The way you download and pay for apps may be about to radically change

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The way you download and pay for apps may be about to radically change
Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images; Denis Balibouse/Reuters
  • Two bipartisan bills aimed at loosening Apple and Google's grip on the app store market are floating through Congress.
  • They could let you download apps from places outside Apple and Google stores, called sideloading.
  • Google already lets users access third-party app stores, but Apple only allows downloads through its App Store.
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It's hard to keep track of the litany of congressional bills in the works designed to keep tech companies in check.

But one of them is specifically aimed at Apple and Google's app stores - and if it gets the green light, it could change how you download apps on your smartphone.

Dubbed the Open App Markets Act, it would let you install apps from places other than Apple's App Store or Google's Play Store, which both come pre-installed on iPhones and Androids, respectively.

The industry calls that sideloading, and if it's allowed, would mark a turning point in the companies' iron grip on how people access apps and use their phones.

Google allows its users to access third-party app stores already, but Apple doesn't.

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Sideloading apps means they wouldn't go through Apple's vetting process, which is why the company said in a sweeping, 16-page post in June that that would "expose users to serious security risks," like cybercriminals and malware. However, the bill's architects say it would include safety guards for people's privacy.

Google and Apple, but specifically the latter, have faced condemnation over what critics say is the unfair advantage they wield with their popular and lucrative app stores, which generated a stunning $111 billion in 2020, according to Sensor Tower.

Both companies take a 15% to 30% cut of all purchases made in apps, but their own apps are exempt from the fee. For example, that could mean users paying for items in the popular "Fornite" app or for premium service on dating apps like Tinder.

But many - including Spotify, "Fortnite" creator Epic Games, and Match Group have denounced that fee - which Tesla CEO Elon Musk has called a "global tax on the internet" - for sucking up too much revenue. At an April Senate antitrust hearing, Match Group said that its biggest expense in 2020 was the 30% app store fee - the company raked in $2.4 billion in revenue last year and paid $500 million on app store commissions.

This mounting scrutiny has culminated in a number of legislative proposals geared toward app stores. In addition to the Open App Markets Act, two bills were also part of a five-bill antitrust package unveiled in June. The American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Ending Platform Monopolies Act would directly affect Apple and sideloading.

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And shortly after the Senate rolled out its Open App Markets Act, House lawmakers introduced their own bipartisan bill intended to set tighter boundaries for tech companies that operate app stores.

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