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App Store Alternatives: Why and How to Distribute Apps Outside Official Marketplaces

| March 30, 2021

It’s usually best for businesses to stick with the most “official” means for whatever it is they do: if you fix cars, OEM parts are the way to go for the majority of customers and if you want to publish an app, it should live in a first-party app store rather than an app store alternative. Yet, there are some situations where this rule doesn’t apply, for example, when modding a car specifically for the track or when offering an app that doesn’t meet guidelines for the Apple App Store, Google Play, or other official distribution networks. If your app isn’t quite “street legal” or it’s meant for a specific user group, distributing an app outside of an official marketplace might be the way to go.

There can be a bit of back-alley feel to providing an app this way but we know businesses don’t need to be on Main Street to thrive. We’re going to take a look at several reasons you might want to use app store alternatives and follow up by covering a few methods for distributing your app without Google Play or the App Store.

Do you really need to be on the app store?

The App Store and Google Play evolved to be highly-visible, “official” suppliers for mainstream digital software and content by becoming a recognized authority with established standards for everything they host. Much like how Target grew from a sole shop in Minnesota to a popular national retailer that sells just about everything you need to functionally exist, app marketplaces followed a similar path for digital products by continually conforming to keep the user’s best interest in mind.

Target makes it easy for businesses to sell a sizable range of products but as large as they are, there’s plenty they don’t carry. As a successful cheap-chic retailer, Target hosts a range of products in every category to satisfy just beyond the norm with trusted brands that fit their standards which constantly adapt to align with consumer expectations. In this sense, the app stores are the same as they have certain standards that need to be upheld for apps to be distributed from these marketplaces. 

While Target is a decent option for products that “check the boxes,” those that don’t, can’t, or won’t fit the bill will need to find other means of distribution. Some products that fall into certain niches simply don’t make sense for Target, like enterprise-grade copy machines, alpaca grooming supplies, or scuba diving equipment. Too, you might just hate Target or the idea of jumping through hoops for any middleman.

App store alternatives exist to accommodate scenarios above but for apps. For example, sports betting apps like FanDuel Sportsbook that use real currency are only allowed on Google Play in four countries at the time this was written. Their solution was to host the app themselves so Android users could manually download and sideload (i.e. install from an APK file), enabling users in areas where gambling is legal to legitimately use the service.

In the case of niche apps, while there are plenty of obscure apps on the marketplaces, some apps are better off being distributed using more controlled methods. Some apps like those only used for internal processes at a business might not need all the amenities offered by the app stores. In other cases, beta features in existing apps or apps still in this overall state often need further testing from specific, invite-only users.

Finally, some businesses may dislike the official app stores for any number of valid reasons. Each platform imposes a set of rules that become stricter (or different) over time and they take 30% of in-app purchases and subscriptions (IAP and IAS), both of which are major deterrents for some businesses.

5 app store alternative solutions

Regardless of the reason that drives you to seek app store alternatives, know there are plenty of ways to get your app where it needs to be without relying on the App Store or Google Play. Next, we’ll take a look at a few of the most viable methods for distributing your app outside the official marketplaces. Keep in mind, except for when using certain third-party app stores, you’ll usually need to host the installation and any subsequent updates yourself. 

1. The Apple Developer Enterprise Program for internal distribution of apps that won’t pass review (iOS)

As another semi-official means to distribute your app, using the Apple Developer Enterprise Program is one of several less conventional options from Apple that your business can use to deploy internal apps to staff without passing all of Apple’s requirements. There are certain rules to follow and highly-specific criteria to meet but this can be used as a means as a way to internally distribute your app with Apple’s blessing. This is a common option for those who access private APIs which violate the App Store terms of use. In doing so, this gives your app a few key benefits like an in-house distribution certificate to sign your app and it gets an app ID that can be used to link a push certificate. Using this method, businesses will be responsible for hosting and safeguarding their product as well as either deploying through an MDM solution or manually installing the app to eligible devices.

2. Apple Business Manager to privately distribute passing apps to organization-controlled devices (iOS)

With Apple Business Manager, you’re able to privately distribute custom apps within an organization using the web console. Designed to work both with mobile device management (MDM) solutions and as a standalone service, Apple Business Manager allows businesses to enroll and manage company-owned Apple devices. Companies can distribute software they buy in bulk from the App Store as well as host and deploy apps they’ve developed so long as they have passed Apple’s review process, all through Apple Business Manager. Apps can either be pushed to devices or hosted in a company-controlled App Store for users to install at will.

3. External beta testing with TestFlight (iOS)

With any Apple Developer account, TestFlight can be used to distribute a beta of your app that passes a limited, superficial app review process to as many as 10,000 external users and 100 internal testers. This is a great way to make your app available to a limited audience for the sake of product testing as TestFlight’s built-in tools make it easy for users to share feedback with developers.

4. Make a listing on an outside store (Android & iOS)

There are several sites like APKPure and apps like Cydia that work as storefronts for unofficial apps. The former, for example, essentially provides a repository of mirrors for any given app, enabling a user to manually download and install apps for either Android or iOS devices that allow installation from unknown sources. Cydia, which is Apple’s first unofficial app store, is still around today, offering apps specifically for jailbroken iOS devices as one of the better-known app store alternatives.

In certain regions like China, marketplaces like Tencent dominate for several reasons but mostly because they don’t subject their apps to the same criteria needed to publish on first-party app stores. For those looking to enter Eastern markets, publishing to Tencent or one of the many other significant app stores you can find in the link above would offer significant advantages over Google Play or the App Store.

5. Hosting and deploying everything manually (Android)

Much like the scenario in the first point, you might want to offer a gated app that’s essentially only accessible to those who know it’s there. While this is sometimes associated with sketchy “dark web” activities, this is a useful strategy for custom Android apps. For example, a high-tech manufacturing facility using an internally developed app to run a robotic control arm through an embedded Android system might wish to keep their app completely inside.

Blue Label Labs will distribute your app using what’s best for your business 

At Blue Label Labs, we employ the best-of-the-best to build software for everyone from the sole entrepreneur to the Fortune 500 company. While many of our clients benefit from having as much exposure as possible on public marketplaces, others require less conventional distribution options. We understand the many options that are available to businesses – we work to find the best possible solution to distribute your digital products, including app store alternatives when appropriate. Reach out to us today to learn more about the distribution options available to your business or to discuss your idea with one of our solution specialists.

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