Side-Loading on the iPhone — The TRUTH!

Side-loading on iOS — on iPhone and iPad — is back in the news thanks to Apple's new white paper on the risks and dangers, because of the pressure they're facing from U.S., E.U., and... nerds like me and you. Here's what's going on!

Side-loading on iOS. It is back in the news, front and center again. And it's something I've actually been doing a lot of thinking about in general. Originally, I just thought, sure, allow side-loading. Do it like Gatekeeper on the Mac, where by default, it's App Store only, but you can go into settings and you can switch it to allow developer certificate apps to be installed outside the App Store, or just allow any app to be installed. But I started realizing that I'm a traditional computer user. I've been using computers since before I can remember using anything else. And a lot of the people talking about this issue are traditional computer users. They are people in the media, people on Twitter, people on YouTube, who just grew up steeped in computers, traditional computers, and consider every device, everything that we use should be, should work like a traditional computer.

But that is only one very, very narrow point of view, and one that often lacks an enormous amount of empathy and consideration for people who are not traditional computer users, which perhaps ironically, ends up being a huge part of the market for iOS devices, the people for whom iOS devices were literally designed and intended. If we go back to the early days of the App Store, when Steve jobs first presented the iPhone SDK, he made it really 100% super crystal clear that what he was suggesting, what Apple was building, was not a traditional computer with the iPhone and the iPad that followed it, but something much more analogous to an app console.

And I know that really ruffled some people's feathers and they say that, the iPhone shouldn't be a console, that, "I bought it. "I should be able to do what I want with it." And I'm not arguing that. I'm not arguing whether it should be or not. I'm just saying that from design, from inception, it was not, it deliberately, specifically was not. It was designed to be a console in every sense of the word, the same way an Xbox was designed to be a console as something different from the gaming PCs that Microsoft already dominated. Something like a Nintendo box or a PlayStation box. It was designed to be something much more familiar and much more forgiving, something much simpler and easier for the mainstream public, for the people for whom even a Macintosh, as user-friendly as it was, was still too much of a traditional computer, was still too confusing, too intimidating, too inaccessible. People for whom finding and downloading and doing everything with apps was still a huge challenge, a huge problem. Nevermind, removing those apps, if they were bad or simply wrong for them. The App Store was designed to take a myriad of web portals and retail software experiences, and different vendors, and pricing models, and support infrastructures, and installers, and uninstallers, and just make one simple place on device where you could push a button and get an app and then hold down jiggle and delete that app. And that was it. That was all it ever took. That's how the App Store was designed.

And now there's just an incredible amount of pressure from geeks, nerds, tech aficionados like ourselves, but also companies like Epic, and regulators like the US government and the European Community to change that. And I've been trying to think this through, and that's why I'm having this conversation with you because I'm really interested in your point of view. I want you to help me figure this out because on one side, I do want everything that I own to be a traditional computer. If the iPhone and the iPad worked like a Mac, it would be absolutely no problem for me, but I think it might end up being a problem for everybody who's not me. And I don't wanna do one of those things where I mistake my opinion for a majority opinion just because it's mine. Because I do think that we do represent the minority opinion here because we have grown up so steeped in traditional computing technology and everybody who just hates that.

And I'm not saying dumb people by any stretch of the imagination. Some people might just find computers in general challenging, but others could be mega super geniuses, the lawyers and doctors, and architects, and scientists who just have zero interest in or patience for the trappings of a traditional computer and they look at an iPhone or an iPad as a simple communications device or a simple tool. Simple as in it does what they want them to do with no fuss, no muss, no baggage or luggage built around it. They just turn it on. They open the app they wanna use, and they turn it off. And there's nothing they ever have to worry about. And I know the classic pushback on that is why can't we have both? Why can't the default be for the mainstream, for the masses, but have that web iOS style Konami Code that puts me into developer mode, or as John Gruber suggested, have people with developer accounts get the equivalent of a developer fuse device that can do more than just the mainstream device can do. And the problem is that doors always open both ways. It's the same argument that you have literally with backdoors versus no backdoors is that once you create these processes, they will be used. It really could be anything. It could be school is just forcing you to side-load an app if you are a student there, companies forcing you to side-load an app if you work there, government's forcing you to side-load apps, saying if you wanna play Fortnite, for example, you've got a side-load an app for that, or people being told something's not available in their region, but they can get it if they're willing to side-load it. Once the potential exists, it will be both used and abused.

And that's sort of like when people mention problems with side-loading for all the opportunity that comes with it in equal and opposite risk. Those apps that you are forced to download, or tricked into downloading, or become desperate and download, they don't have any of the requirements of the App Store for review, for example, or any of the malware scans. They don't have to follow any of the privacy policies of the App Store. Everything that Apple has spent the last decade architecting up to and including all the app privacy protections and privacy labels, all of those things, they don't exist in a side-loading model. So the app that your school or work or government forces you to side-load could be surveilling you, or the version of the game that you get either knowingly or unknowingly is pirated, or it's not available in your region, you download it.

And it is festooned with malware, or spyware, or adware, it just opens up all of these vectors for abuse that don't exist if their side-loading is not allowed, just some total across the operating system. And right now, the way that iOS exists, that is not a problem that any normal person has to ever face. Yes, there have been issues with enterprise certificates. Facebook famously got caught by Apple abusing an enterprise certificate to get people to download a surveillance client so they could monitor everything they were doing on their phones. And there've been other examples. There's been jailbreak over the years as well. That required a little bit of technical skill to get into,. But if an official process exists, it is something that can and will be socially engineered, peer pressured, motivated, in ways that it simply cannot be on iOS right now. And this is where I sort of get into part of my dilemma. And that is over choice because everybody here is arguing about choice. I should have the choice to install the apps that I want on my device. I should have the choice to use the App Store or not use it.

And I'm just not sure if that choice should be per platform or across platforms. And what I mean by that is should we as consumers have the choice to side-load apps on iOS or not side load them? Side-load apps on Android or not side-load them? Or should that choice be, I use iOS because I don't want side-loading and I wanna be protected against even the potential of side-loading. Or I use Android where I can side-load. Is that enough of a choice? And if side-loading is forced on Apple, because it's clear Apple doesn't want and Apple believes it's a huge, sure, security risk on one side, but also a risk to their control of the app economy on the other side. But if it's forced on Apple, does that increase consumer choice because now iOS people have the option to side-load? Or does it decrease consumer choice because now people who want nothing to do with side-loading have absolutely nowhere to go? And that part does concern me because we as traditional computer aficionados, I'm trying not to use the word geek as often as I have been, but we already have so many choices. We have windows, and Android, and macOS, and Linux, and Unix, and all the other nixes out there. We have our choice from amongst half a dozen to a dozen other viable operating systems and operating systems across a gamut of phones and tablets, and computers.

But mainstream users, people who do not want the cruft of traditional operating system or in their minds, the perils even of when they really have only iOS and Chrome OS. And it feels like at some level, we're taking that away from them. We're reducing their choices down to nothing just because we like the sexiness of Apples, iPhone and iPad hardware. And I have some ideas about what Apple could do instead of allowing side-loading things involving the way transactions are handled or currently not handled on the web, or the amount of commission charged to developers. But that would make this already long video even longer.