Introducing AltStore PAL

- 11 mins

This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for over 10 years.

I’m thrilled to announce a brand new version of AltStore — AltStore PAL — is launching TODAY as an Apple-approved alternative app marketplace in the EU. AltStore PAL is an open-source app store made specifically for independent developers, designed to address the problems I and so many others have had with the App Store over the years. Basically, if you’ve ever experienced issues with App Review, this is for you!

We’re launching with 2 apps initially: my all-in-one Nintendo emulator Delta — a.k.a. the reason I built AltStore in the first place — and my clipboard manager Clip, a real clipboard manager that can actually run in the background. Delta will be FREE (with no ads!), whereas Clip will require a small donation of €1 or more. Once we’re sure everything is running smoothly we’ll then open the doors to third-party apps — so if you’d like to distribute your app with AltStore, please get in touch.

And that’s the gist! Europeans running iOS 17.4 or later can now install AltStore PAL directly from the AltStore website, bringing entirely new apps to iOS for the first time ever — including, of course, Delta. This has been a personal dream of mine ever since I started building emulators for iOS over a decade ago, and is what my co-founder Shane Gill and I have been working towards since launching AltStore almost 5 years ago. It truly doesn’t seem real that starting today people can finally use Delta as a real app, and I can’t wait for y’all to experience it 💜

Delta’s store page in AltStore PAL.

Sideloading For Everyone

Unlike the App Store, all apps on AltStore are self-hosted. Once an app has been notarized by Apple, developers can download the processed “alternative distribution packet” (ADP) and upload it to their own server. To then distribute with AltStore, a developer just needs to create a “source” — which is just a JSON file containing basic app metadata uploaded to a public URL. Users must then add this source to their AltStore, after which all apps from that source will automatically appear for them to download.

Sources are integral to AltStore’s design and allow it to be completely decentralized. This means there is no central directory of apps; the only apps you’ll see in AltStore are from sources you’ve explicitly added yourself. It’s up to developers to self-promote their apps and direct users to their websites, where users can add their source with a single tap via AltStore’s altstore://source?url=[source URL] URL scheme (or by copying & pasting the source URL directly). Distributing apps with AltStore is also completely free of chargeanyone can distribute an app for free on AltStore as long as they make a source.

If you think this all sounds similar to Apple’s recently announced Web Distribution feature…that’s because it is! In fact, you can think of AltStore not as an app marketplace, but more as a glorified “sideloading tool” that simply reads JSON files and automatically notifies users of app updates. If you’ve ever used Sparkle on macOS, sources are very similar conceptually to a Sparkle XML file — except in addition to releasing app updates, you also use them to customize your app’s store page in AltStore.

Thanks to sources, distributing apps with AltStore is entirely in your controlyou decide when to publish new app versions by choosing when to upload your updated source JSON. Of course there’s a bunch more you can do with sources, so we’ve updated the AltStore FAQ with complete documentation on the source JSON format.

You can customize your source page with your own personal branding.

What kinds of apps belong on AltStore?

All apps are welcome, but I believe AltStore makes the most sense for smaller, indie apps that otherwise couldn’t exist due to App Store rules. There are countless examples of these that aren’t allowed in the App Store for one reason or another; we just don’t know about them because there’s never been a distribution option for these poor apps.

One of the most popular apps on AltStore today is UTM, a full-featured virtual machine for iOS and iPadOS. You can use it to literally run Windows on your iPad. Unfortunately App Review Guideline 5.2 forbids apps from using “protected third-party material such as trademarks, copyrighted works, or patented ideas in your app without permission”, which — you guessed it — includes Windows.

Or take OldOS, a beautifully-made recreation of iOS 4 built entirely in SwiftUI. Clearly a labor of love that does no one any harm, but it’s not allowed in the App Store because it “appears confusingly similar to an existing Apple product, interface, [or] app” (5.2.5).

Or for an even simpler example, Kotoba is literally just the built-in iOS dictionary repackaged into a standalone, easy-to-use app. Yet even it’s not allowed because apps can only display third-party content if “you are specifically permitted to do so under the service’s terms of use” (5.2.2)…which apparently does not include the iOS system dictionary ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And then there’s the app my high school asked me to build to promote their upcoming 5K. I spent months of my sophomore year working on it…yet in the end it was rejected because it did “not provide enough of an engaging and lasting iOS specific user experience that is different from that of a web browser” (4.2), crushing my 16-year-old self 🥲

I’m sure you get the point. Not all apps are rejected for interesting reasons; sometimes people just want to make cool things that don’t fully align with Apple’s goals. Our hope with AltStore is to give apps like these another path forward. We think iOS as a whole could benefit greatly from giving developers a chance to fully explore their ideas without arbitrary restrictions, and now that the App Store has real competition, we’re hopeful Apple will feel pressured to allow apps they otherwise wouldn’t.

And in fact…that’s already happened! Just recently, Apple updated their App Review Guidelines to officially allow retro game emulators like Delta — a perfect example of a competitive market at work. To be clear, this never would have happened if it wasn’t for the Digital Markets Act, and proves competition can, in fact, pressure Apple to make the App Store better for everyone. I’m hopeful we’ll see even more rule changes soon as Apple realizes all the money ideas they’ve been missing out on (looking at you, clipboard managers!).

OldOS recreates the exact look and feel of iOS 4 — including a virtual home button!

Will there be paid apps?

Of course, this is an app store marketplace after all! However, we’re doing something a little different: it’s all based around Patreon donations.

In addition to content restrictions, the App Store also forbids certain business models — such as distributing betas “in exchange for compensation of any kind, including as a reward for crowd-sourced funding.” (2.2). This is unfortunate, because not only is this a proven way to monetize software in other markets, but since launching 5 years ago AltStore and Delta have been entirely funded by doing exactly this and providing pre-release access to our patrons through our Patreon.

I strongly believe this business model works well — especially for indie developers — so we’ve gone all-in and added deep Patreon integration to AltStore to allow all developers to monetize their apps the same way we do. Developers can choose to offer some (or all) of their apps to just their patrons, and even control which tiers unlock which apps on a per-app basis. And to further encourage Patreon use, AltStore will take no commission on Patreon donations, allowing developers to keep the entirety of their Patreon proceeds.

Besides being a new way to monetize apps, it also gives developers a direct, personal relationship with their users. Patreon was built for creators to connect with their audience in ways that just haven’t been possible on the App Store, such as providing access to private Discords or offering exclusive content. Now app developers can leverage this too — plus you can even issue refunds, what a concept!

Of course, there’s another reason why we encourage developers to distribute their apps with Patreon: it allows them to cover Apple’s €0.50-per-user Core Technology Fee.

You can set a specific pledge amount for Patreon apps, or optionally let users choose their own pledges.

About that Core Technology Fee…

While Apple does waive the CTF for the first million installs of an app, this does not apply to app marketplaces themselves. This means every download of AltStore costs us €0.50, period. This is clearly unsustainable for a free app supported entirely by donations — especially considering we already have millions of users — and we’ve seen a lot of discussion hypothesizing how we could possibly afford this.

To us though, the answer is obvious…we can’t! So instead, we’re going to charge €1.50/year for AltStore PAL and pass the CTF onto our users.

We’ve done the math — a lot of math — and €1.50 is just enough to cover the CTF (+ payment processing) for our apps. This obviously isn’t ideal, but our priority is making sure we run AltStore sustainably so that developers can confidently distribute their apps with us — and this ensures we can pay Apple’s CTF no matter how many users we get.

If you’d rather not pay though — or if you‘re unlucky enough to live outside the EU — don’t worry: the existing version of AltStore isn’t going anywhere and will remain entirely free to use! Of course, that version has more limitations than AltStore PAL due to how it works (such as requiring a computer to sideload apps, and having to refresh them every 7 days), so it’s up to you whether that’s worth it.

Seriously…why are you doing all this? Do you really love emulators that much?

Look, I just wrote a whole blog post trying to answer this very question, so I recommend giving that a read.

But, this is about much more than emulators. This is about all the indie developers who’ve ever received a phone call telling them their app is rejected, but not telling them how to fix it; all the high schoolers who couldn’t release their app because it “wasn’t good enough”; all the startups who missed their launch dates due to Apple requesting yet another resubmission; all the users who think tech is boring now (it is) and assumes that’s just how it has to be (it doesn’t).

Honestly, Shane and I are heavily inspired by the Super Smash Bros. Melee community. They’re some of the most die-hard Nintendo fans you can imagine, yet Nintendo does almost everything in their power to push them away. They keep fighting to play this 20-year-old game no matter how many times Nintendo tries to stop them, all because they (rightfully) think it’s just that cool. Nintendo has clearly forgotten how much fans like that matter.

I view Apple and Nintendo as very similar, and just like Nintendo, I think Apple has forgotten about their biggest fans: indie developers. This is incredibly disheartening, because Apple has one of the most vibrant and talented developer communities on the planet. My hope is that AltStore can pressure Apple into caring about indies more simply by being the best indie app marketplace it can be — because if there’s one thing the Smash community has taught me, it’s that the only way to change the rules is to keep playing the game :)

Riley Testut

Riley Testut

Independent iOS developer, USC student, and Apple fan.

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