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Apple has just opened up iOS in Europe. Now what?

The war is over… Kinda… Apple may have lost the legal battle, but incredibly, as the Digital Markets Act kicks in, the wounded giant is still holding all the aces
Apple has just opened up iOS in Europe. Now what?
  • iOS 17.4 is the first version of Apple’s iOS that allows the release and inclusion of alternative app stores, new web browser engines and payments
  • It's also the first ever fragmentation of the OS as users outside of Europe are denied new features

The impossible has happened. iOS users in Europe can now head to Settings on their iOS devices, select General and Software Update to reveal iOS 17.4 - the first version of Apple’s iOS that allows the release and inclusion of alternative app stores and new web browser engines and the first ever fragmentation of the OS as users outside of Europe are denied these new features.

Users outside of the EU can of course get iOS 17.4 too… But their version is limited to security updates, tweaks and bug fixes and the addition of 118 new emojis.

The move is, of course, all thanks to the European Union’s Digital Markets act which officially kicks in today, with Apple dutifully releasing the new compliant software before the act comes into effect. Though - notably - the usual ‘Software Update Available’ prompt heralding the arrival of an update is yet to drop for iOS users, perhaps in an indication that Apple would rather that you didn’t upgrade given their annoyance and upset that their hand was being forced.

Nevertheless, right now, that 1.55Gb download and update is there if you want it - and you’re within the European union (which - for this purpose - also includes the UK by the way).

So what’s new?

The big ‘plus’ within the Euro-exclusive remix of iOS 17.4 is of course the provision for third-party developers to create and launch alternative app stores. Once on board and installed these app stores can offer apps that would have previously fallen foul of Apple’s strict regulations, the most notable of which being their famous 30% fee on any takings, though Apple has done its level best to ensure that they still get paid by other means.

In fact, the whole process is now so complicated that - while adhering to the letter of the law - Apple’s implementation of it is so obfuscated with fees and permissions that they’re clearly hoping that do developer or publisher will bother with it. Instead Apple will be hoping for business as usual.

As to whether that’s possible, that’s up to the EU and whether they determine that Apple’s moves are sufficiently compliant and ‘in the spirit’ of the DMA. Notably yesterday they hit Apple with a not inconsiderable $2bn fine as punishment for their prevention of rival music services from promoting cheaper deals outside of Apple’s store - a case being first aired by Spotify five years earlier.

It would appear therefore that the EU just got some teeth and is willing to take a bite out of Apple.

When will the app stores land?

That’s hard to say, with Epic working to get their app store up and running “this year” while others are moving apace through Apple’s treacly (and miraculously in-place and legally possible) approvals process. Despite the EU forcing iOS open, Apple has managed to maintain a clause that essentially requires them to process and approve any store that wants to come through the door.

UPDATE: In an unexpected extension of Apple and Epic's ongoing spat, Apple just revoked Epic's iOS developer licence (which it had only recently re-instated). You really couldn't make this stuff up…

And will these new stores find success even if they do finally find themselves live on iOS? Even that’s debatable as Apple are (once again) implementing a series of security measures and ‘Are you sure?’ splash screens to ensure that their users - molly-coddled after years of behind-the-scenes Apple nannying - are fully aware of the nightmare hellworld (read: open, free market) that they’re allowing their iOS devices to enter.

As to what proportion of users will say “Yes, please” versus those who say “I’ll stick with the Apple App Store, thanks,” is up for debate but it’s pretty clear which side of the fence Apple would like them to land on.

One thing is for certain though. Apple is going to make the whole process of setting up and using rival stores as unpleasant as possible for both developers and users. Unless the EU steps up and strikes out.