new app entitlements (the system that allows apps to ask for permission for certain behaviors) to get more complex apps in the Mac App Store.
That's a useful feedback loop. Apple watches the Mac platform, sees what's interesting, and then (if it chooses) adjusts macOS and the Mac App Store rules to get that stuff in its store. Imagine that happening on iOS.
And if Apple decides it just doesn't want that stuff, or can't find a way to make it work inside the Mac App Store model? That's fine. The Mac benefits from many apps that Apple can't, or won't, put in the Mac App Store. The Mac is stronger by having those apps, even if they're not officially part of Apple's worldview. A stronger Mac is good for Apple.
The Mac App Store model gives Apple more flexibility than the iPhone App Store.
Threat and opportunity
Any time the prospect of a world where iOS apps can be installed by a means that isn't the App Store, the topic of security comes up. Apple wrote an entire white paper about the threat of sideloaded apps.
They're not wrong. Sideloading apps onto iOS would make it a less secure platform. That's why users would probably have to disable several security features and stare down scary warning dialogs to make it possible. But over the last few years, Apple has been building new mechanisms into macOS to make it more secure, even though software doesn't flow only from the Mac App Store. Macs can be set to run apps only from the Mac App Store or be less secure and run apps from other sources.
Even when a Mac app isn't from the App Store, Apple can still exert some level of control over it. Apps signed by a registered developer and passed through an Apple-operated notarization system are considered less secure than an App Store app–but more than an app that is unsigned and of uncertain provenance. There's a powerful middle ground here, where Apple doesn't act as a gatekeeper but can force users to lower their security settings, warn them the first time such an app is launched, and nuke the app and/or developer if it turns out to be dangerous or malicious.
No, that model is not as secure as iOS today but it's not a bad compromise!
Apple seems committed to fighting changes to its App Store model at all costs. Still, the day may come when the company realizes that it needs to compromise–or perhaps compromise will be forced upon it. Apple no doubt considers that a dark possibility to be avoided.
But maybe there's a silver lining.