Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Craig Federighi and Tim Cook on Sideloading

In separate recent appearances, both Craig Federighi and Tim Cook have voiced their opposition to sideloading. Both executives presumably timed their statements ahead of an E.U. leaders’ summit tomorrow which will, in part, include discussions of regulations impacting the App Store model of the iPhone and iPad.

It is notable how Apple executives are appearing publicly in an attempt to sway this regulation. It should not take guts for a company to put a face and name to the statements made on behalf of it but, well, Apple and many tech companies struggle with integrity and candour. It is nice to be able to hear what specific executives believe about policies like these.

Michael Tsai has a great roundup of commentary. The most common retort is, obviously, that the Mac allows applications from places other than a moderated App Store, and it is pretty secure. Why should non-Mac products be so much more constrained? Is there really that big a difference in terms of security and privacy?

Being the technology-confident person that I am, it is hard to see the downside of a Gatekeeper-like approach on iOS. It is something I would enable immediately because I am sure there are many developers who would happily reclaim their businesses.

At the same time, the number of people using non-Mac devices from Apple is many many times greater than the Mac user base. It is also possible a smartphone may somehow be different to a personal computer in ways not clearly articulated. But those are not the arguments these Apple executives are making. They are claiming that people actively choose the iPhone over an Android phone because it is more locked down.

Joe Rossignol of MacRumors reporting on Federighi’s comments:

Federighi said that while the Digital Markets Act has an “admirable mission” to promote competition and ensure that users have choice, he believes that the provision requiring sideloading would be a “step backwards” that takes away a user’s choice of a “more secure platform” in iOS compared to Android.

Cook:

[…] That choice exists when you go into the carrier shop. If that is important to you, then you should buy an Android phone. From our point of view, it would be like if I were an automobile manufacturer telling [a customer] not to put airbags and seat belts in the car. He would never think about doing this in today’s time. It’s just too risky to do that […]

Apparently, over 40% of Americans want the smartphone equivalent of a car without seatbelts or airbags. This is clearly absurd, and I have to wonder if Apple’s arguments make sense.

For comparison, back when the largest iPhones had displays no bigger than 3.5-inches or even 4-inches, it was common to see people pointing to its display size as an advantage compared to larger-screened Android phones. The theory was that people bought iPhones, in part, because they were smaller. After the monster success of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus — likely the most popular smartphone ever in terms of unit sales — it was plainly obvious people were buying the iPhone despite its small screen, something Apple’s buyer surveys also revealed.

I think there is a market for devices that are very secure, and Apple generally delivers on that. But I wonder if the public views the App Store model as a component of that security architecture. If a future iOS update enabled some Gatekeeper-like features, would people hesitate to upgrade? I am not sure I accept Apple’s argument that it would put gaping holes in the iOS security model, but if we accept that sideloading marginally increases some security risks, would that affect the number of people buying iPhones?

I think people surely want a more secure phone over a less secure phone, but what they also want are acceptable compromises. Apple is claiming that it has made the right compromise since 2008; the E.U. is arguing this gives Apple and Google too much power for how ubiquitous smartphones are today. I do not know that iPhone users would generally put a lack of sideloading at the top of their list of complaints, but I do think there is a deserved skepticism of large tech companies that Apple must contend with. Loosening the reins just a little may ease that compromise in the right direction.