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Alternative app stores on iOS explained

The European Commission recently passed an update to its Digital Markets Act (DMA) that requires Apple to allow third-party app stores to distribute apps on iOS devices. 

This means that users in the EU are no longer limited to apps offered through Apple’s official App Store. 

Where Apple has traditionally restricted users to download apps from the App Store, users in the EU can now install apps from a competing app store – or alternative app marketplace – or directly from a developer’s website. 

These alternative app marketplaces can also be downloaded directly from their developers’ websites, with key names so far being AltStore, Setapp, and Epic Games. 

Are alternative app stores safe? 

Apple’s main excuse for restricting app downloads to its App Store is safety and security. 

“If not managed properly, alternative app distribution poses increased privacy, safety and security risks for users and developers”, explains Apple on its support page

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“This includes risks from installing software from unknown developers that are not subject to the Apple Developer Programme requirements, installing software that compromises system integrity with malware or other malicious code, the distribution of pirated software, exposure to illicit, objectionable and harmful content due to lower content and moderation standards, and increased risks of scams, fraud and abuse”. 

This doesn’t mean that apps installed via alternative app stores don’t go unchecked. 

Top half iPhone displaying App store widget that says Black Widow Premiers!

Apps installed via alternative app stores undergo a notarisation process to ensure that each app meets Apple’s baseline platform integrity standards. This involves checking that apps function as promised and are free of known malware, viruses, and other security threats. However, it remains up to each of these alternative app marketplaces to review apps per their own policies. 

Apple also warns that apps downloaded from alternative app stores might not work alongside other iOS features. Restrictions on in-app purchases in Screen Time, purchase sharing with your Family Sharing group and Ask to Buy are not supported outside of the official App Store, for example.

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