Some quick thoughts on Apple’s new iOS rules for the EU

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 5 min read
Some quick thoughts on Apple’s new iOS rules for the EU

Yesterday Apple announced some pretty big changes that they’ll be making in iOS 17.4 coming in March. This page has more details, and they separately announced that game streaming services like Xbox Game Pass and NVIDIA GeForce Now can release Apps on the App Store.

Phew, big day!

There’s a lot here, and many of the details will be ironed out in time once they actually roll out in the EU, but here are a few quick thoughts I have after sleeping on it for a day.

This isn’t the sideloading future some wanted, as app developers will still need to distribute their apps through a marketplace. This means someone like Tapbots will still need to submit Ivory to other marketplaces and they will not be able to just sell their app on their website and let the user download a .app file like they can with Mac apps.

Marketplaces who want to have alternate app stores on the iPhone and iPad need to get a special entitlement from Apple, much like devs have to do today to get CarPlay, for example. These marketplace apps are the one exception to the above point in that they can be installed directly from a link in your browser.

In terms of my opinion here, I think this will allow for competition on iOS when it comes to developer relations. Developers have tons of complaints about working with the App Store today, ranging from things like Apple’s commission, inexplicable app review rejections, clunkiness submitting apps, zero ability to issue refunds to customers, and the list goes on. With more marketplaces in the mix, we’ll see if these are issues inherent to a modern app store, or if someone else can do better. If another marketplace creates a better experience for developers and devs start to move there, then Apple will have pressure to improve their experience as well. In theory, this will make things better for consumers and developers.

Speaking of competition, I don’t think they were required to do this, but Apple lowered their commission from all App Store sales in the EU to 17% or 10% depending on if a developer is in the small business program. At the same time, Apple has added a “Core Technology Fee” which will be €0.50 per “first annual install per year over a 1 million threshold” which seems to mean you can distribute your app for free, but once it hits 1 million installs in a year, you owe Apple €0.50 for each install. That may not be the end of the world for a paid app, but it could ruin you if your free app goes viral and you don’t monetize it. You can avoid this new fee by sticking with the old terms, which is what seems to be the right thing to do for those not selling anything in their app.

Adding that the €0.50 fee is eerily similar to Unity's recent "runtime fee" that was received so horribly that the CEO was fired days after announcing it.

It’s also worth mentioning that despite these other app stores cropping up, Apple maintains full control of iOS and iPadOS, and they can revoke a marketplace’s entitlement if that marketplace misbehaves, and Apple can also remotely kill an app via their notarization process if a single app is found to be a bad actor, just like they can on the Mac. Apple still holds a lot of power here.

In terms of storefronts I want to see, I’d love to see Steam make a client for the iPhone and iPad. Steam already has an app on the iPhone where I can browse the store and buy games, I just can’t play those games on my phone or tablet. As we move into a world where games like Resident Evil, Death Stranding, Assassin’s Creed and more run on all the devices in our lives, it would be nice for those games to sync across everything. Steam is a great example of another stand up storefront that’s been around for years and has a great reputation for being pro-consumer, and they would surely have a great experience on iOS.

I also think about Setapp, which lets you pay one fee and get access to a ton of apps on your Mac. They could make a marketplace app on iOS and do that same thing. I don’t use Setapp personally, but I know people love it.

Close to my heart is payments, and Apple is adding tools to allow developers to use the NFC chip to process card-present payments. This used to be limited to just Apple Pay, but now Google Wallet could allow tap-to-pay from their iOS app. This is a good thing in my book, and will open the door for more innovation in the payments space. I can’t speak for my company’s future plans, but I will say that I am keenly aware of numerous projects in the payment space that never got off the ground because “we can’t do this on iPhones.”

In addition to linking out to the web to collect payments, this update will also let devs accept payments directly in their app, and those payments do not need to run through Apple’s IAP system. Apple says they will label apps in the App Store that do and don’t use Apple’s payment system, so users know up front, and I’m sure the in-app experience will be distinct from Apple’s. Expect major players in the payments acceptance space to build SDKs devs can easily implement to make this seamless.

iOS 17.4 will add new system settings for default apps as well. In addition to changing things like the default mail or browser apps, you will also be able to set your preferred default app store and contactless payment app. Presumably, this would mean that double-tapping the side button on an iPhone could bring up Google Pay, Chase, or whatever app has added contactless payments. Nice.

The permission Apple has now given game streaming apps to be distributed on the App Store is a great thing. I’m on the record saying this was an absurd thing to block in the first place and I’m happy to see that Apple has changed their tune on this. This change is worldwide, unlike the other changes we’re talking about today.

Finally, web browsers are no longer forced to use WebKit as their rendering engine. I’ve seen people be upset because this will mean that Chromium’s (the open source rendering engine Google maintains and uses in Chrome on the desktop and Android) market share will explode. I’m sympathetic to the idea that we don’t want one browser engine everywhere, but I also think that it’s a pretty weak position to be in when you suggest the only reason people use WebKit today is because they’re forced to. Safari is still the default browser and Apple builds the operating system and has every advantage when it comes to making a killer browser and underlying engine on that platform. If someone else still manages to make something people like better, I just don’t see that as a problem.

That’s over 1,000 words on “quick thoughts” so I’ll leave it there. My overall impressions are:

  1. These changes are good on the whole and I hope to see them roll out to other parts of the world.
  2. I agree with Jason Snell that Apple will be ready and excited to make sure we know about whatever app is the first one to break a rule so that Apple can go, “see, we told you we need absolute control.”
  3. We’re just going to have to wait and see how this pans out. I’m more optimistic, others are pessimistic, and we need to see things actually happen to know for sure what’s next.