Fortnite maker Epic Games is leading a revolt against Apple's App Store. Last month, Apple removed Fortnite from its app store after Epic added its own payment processing in the popular game against Apple's rules. In legal filings, Epic said that Apple controls the only way to install apps on an iPhone, giving it an anticompetitive stranglehold on the market for apps.
For most people, that's absolutely true. The vast majority of apps on iPhones can be installed only through the App Store, and Apple doesn't offer an official way to install software outside of the App Store using an installation file downloaded from the internet, a process called "sideloading."
Apple says it restricts users to downloading apps from the App Store to preserve quality: Apple employees review every app to assure users that iPhone apps are free of malware, offensive content, and security holes. Software makers who can't abide by its rules can build websites instead, Apple says.
However, there are other ways to install software on an iPhone.
Tencent, the Chinese technology giant, has created an empire of "mini-apps" inside its WeChat app, which are acceptable under Apple's rules for its App Store. Other alternatives operate in grey areas without Apple's blessing. Altstore, which came out in 2019, distributes apps that the App Store won't approve. Airport is a proposed alternative app store that's seeking a wider audience for beta software, which needs a little more work before it's ready for everyone, although Apple may not approve it.
If Epic's lawsuit prevails, and Apple is forced to support alternative app stores on the iPhone, these existing methods could provide a preview of what the future marketplace for iPhone apps looks like.
The most popular way to run software programs like games on an iPhone without downloading them from the App Store are "mini-apps." They're small, lightweight software programs, and you load them from inside an iPhone app. In essence, mini-apps turn an iPhone app into its own miniature version of the App Store.
Mini apps are not full apps — they're written in HTML5, the same markup language used to create a website. That means they load much more quickly and don't require users to install anything -- just like an interactive web site runs in a web browser -- but also means they can't be as sophisticated as full apps or games.
The king of mini-apps is WeChat, the massively popular Chinese-oriented messaging program made by Tencent.
Third-party developers have built more than a million mini-apps for WeChat to do everything from ordering delivery food, shopping online, or playing a quick game. They're accessible through links directly in the WeChat interface, or through QR codes that can be found in magazines, at restaurants and stores, on business cards, and so on.
300 million of WeChat's more than 1 billion users used mini apps daily in 2019, spending the equivalent of $115 billion, Tencent said earlier this year. Other Chinese tech companies, including Alibaba and Baidu, have also added mini programs into their apps.
The idea of mini-apps is beginning to catch on in the U.S. as well. Earlier this year, Snap announced what it calls "Minis," which is the same concept, except inside Snapchat. Snap offers mini-apps made by third party developers for meditation, making flashcards, and polling friends.
Mini-apps have not escaped Apple's scrutiny entirely. In 2019, Tencent announced that it would stop accepting payment for digital goods inside mini-apps to conform with Apple's rules.
The company is also coming up with its own spin on the concept. Earlier this summer, it announced what it calls App Clips. Although it's still in beta and hasn't launched to the public yet, Apple says that App Clips are a way for developers to provide a "small part" of an app that doesn't require the user to download the full program.
App Clips are in a testing phase and won't be available to the public until iOS 14, the latest version of the iPhone software comes out this fall. But Apple said in presentations this summer that App Clips are good for uses like ordering take-out from a restaurant or renting a scooter. There are several ways to install an App Clip: Users can scan a QR-code like image, or tap their phone against a configured sensor, or tap on a a link from the web.
Apple declined to comment on the record for this story. But its App Store guidelines and related developer agreements ban apps that "download, install, or execute code which introduces or changes features or functionality of the app, including other apps."
But WeChat and Snap fall under a different guideline, which says that code distribution cannot be the main purpose of an app, leaving a path for mini-apps. The code used to run mini-apps can't be in a "store-like interface," and must meet six requirements, including that the software is free, can be run in Safari, and meets all App Review guidelines. In addition, all developers of mini-apps must be registered as official developers with Apple.
Apple allows developers to sideload apps to their iPhone from Xcode, software for making iPhone apps, so that they can test in-progress apps or show creations to friends and family.
AltStore automates this process, albeit in a way that most casual iPhone users will find a bit burdensome. It uses a Mac or Windows app, which is required to sideload the Altstore onto the iPhone. It also automatically refreshes Apple-imposed timers that cause sideloaded apps to become unusable after 7 days. Users are also limited to 3 apps using this method because of an Apple restriction.
This approach has other risks as well .Altstore requires the user to trust it, meaning it needs access to a user's Apple account and password. If you're installing files from around the internet, you don't have Apple's assurance that it's free from malware.
When Altstore first launched in September 2019, a lot of people told its creator, Riley Testut, that Apple would shut it down immediately. That didn't happen, and Testut told CNBC he wants Altstore to become a "legitimate store."
AltStore arose out of a previous project: A Nintendo emulator so users could play Game Boy Advance games on their iPhones. After discussions with Apple's app review team, in which he got conflicting information about whether his app would be allowed on the App Store, he came up with a new way to "sideload" his app onto an iPhone.
"Now that it's been about a year and I'm on their radar, they have changed some stuff in the last year that affected me, like they changed how authentication works with the servers," Testut said, but he "figured it out." In August, Altstore announced that it had been downloaded 1 million times.
Testut works on the project full-time with Caroline Moore, his business partner. For now, their income comes from supporters donating through Patreon for beta access and an invite to a Discord server. Moore said that one goal for Altstore was to prove that it's possible to open up iOS to different ways to install software without compromising user security or experience.
"We're both big fans of Apple and love so many things Apple does," Moore said. "The gatekeeping, we don't fully agree with, and we're trying to show that the platform can be opened up in a way that can still be safe for users. And that's a huge part of Apple's argument."
The most popular app on Altstore is Delta, the Nintendo emulator Testut originally wanted to publish on the App Store, but people have used it to sideload about 1,000 different apps. Developers from the open-source tradition often quietly distribute iPhone app installation files on sites like Github as a way to show off their programming chops or allow other developers to see and get ideas from the code. They also sometimes upload modified games, like a version of Pokemon Go that doesn't require walking, Testut said.
In August, Altstore tweeted a photo of Fortnite installed through its software. Testut said that it was a "tongue in cheek" response to the Apple-Epic legal battle, not a new app on Altstore, but he's open to the idea.
"I would love that if Epic wanted us to host Fortnite," Testut said.
Airport, which launched in August, allows users to browse a list of curated beta apps on iPhones.
It uses TestFlight, which is an Apple service for testing software -- it allows software makers give access to pre-release apps to large groups of beta testers through a single link.
Airport takes the TestFlight links from many different software makers and puts them into a single interface for browsing. Users can either download Airport from TestFlight, or access the list of apps through a web site.
AirPort is only a list of links. It doesn't host actual installation files. TestFlight app submissions are reviewed by Apple, so everything on the store has been reviewed by Apple.
Airport's focus is to give app makers feedback from lots of testers to improve their apps before release, co-creator Siddarth Sharma told CNBC. He and the other Airport co-creator, Jordan Singer, are trying to create a community for iOS developers, not an alternative app store living in a grey area.
Still, the current Airport service describes itself as "the best place to discover new apps from developers" and the app looks like an app store, complete with a "GET" button similar to Apple's App Store -- moves that would likely invite scrutiny if it were to be launched on the App Store. But it's still tiny compared to the App Store, and the limit of 10,000 users per TestFlight app guarantees it will remain that way.
In August, Singer said in a blog post that Airport had 300 different apps, a waitlist of 12,000 users, and 300,000 app views.
"Will Apple approve us if we do decide to go to the App Store? Honestly your guess is as good as ours, knowing Apple recently. Even though we're not violating any rules, and using Apple protocols and development pipelines, we are creating an index of unreleased apps so I can see them denying it for that reason itself," Sharma said.
Still, Sharma said that he is building up the web version of the service in case Apple doesn't allow the Airport app onto its store or removes it from TestFlight.