Your iPhone may be getting a little less safe. This week the U.S. Senate will be discussing the future of the Open App Markets Act. If it becomes law, companies like Apple would be required to let users install apps directly from the open internet — a process known as “sideloading” — and side-step the process of downloading apps directly from the App Store.
This policy seems to benefit the more than 100 million Americans walking around with iPhones in their pockets. After all, users would have total control over what apps they put on their phones. And some app developers argue that they benefit too. A recent poll from the Coalition for App Fairness, which advocates for side-stepping platforms like Apple’s App Store, found that over 80 percent of app developers support such a policy. As they explain it, “The Apple App Store policies are prisons that consumers are required to pay for and that developers cannot escape.”
Apple’s App Store is a far cry from digital prison. In fact, its rules are both pro-consumer and pro-developer. Breaking them down will only put consumers at risk and jeopardize the ability to upstart developers as they grow their product.
In 2020, for example, Apple reported that it protected against $1.5 billion in potentially fraudulent transactions and kept nearly a million new apps off of iPhones that would have exposed users to undue risks and vulnerabilities. This included just shy of 50,000 apps containing hidden or undocumented features (imagine your calculator app doing far more than math), more than 150,000 apps that were spam, clones, or otherwise misleading, and nearly 250,000 apps that were rejected for violating Apple’s privacy standards.
Like them or not, Apple’s policies and review process is focused on protecting users from being inadvertently tricked or coerced into unnecessarily sharing their most private data with third parties. And users enjoy the role Apple has come to play. A recent change in Apple’s iOS allowed users to decide which Apps can track your activity across other apps and the web. And 75% of users took up Apple on it’s offer to shield them from being tracked across the internet. In a world without Apple’s insistence on App Store policies, and forcing them to allow apps to simply side-step their rules, approximately 88 million Americans could lose this option.
Prohibiting Apple from enforcing its App Store policies won’t necessarily be a boon to developers, either. Take Josh Wardle, creator of the viral puzzle game, Wordle, which recently sold to the New York Times for an undisclosed amount in the “low seven figures.”
As Wardle explained in a recent profile, since he created Wordle for his partner and her love of word games, he had no interest in creating an app version of it. It has lived as a simple website accessible only through your browser. But this has not stopped others from trying to use Wardle’s idea to create their own apps in violation of Apple’s policy on copycats: “Come up with your own ideas.”
So, as Wordle has grown in popularity, Apple has been working hard to protect Josh Wardle’s hard work. And Josh did not even have an app on their website. Why? In many ways Apple’s strict rules foster trust in the App Store. After all, who do you blame when it turns out you paid for a fake version of an app? Most iPhone owners aren’t going to blame the developer. Instead, they’ll begin to second guess their future purchases and subscriptions with Apple. This not only improves the consumer experience but gives developers confidence in offering their apps on the App Store knowing there is a ready-made market of nearly one-third of America ready and willing to download their latest project.
As the Senate continues to debate what to do about Big Tech, we must not lose sight of what is at stake. Poking holes in Apple’s products won’t improve consumers’ experiences nor will it unlock some hidden market being kept from app developers. It will only weaken protections for users and leave app developers like Josh Wardle wondering whether any good idea will be rewarded in the future.
Christopher Koopman is the Executive Director of the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State.