Apple opening iPhones to other app stores, but only in Europe

In this photo illustration, an Apple app store logo is seen displayed on a mobile phone screen. (Photo Illustration by Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Apple will allow some iPhone users to access separate, non-Apple app stores, the company announced Thursday. The move comes in response to European regulations meant to give consumers more choices.

What does that mean?

Since the iPhone launched in 2008, users could only download apps from the official pre-installed Apple app store. That gave Apple the final say over what apps were available to download and run on its popular phones. 

Now, users in Europe will be able to access different app stores, presumably run by competitors or independent developers. The change means they can theoretically access apps that violate the terms of Apple's app store or were otherwise rejected by Apple.

Is it safe?

Apple had argued that their tight app store control gave users confidence that their apps would be safe from hidden malware and viruses, promising that the company inspected and reviewed each app. Apple says it’s agreeing to take this step only to comply with the EU’s Digital Markets Act, which takes effect March 7.

"The new options for processing payments and downloading apps on iOS open new avenues for malware, fraud and scams, illicit and harmful content, and other privacy and security threats," Apple said in a statement, explaining that it would continue reviewing apps "regardless of their distribution channel," as well as the app stores themselves.

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Apple’s chief rival, Google, has long allowed users to access alternatives to its Google Play store for Android phones.

What about iPhone users in the U.S.?

The app store changes only apply to users in Europe. Apple has no apparent plans to make such a change elsewhere in the world.

However, it was Europen regulations that initially led Apple to drop its proprietary Lightning charging port in favor of the more universal USB-C port on its newest devices.

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Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.