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Do you want me to leave the Apple ecosystem?

March 26 2022 by Jeff Johnson
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"If you want sideloading, then you can just buy an Android phone."

This is an ubiquitous response to the request that Apple unlock iPhone and allow installation of software from outside the App Store (which has always been possible on the Mac). It reminds me of the "America, love it or leave it" response to criticism of US government policies. Here's my serious question: are you serious? Do you want me, a longtime software developer in the Apple ecosystem, to discontinue my iOS and Mac apps, pack up, and switch to different operating systems? Is that what you want? Moreover, do you want all supporters of so-called "sideloading" among iPhone developers and users to also ditch their iPhones and switch to Android, leaving only the lockdown adherents in the Apple ecosystem? Is the world you want one where buying and using an electronic device requires having a particular ideology?

Incidentally, the term "sideloading" is highly misleading. For most of the history of personal computing, software was loaded via disk drives, which were typically positioned at the front of the computer. So a more accurate term would be "frontloading". Nonetheless, I'll continue to say "sideloading" here to follow the unfortunate common usage.

How many iPhone users would leave, if sideloading supporters seriously followed the suggestion to switch to Android? I don't know exactly. Does anyone? Has there been any public polling of sideloading support? Anyway, I do know that many (though not all) of my fellow software developers do support iPhone sideloading, so if we left, the remaining iPhone users would be deprived of our software. The Apple ecosystem itself would suffer noticeably if we left. Good riddance, you might say… to apps that many iPhone users love?

I suspect that the suggestion is not actually serious, and you don't want all sideloading adherents to leave the Apple ecosystem. I doubt that Apple wants us to leave either, because that would mean lost apps from software developers and lost money in hardware sales and "services" from users. The real motivation behind the suggestion that "you can just switch to Android" is just to stifle open criticism of Apple and its policies. The suggestion is not to switch away from iPhone but rather to STFU. This is one reason why we should always dismiss the above quoted response to sideloading as empty rhetorical garbage. It's effectively, "If you want sideloading, then I don't care, I don't want to hear it."

I have to ask lockdown adherents, what do you make of people who want sideloading but nonetheless still use iPhone? In your mind, is it a complete mystery that these iPhone users haven't simply switched to Android? How do you explain the phenomenon, the very existence of iPhone users who want sideloading? Or let me put it another way: would you argue that App Store lockdown is the only advantage and selling point of iPhone over Android phones? I'm certain that Apple itself would not argue this. In fact I've never seen an iPhone commercial that specifically touts "You cannot sideload software", a very odd omission if that were in fact the primary advantage of iPhone over Android. Funny how Apple doesn't sell iPhone based on that supposed selling point, eh? On the other hand, I do remember Apple touting "There's an app for that." But there wouldn't be an app for that if the software developers who want sideloading all left. So why are you suggesting that we leave?

Sadly, the consumer mobile operating system market is a duopoly. Apple and Google together have nearly 100% of the mobile OS market. Even more sadly, the consumer desktop computing operating system market is also a duopoly, this time with Apple and Microsoft. All together, only 3 companies control nearly 100% of the personal computing operating system market on both mobile and desktop. This is a terrible state of affairs for consumers, leaving very little choice. It's not a healthy, competitive market by any stretch of the imagination. A duopoly is technically "a choice", but it's no more than that. One choice, not multiple choices. It's a choice in the same way that US politics is a choice: if you don't like shitty corrupt corporate Democrats, then you can just… vote for Republicans, who deny climate change, evolution, medicine, basically all science and reality, not to mention the results of the last election. Well, don't blame me, I voted for Kodos! My point is that given we only have two choices for mobile operating system, it's not necessarily an easy, happy choice, and we may just choose the lesser of evils, acknowledging that we don't like some aspects of our choice. There are reasons to choose iPhone, even if you hate the lockdown. A smartphone is not a simple device. Quite the opposite, it's an extremely complicated device, one of the most advanced electronic devices ever made, with countless features. In choosing which smartphone to buy, you have to look at all of the features, the various pros and cons, and ultimately strike a balance, because it's rare that you can get everything exactly as you want, especially in a noncompetitive market with only two operating systems. You don't "just" switch to Android.

My own journey to the iPhone starts and ends with the Mac. And I would argue that Mac was essential to iPhone's success in a number of ways, just as it was for iPod, even though both products eventually surpassed Mac in popularity (in fairness, they're both less expensive to purchase than Mac). Mac enthusiasts were among the first to adopt iPod and iPhone and popularize them. Moreover, Apple's technical and financial resources to build those products came primarily from Mac. The iPhone operating system was based on the Mac operating system; (in)famously, the release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was delayed because Apple "borrowed" Mac engineers for the iPhone project. (I doubt the iPhone project ever returned the engineers they borrowed.) I had already been a Mac software developer for several years before iPhone and the iPhone SDK were released. For third-party Mac developers, the selling point of the iPhone SDK was that UIKit, the iPhone's user interface framework, was based on AppKit, the Mac's user interface framework. And they both used the same programming language, Objective-C, that we Mac developers — and only we Mac developers! — were already familiar with. So our preexisting Mac programming skills were quickly and easily transferable to iPhone. Speaking personally, I'm an iPhone developer because I'm a Mac developer, and for no other reason. I've always hated the App Store lockdown, though, and always wanted software installation with as much freedom as the Mac.

There's almost no overlap between Mac and Android development, from either a programming perspective or a customer perspective, which is why I don't "just switch" to Android. And I still prefer Mac to Windows, though I'm saddened by the "iOSification" and increasing lockdown of the Mac over the past decade. I wish desktop wasn't a duopoly either, that there was more OS competition. I've heard that Windows has been experimenting recently with pushing advertising in the operating system, as well as requiring login to a Microsoft online account just to use Windows at all, so the grass is definitely not greener on the other side.

One More Thing

This blog post is already wordy, so I won't discuss in detail here the various (fallacious) arguments against sideloading. I just want to make one point. I deny the fundamental assumption behind iPhone lockdown: it's empirically mistaken to claim that App Store is safer for unsophisticated users than the so-called "wild west" of external distribution. App Store is a scammer's paradise, the "best" platform for criminals ever built. It's chock full of crapware, squatting on popular search keywords, cheaply and plentifully purchasing fake ratings and reviews, tricking customers with dark patterns and weekly auto-renewing subscriptions, almost inexplicably getting past app review with the greatest of ease. And scammers get all of the benefits that App Store supposedly provides to developers: handling payments, distribution, and updates, as well as stamping Apple's "seal of approval" on all software distributed from there. Inspected by #7.

App Store has been open for well over a decade, yet in all that time, Apple has shown little appetite for cracking down on scams. The worst aspect, though, is the hypocrisy of the lockdown defenders. The sophisticated computer users who claim that App Store is safer for unsophisticated users do not themselves trust Apple's app review! And of course you'd be insane to trust app review, if you have any knowledge of how it works, which is not well. App store review is superficial at best, reviewers seem ignorant with no expertise, they're maddeningly inconsistent, and the concern seems to be more protecting Apple's intellectual property than protecting iPhone users. Let me repeat: App Store lockdown defenders do not themselves trust Apple's app review. They don't install rando, unknown apps, comfortable in the safe, warm embrace of Apple's "walled garden". Rather, sophisticated computer users discover software the "old fashioned" way: recommendations from friends and other trusted sources such as the professional news media. Maybe the lockdown defenders aren't cognizant of their own behavior? You're doing unsophisticated users a disservice by lowering their guard and telling them to trust Apple app review. The truth is that if you care about unsophisticated computer users, absolutely do not let them download unsupervised from the App Store. It's not safe at all. The people who get scammed on the crap store are the unsophisticated users that App Store was supposed to protect.

Responses to Hacker News comments

I don't have a Hacker News account, because in general I don't want the temptation to waste too much time participating in HN discussions, but I'll respond specifically to a few comments on my blog post:

The lack of sideloading on iOS has been a consistent policy since the launch of the App Store in 2008. There’s been ample time for those opposed to it to move to another platform. I suspect that for the vast majority of users it isn’t a dealbreaker.

Agreed that it isn't a dealbreaker, but as I already explained above, those opposed to this App Store policy wouldn't necessarily move to another platform, because there are other reasons to stay.

You'd think that an article with that many words about how important sideloading is would have at least one "I wanted to do X but wasn't allowed" story.

I already stated above that I was worried about the wordiness of this blog post, so your expectation is dumb. I guess some people just enjoy complaining about stuff, such as my omission of whatever they think I should have been talking about.

There are 2 million or more developers many of them are highly competitive and extremely skilled. Apple won’t miss you if you decide to leave - there will be 3 other developers that will just take your place and make tons of money. Good luck with whatever you want to do next.

I'm not leaving. The title of the blog post was not "I'm leaving the Apple ecosystem" but rather "Do you want me to leave the Apple ecosystem?" It's a question from me to App Store lockdown defenders. Apple might or might not miss me personally if I left, but as I explained above, Apple would likely not want all sideloading advocates to leave the platform. We're not even threatening to leave, we're just tired of hearing about switching to Android, which is a red herring.

I do wonder, though, where these hypothetical 3 other developers are now. Why would they be waiting for me to leave in order to come in and make tons of money? This isn't musical chairs, they don't need me to leave to obtain a seat.

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