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Apple's big iOS and App Store changes explained – 7 things you need to know

 Three iPhones on a green background showing AltStore.
Three iPhones on a green background showing AltStore.

What's happened?

The iOS, Safari and App Store logos on a grey background
The iOS, Safari and App Store logos on a grey background

Want the TL;DR version? The EU's Digital Markets Act has forced Apple to make some big changes to how the App Store and iOS work on iPhones in the region. These changes will arrive in iOS 17.4 in March, but it could have global knock-on effects for apps, mobile payments, and more.

Apple's App Store and iPhone apps have remained largely unchanged since they arrived back in 2008. The process has been simple; you discover an app you like, tap the App Store icon on your phone or tablet, and download it.

But some new regulations mean that Apple has been forced to open up that system for the first time – in the EU, at least. From March with the release of iOS 17.4, Apple will let EU residents download and 'sideload' apps from alternative app stores. And that's just the start of some very significant changes for iOS and the App Store.

What does all of this mean for the iPhone and your favorite apps? Will Apple be bringing these changes to other regions? And does it really make iOS less secure? We've broken down everything you need to know about the many knock-on effects of the EU's Digital Markets Act (DMA) below.

Apple clearly isn't happy about the changes it's been forced to make. In its official announcement, Apple said that the iOS changes "open new avenues for malware, fraud and scams, illicit and harmful content, and other privacy and security threats", which it's attempting to mitigate with new protections and safeguards.

Of course, no one will be forced to use non-Apple app stores or sideload apps. But if you're interested in exploring the idea and wondering if there's any way you can try the new features from outside the EU, we've explained what it all means here.

1. The changes land in March – and only in the EU

iPhone 15 Plus review front straight
iPhone 15 Plus review front straight

Third-party app stores and app sideloading will arrive on EU-based iPhones in March as part of iOS 17.4. The iOS 17.4 beta is available right now for developers, but the full version is still a couple of months away.

Those EU-specific changes will only be available in the region's 27 member countries, which doesn't include the UK. So if you live in the US, UK, or Australia, nothing has changed – for now.

However, a similar bill to the EU's Digital Markets Act is currently moving through UK parliament. The move will also likely spark debate in other regions, with the announcements giving all iPhone users a glimpse of some changes that could eventually become global, much like the introduction of USB-C on the iPhone 15.

2. It's the start of alternative app 'marketplaces'

The AltStore app running on an iPhone.
The AltStore app running on an iPhone.

Apple may be opening up the App Store in the EU, but it wants to keep the name to itself. It instead calls the incoming third-party app stores "alternative app marketplaces". But whatever the semantics, the reality is the same – from March, iPhone users in the EU will be able to download from new app stores and even set them as their default choice in Settings.

We've already seen the first of these app stores make their moves, with the AltStore confirming that it plans to become one of the early marketplaces. If it gets approved (Apple will still be authorizing new marketplaces), it'll be able to offer apps that don't adhere to Apple's own App Store guidelines.

Some examples include Delta (a Nintendo games console emulator) and UTM, which is a virtual machine that lets you run Linux, Windows, and more on iOS. Apple says these new options for developers "create new risks", but that it's including safeguards in iOS 17.4 – including a process of reviewing all apps (regardless of their app store origin) that'll be "a combination of automated checks and human review".

3. It's big news for gaming on the iPhone

Xbox Cloud Gaming
Xbox Cloud Gaming

It isn't just iPhone users in the EU who'll immediately feel the impact of Apple's App Store changes. A big global repercussion is that Apple is now allowing game streaming services to become available in the App Store around the world. That's big news because previously you could only access these on iOS via a web browser.

The news opens the gates to services like Xbox Cloud Gaming, GeForce Now and Amazon Luna becoming available on your iPhone. And unlike most of the other changes in this list, that'll be the case from today wherever you live in the world.

An added bonus for EU dwellers is that the incoming support for third-party app stores means the Epic Games Store will be returning to iOS "this year". This means Fortnite, which hasn't been on the iPhone since 2020 when Apple booted it out of the App Store, could now return – although the historical frostiness between Epic and Apple could yet scupper that.

4. iPhone web browsers will change too

Google Chrome logo displayed on an iPhone X screen
Google Chrome logo displayed on an iPhone X screen

Right now, Apple only allows web browsers that use Safari's WebKit engine on the iPhone. But that's now going to change in the EU – and it could have worldwide repercussions for iOS web browsers.

In iOS 17.4 from March, browser apps in the EU will be able to use engines other than Apple's WebKit. That means, for example, that Chrome and Firefox could soon offer revamped iPhone experiences that more closely mirror their desktop experiences, in terms of speed and extensions.

Even though this will only be the case in the EU initially, the increased competition could force Apple to innovate harder on Safari on a global level, particularly as iOS 17.4 will also offer EU users a splash page that lets them choose a different default browser (like Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Edge). In theory, that's good news all around for iPhone web browsing.

5. There won't be a huge apps free-for-all

The iOS, Safari and App Store logos on a grey background
The iOS, Safari and App Store logos on a grey background

The iPhone might be getting third-party app stores and sideloading in the EU, but Apple has clung onto a significant amount of control over apps and developers. In other words, don't expect to see apps become drastically cheaper or change wildly overnight.

For a start, alternative app stores and the apps they offer will still need to go through an approval process that's similar to the one for Mac apps. Also, Apple is introducing a new fee structure for apps that live in these non-Apple 'app marketplaces' – and it could dissuade many developers from making the leap.

While developers will sidestep Apple's traditional 30% cut (now down to 17%) by making their app available outside the App Store, there is a significant stinger for popular apps. Any app that gets more than one million installs a year has to pay Apple a €0.50 fee for every install over that million mark, every year.

Apple claims this will only affect 1% of EU app developers, but it could still convince many (particularly makers of freemium apps) to stay within the safe, predictable confines of the official App Store.

6. Mobile payments will get a shakeup in the EU

Using Apple Pay on an iPhone
Using Apple Pay on an iPhone

Another concession that Apple has had to make to the pesky EU is giving third-party banking and wallet apps access to the iPhone's NFC powers. Right now, only Apple Pay and its Wallet app can use NFC for payments on the iPhone. But from iOS 17.4 in March, there'll be other tap-to-pay options – in the EU, at least.

In that region, you'll be able to set a default app to activate when you hold your iPhone near an NFC terminal or double-tap its side button. While that sounds like a consumer win in theory, it could also spark a situation where banks remove their Apple Pay support in favor of pushing you toward an array of competing apps. This is one where it may be best to watch from the outside.

7. You can't pretend to be an EU-based iPhone owner

Connecting to a VPN in iOS settings
Connecting to a VPN in iOS settings

If you don't live in the EU but fancy trying out some of those alternative app stores, can't you just switch your iPhone region or use a VPN? Probably not, because Apple appears to have created a strict new system of checks to make sure you're actually in the EU.

As spotted by 9to5Mac, a new system (which has been laying dormant in the iPhone since iOS 16.2) will combine several checks to see if a device is eligible for new app 'marketplaces' and sideloading. These include your Apple ID billing address, your current location (the country, rather than your precise location), your current region set in Settings, and the type of device.

By cross-referencing all of these things against the list of eligible countries, Apple will seemingly prevent non-EU iPhone owners from getting a taste of the changes it's reluctantly introduced. Theoretically, the range of checks should also avoid issues that could be created by, for example, an EU iPhone owner traveling to the US.

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