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We tested Aptoide, the first free iPhone app store alternative

The popular alternative Android marketplace Aptoide just launched as a challenger to the Apple App Store in Europe. We’ve seen a trickle of stores launch since March when the Digital Markets Act (DMA) forced Apple to support third-party iOS app marketplaces — but nothing has so far managed to upset the balance of power and change the status quo. 

Aptoide has been around since 2009 and is primarily known as a Google Play alternative for Android users. The Portugal-based company says it currently hosts 1 million apps for some 400 million users. The iOS app store Aptoide is launching today (as an invite-only beta) is a different beast, however, as it only distributes games. It’s the first marketplace of this type available for Apple devices — and its freemium structure could prove very attractive to both developers and users alike. 

Can Aptoide thrive where others have struggled? Could its focus on games lure the public in? And could its freemium model carve a path forward for third-party marketplaces? We had a chance to play with a preview of Aptoide to find out.

So far, serious disruption has eluded the alternative iOS marketplaces now available in Europe. Including Aptoide, four are live at the time of writing. The first to launch was Mobivention, a business-focused store that distributes apps to employees. The second was AltStore PAL, an interesting marketplace that had its key selling point of an iOS emulator undercut by Apple finally allowing the software on its own store. The third was Setapp Mobile, a subscription-based service still in a closed beta that focuses on delivering a workbench of productivity tools.

These all came with promises of upending Apple’s monopoly, but so far, progress has been slow. AltStore PAL, for example, launched at the start of April with two apps: Delta and Clip. Now, two months later, it still only has two apps. This, according to its developer, Riley Testut, is because new software has “been stuck in Apple’s notarization process.” Things are going slightly better for Setapp Mobile. The company launched its store with 13 apps in the middle of May and now, about three weeks later, has 37 available.

Now, it’s Aptoide’s turn to try.

This handy guide makes it easy for new users to install a third-party app store.
Image: Aptoide.

An example of the screens you have to click through before you can actually install a store like Aptoide.
Image: Aptoide

Installing the Aptoide game store on your iPhone is similar to other marketplaces: fiddly but achievable with persistence. You have to navigate through about a dozen screen interactions that repeatedly warn of imminent danger. Thankfully for first-timers, Aptoide provides a handy illustrated guide of the required steps, and having gone through this process a few times now, I can assure you it gets routine quickly.

Once Aptoide is on your phone, it’s plain sailing. You click on a game, install it, and start playing. Unfortunately, in the state we tested Aptoide, what’s available is not overly impressive. There were only eight basic games (think versions of Solitaire and Hangman) when we tested, and none of them were particularly alluring. This will change, though. Paulo Trezentos — co-founder and CEO of Aptoide — says 100 developers have so far expressed interest in appearing on its iOS marketplace and that “30 of them are currently in the technical integration phase.”

With new games planned to be released weekly, the library will grow quickly — although the majority of these will be titles already available on the App Store, not exclusives. There are also no plans for controversial titles not allowed on Apple’s marketplace, like pornographic or gambling games. Emulators will be allowed “if not infringing on IP,” but these are already a burgeoning category in Apple’s own store.

An example of one of the games on Aptoide at the time of testing: All-in-One Solitaire. Yep, that sure is a game of Solitaire.
Image: Aptoide

So, what’s the key selling point? What’s Aptoide offering users that they can’t find on the App Store? Besides a currently stark list of “curated” games, one element Trezentos points to is the way Aptoide combines a freemium model with a rewards structure.

Aptoide is the first third-party marketplace to use an Apple-approved in-app purchases system. For users, this means all the games will be free-to-play, but some will include in-app purchases. How this differs from the App Store is that Aptoide will give “bonuses” to people who regularly spend in-app, something that will work out to be a 5 to 10 percent discount on each purchase.

Earth-shattering? Maybe not — but Aptoide’s attitude toward developers could lead the store to gain some traction.

Aptoide is paying developers between $1,000 and $2,000

According to Trezentos, Aptoide is “developer orientated,” something it showcases with its approach to fees. It charges developers 20 percent for organic in-app purchases generated by the Aptoide iOS marketplace and a 10 percent fee in all other cases — for example, when the developer advertises independently and drives downloads of the app. On the Android store, Aptoide charges 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Apple, on the other hand, charges a 30 percent fee across the board. 

On top of this, Aptoide is paying developers between $1,000 and $2,000 to launch a game on its IOS platform, the higher amount going to those who include in-app purchases in their software. The company also handles the Core Technology Fee — a cost of 50 euro cents per annual marketplace install — from its cut of in-app purchases.

A little more detail on the bonus system Aptoide is running for users.
Image: Aptoide

The system Aptoide is running to try and encourage developers to release apps onto its iOS platform.
Image: Aptoide

This Core Technology Fee approach differs from the Setapp Mobile and AltStore PAL stores, which pass along the fee directly to users as part of the subscription. Aptoide is in an interesting position as the first third-party iOS app store people can use for free. 

This is the real differentiator for Aptoide. Because it’s free to use, it could appeal to a wider audience, making it attractive to more developers. In turn, the store’s friendliness to developers could lead to the launch of a large number of quality games, which could lure in the public. There’s potential there — to a point.

My concerns with Aptoide are threefold: its reliance on in-app purchases; the quality of the titles; and its competitiveness compared to the App Store. 

We’re still in the early days of third-party app stores

While a financially successful business model, in-app purchases are broadly looked down upon by tech enthusiasts. And who’s the most likely segment to download a third-party app store in the EU? Nerds. If the library only contains basic games of the type available at launch — and many are already available on Apple’s platform — what reason is there to go through the rigmarole of installing a third-party app store? I’m not certain a small discount in the form of a bonus is enough to encourage broad swaths of the public to bother.

Let’s not forget, though, that we’re still in the early days of third-party app stores. Aptoide and Setapp Mobile are still in closed betas, while AltStore PAL hasn’t even begun to host the apps of other developers yet. Many fans of sideloading may have wished for speedy changes, but it’s not panning out that way.

Three months in, and the alternative app stores that have so far launched in Europe are doing little to jeopardize Apple’s monopoly — and you know Cupertino is feeling pretty satisfied about that.

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