3 minute read

In a major development, the European Union has ruled that Apple must open up iPadOS to sideloading and alternative app stores within the next 6 months, just as it is requiring for iOS. This decision, while not entirely unexpected, has significant implications for Apple’s tablet ecosystem, app developers, and consumers.

For years, the iPad has been a versatile yet restricted device. Despite powerful hardware capable of running desktop-class apps and even virtual machines, Apple’s “walled garden” approach has limited what users can install to only apps approved for the App Store. Sideloading - the ability to install apps from any source - has been prohibited. This has led to frustrations for power users who want to take full advantage of their iPads’ capabilities.

The EU’s ruling could change this dramatically. With sideloading, the iPad Pro in particular could become a true laptop replacement for many. Developers would be free to create powerful apps that Apple might not allow in the App Store, such as full-fledged Linux emulators, advanced development environments like Xcode, system-level utilities, and retro gaming emulators. Users craving a more open, flexible tablet experience would have that option.

There are potential downsides too, some worry that sideloading will lead to more piracy and malware, as has plagued Android to some degree. On Android, malicious apps posing as legitimate ones have stolen user data or commandeered devices for botnets. While the vast majority of Android users don’t encounter these issues, the open model creates more vectors for bad actors. Apple and third-party iPadOS app stores would need robust vetting and security measures to mitigate these risks.

There are also concerns about how sideloading could affect the quality and consistency of the iPad app ecosystem. Currently, Apple’s stringent App Store review process, while stifling innovation, also helps maintain a high baseline of quality and user experience. If developers focus more on sideloading and less on optimising for the App Store, we could see a more fractured and inconsistent app landscape.

Philosophically, this situation embodies the core tension between the benefits of curated, controlled platforms and the advantages of open, unrestricted ones. Apple has always argued that their “walled garden” approach, while limiting choice, better protects privacy, security and quality. Those who favor openness argue that users should be free to install whatever software they want on devices they own, just like on personal computers.

It will be interesting to see how Apple tries to thread this needle in complying with the EU’s ruling. They could begrudgingly allow sideloading while discouraging it with ominous warning prompts or restricting certain features for sideloaded apps. Or they could embrace it more fully, perhaps by launching their own alternative app store with a different set of guidelines from the main App Store.

The iPadOS ruling could also set a precedent for other closed platforms. If tablets are forced open, what about more special-purpose devices like gaming consoles or virtual/augmented reality headsets? While smartphones and tablets are clearly general computing devices, the line gets blurrier for other products. This debate will likely continue.

There could be both positive and negative unintended consequences from this shift. On the plus side, it could spur a renaissance of iPad app innovation, as developers take advantage of the newfound freedom to push the boundaries of what’s possible. We could see more powerful creative tools, sophisticated games, and utilities that significantly enhance the iPad’s capabilities as a productivity device.

However, a more fragmented app landscape could also confuse consumers, degrade battery life with poorly optimised apps, and introduce more security and stability issues. If alternative app stores don’t gain enough traction to be viable but siphon off some developer attention, it could result in a sort of worst-of-both-worlds scenario.

As this new era dawns for the world’s best tablets, it will be fascinating to see how Apple adapts and how users and developers respond to their newfound freedom. The EU’s goal is to give consumers more choice and spur competition, but the actual outcomes will depend on the specific ways in which this major change is implemented and adopted. Regardless, the iPad experience is hopefully on the cusp of significant transformation.