Apple Releases iOS 17.5 Beta 2 with Sideloading from the Web

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Apple has just released the second developer beta of iOS 17.5, and in the process, it appears it’s turned the key for iPhone users in the European Union to download apps directly from websites, bypassing not only Apple’s App Store but even third-party app marketplaces.

The move is part of the big changes Apple is making to app distribution in Europe as a result of the EU’s new Digital Markets Act (DMA). While the company’s original plan was to only allow apps to be distributed through alternative app marketplaces, it softened that stance shortly after the DMA came into effect in March, announcing that direct web-based app downloads would be coming soon.

To be clear, this still isn’t quite the free-for-all of open sideloading that some have anticipated, but it’s definitely a step closer. It will allow developers to distribute apps directly from their own websites without the need to list them on the App Store or any other app marketplace.

It’s also a move that makes a lot more sense than Apple’s original take. The alternative app marketplaces that Apple was allowing weren’t ever going to be distributed on the official App Store, so users would have to download them from the marketplace developer’s website anyway, which created an awkward intermediate step for users who just wanted to grab specific apps from elsewhere. Direct web distribution cuts out that middleman.

Although it seemed pretty clear that this would be coming in iOS 17.5, it’s only rolling out in today’s second iOS 17.5 developer beta. Apple has also updated its page on Getting Started with Web Distribution in the EU to provide some more details on how this will work:

Web Distribution, available in iOS 17.5 beta 2, lets authorized developers distribute their iOS apps to users in the European Union (EU) directly from a website owned by the developer. Apple will provide access to APIs that facilitate the distribution of developers’ apps from the web, integrate with system functionality, back up and restore users’ apps, and more. Apple

Although developers will now be able to make their apps available for direct download by end users, those apps will still have to go through the usual Apple channels before they can be installed on an iPhone. That includes submitting the app in App Store Connect and then downloading the “alternative distribution package” certified for installation on an iPhone.

Part of the reason for this is so that Apple can review apps to make sure that they’re free of viruses, malware, and obvious scams — a process that Apple says will help “protect platform integrity.” The good news is that Apple doesn’t plan to exert “editorial” control over these apps; it won’t refuse to notarize anything that it simply finds disagreeable, but it will draw the line at apps that might cause “physical harm” such as fake medical apps or those that encourage users to engage in reckless or dangerous behaviors.

Apple will also control the domains from which apps can be installed, so developers will only be able to make their own apps available for download from their own websites. This means no web stores or app aggregators on the web; those who want to host multiple apps will still need to set up a full app marketplace with their own iPhone app.

The upside to all this is that things like updates and backup and restore procedures will still be handled by iOS, much like they are for apps that come from the App Store.

The web distribution system in iOS 17.5 will also ensure that developers can’t sneak apps onto your iPhone by having them automatically downloaded when you visit a web page. There must be a button that the user taps to initiate the installation, and the user will have to go through a series of screens explaining what’s about to happen and ensuring that they’ve agreed to install the app — including confirming with Face ID, Touch ID, or their passcode.

When installing an app, a system sheet will display information that developers have submitted to Apple for review, like the app name, developer name, app description, screenshots, and system age rating.Apple

This more in-depth authorization step will only need to be done once per developer, so if a user installs a second app from the same website, they’ll only need to confirm the app installation as they’ve already indicated that they trust the developer.

As with the rest of Apple’s recent app distribution changes, web distribution is only available to users and developers in the 27 EU countries. This means that US-based companies won’t be able to publish their apps on the web for users in the EU unless they also have a legal subsidiary in the EU. To be eligible, developers also need to have been a member in good standing of the Apple Developer program for at least two years and have at least one app that’s had more than one million first installs in the prior calendar year.

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