When you install a game on your iPhone, or indeed any app for that matter, you do it from the App Store. That store is controlled by Apple and everything you download from it is vetted by Apple ahead of time. But that also means that Apple gets a cut of everything you buy there. Game companies like Microsoft's Xbox and Epic Games don't like that idea for obvious reasons.
It also means that anything that Apple doesn't want in its store, isn't. And if it isn't in the App Store it isn't on the iPhone unless it can be run via a web browser instead. That's famously how Microsoft was able to bring its cloud gaming service to the iPhone after Apple refused to allow it into the App Store. And it's Microsoft, via its Xbox division, that is getting ready to change how things work for good. If it's allowed to, it intends to offer an app store of its own.
With the European Commission and its Digital Markets Act set to open the iPhone up starting next year, the chances are good that third-party apps will be installable outside of the App Store for the first time. And that could have wide-reaching implications for developers, Apple, and iPhone owners around the world. Sure, Apple might limit the sideloading of apps to the EU initially, but it's surely only a matter of time before lawmakers in other countries follow the European Commission's lead. And when they do, Xbox will be ready.
Already speaking with partners
Speaking in an interview at the CCXP comics and entertainment convention in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Xbox chief Phil Spencer said that Microsoft is already talking to partners to make sure that it's ready once the third-party app store landscape changes.
“It’s an important part of our strategy and something we are actively working on today not only alone, but talking to other partners who’d also like to see more choice for how they can monetize on the phone,’’ Bloomberg reports Spencer as saying. He went on to say that, right now, gamers don't have a choice when it comes to getting their games on a phone. “To make sure that Xbox is not only relevant today but for the next 10, 20 years, we’re going to have to be strong across many screens.”
It's that lack of choice that has put Apple and the App Store in the DMA's crosshairs, and it's expected that third-party app stores are going to happen. It's just a matter of when. There are also question marks over whether Apple will only allow sideloading in the EU or if it will change its policy globally. The former seems most likely, however.
A changing landscape
The addition of third-party stores, like ones from Xbox and surely Epic Games, could make for a whole new approach to mobile gaming for iPhone owners. Third-party stores are already offered on Android, and Xbox could also bring its store to that platform, too.
But it's the iPhone that Xbox has its eye on, even though it isn't the business it once might have been. Bloomberg reports that players spent 5% less on mobile games in 2022 than they did the previous year and that trend is expected to continue. But it's still a market that Microsoft will want to get into thanks to its estimated $90 billion worth. And that's money that even Microsoft can't turn a blind eye to.
Just as Apple can't turn a blind eye to the changing landscape brought on by the EU and its DMA.
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Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.
Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.