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I wish AltStore could become F-Droid equivalent for iOS. Sadly it does not.

Liberal arts FOSS discussion iOS AltStore

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Recently, I researched what apps on F-droid store on Android are worth recommending to users. I found that this open source Android store has another scenery, compared to Google Play, the style of apps on F-Droid has a lot of practical, permission-restricted, free software which respect your computing freedom.

Next I want to see what iOS has to offer that is different from the App Store. We know that Android allows you to install third-party software stores (other than Google Play) so you can freely download apps and enjoy the computing freedom you deserve.

In the iOS/iPadOS ecosystem, which has been under Apple’s control for a long time, the App Store is the only source to download apps, and you have to pay for publishing apps on App Store. Apple will take a percentage for selling apps. As Apple’s terms and conditions clearly state apps on app store are GPL-incompatible, indirectly, there are fewer apps in the App Store that are free and open source.

Undeniably, there are still a lot of iOS open source apps, but these quasi-freelance software (non-GPL) are often buried in the smoke, and the iOS ecosystem as a whole is still not so biased in favor of open source, and even if you want to change it, you can’t do anything about it.

This is the inevitable result of high popularity of proprietary apps. Google Play is also the same, it is full of commercial and misleading apps, competing with high quality apps - but those high quality apps are often happy to exploit their users with money, not open source, and also proud of monopolizing specific features, and only want to use the new technology to cash in on the new technology.

However, on Android you can download anther app store, delete Google Play and seek freedom, while on iOS you just enjoys the security Apple gives you - no need to think twice, Apple is right. After all, Apple told you to think differently, and happiness inside the wall is much easier than freedom from oppression, isn’t it?

In 2019, AltStore came out of nowhere, and instantly there was a way to legally install third-party apps without jailbreaking or becoming a developer. Foreign media interviewed the author of AltStore and gave a title like “AltStore is a sanctuary of Apple’s unwanted APPs”.

In a interview, the author of AltStore emphasized that “apps that are cool and fun to use sometimes have a hard time showing up in the App Store, so we hope that AltStrore will be a good place to get them. App Store, so we’d like to see more small, quirky and fun apps in the AltStore”.

Basically, the idea of AltStore has been predicted, just give people different choices.

Whether or not AltStoe can provide a free alternative like F-Droid, my observation is that they do. But when it comes to freedom, only half the winds of freedom blow here.

I actually downloaded several AltStore APPs on iPhone and came to a conclusion. High quality AltStore APPs like UTM, EhPanda, iSH, PPSSPP, including AltStore itself, can be counted on fingers. These programs are great not only because they do what Apple doesn’t give to the average user, but they also give the user the freedom to access the source code.

Apart from the above mentioned apps, almost none of the recommended AltStore apps on the Internet are real and useful apps, all of them are “cracked” or “enhanced” apps, and there are no open-source equivalents of F-Droid’s commonly used utility apps, such as Albums, file management, and so on (This is also due to iOS’ limitation).

Like crached Youtube and Instagram, there are such apps on Android, but they are still not open-sourced. You may have seen the ridiculous example of some apps in Google Play that claimed to remove ads for Youtube but ended up with other own ads on the app itself. The same goes for some apps in the AltStore, such as Cercube. For good software, price is not the issue, it’s whether the app itself is free or not. Apps should be open source and respect the users before they could be worth to pay.

AltStore seems to have made it easier to break out of piracy in the past. In the past, there were a lot of ways to download cracked apps using configuration profiles, but there is no chance for the idea of freedom to grow. People who just want “free apss” will install all kinds of rogue configuration profiles provided by China companies.

As a result, the AltStore may be heading for a more serious consequence than the App Store, which is full of proprietary software - becoming a hotbed of piracy, and those apps may also be able to peel off another layer of users’ skin. This is indeed the case for the third-party app store ecosystem on Android, and F-Droid is facing the same dilemma of survival. F-Droid is not perceived as a “free cracked app”, so it’s not as attractive to use - unless people realize that their rights are important. Say I’m happy with Facebook day by day, so why care about privacy? That’s not a big deal and no use trying to fight it.

I thought that since the App Store doesn’t accept GPL apps, maybe developers who are more principled can distribute their apps on the AltStore, like Minetest, but the reality is that there’s even less of a market for it. In the end, it’s still a matter of acceptance. AltStore apps does not have unlimited permissions like jailbreak apps, and there is not so many special purpose apps, for exmaple, watching porns. If it’s not a very “special purpose” app, why don’t you just put it on the App Store to make some money. Therefore, AltStore APP can only be said to be a safe haven for a few APPs, and the freedom of open source brought by it has no practical meaning to the general public, especially those who are accustomed to the closed ecosystem of iOS walled garden.

Perhaps the true meaning of AltStore is only “alternative”. If anyone can realize the necessity of such freedom, they will not stay in this area and make no progress.

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