Note: The activities described in this article involve running software on iOS devices that is experimental and that has not been approved by Apple.
Please use caution and install software only from third-party developers you are sure you trust, especially if your device already has bitcoin wallet, banking, or other sensitive apps installed.
A mobile app development team says it has found a novel workaround to Apple’s bitcoin wallet ban and strict App Store regulations: Its own native app store that allows users to download and install any app they like on an iOS device. The team has also developed a standalone bitcoin wallet app that it plans to demo along with the store at upcoming conferences in New York City and Toronto.
If it works as he claims and his legal advice is correct, it could represent a breakthrough for both iOS and bitcoin users.
Still in beta
At the moment, the independent app store, still a sign-up beta, has a focus on bitcoin solutions and is even called the ‘Bit Store’. The bitcoin wallet app will be released separately today and anyone downloading it will be signed up to test Bit Store when it’s available. Neither requires an iOS device to be jailbroken and the apps available are not web-based, instead using a combination of HTML5 to render app interfaces and back-ends written in C.
The plan is for the store to include all kinds of apps in time, with bitcoin serving as the payment system. The apps themselves will be cross-platform and will function on any mobile platform once a version of the store is released for it.
The Bit Store beta currently has just a few simple apps available, including the bitcoin wallet and a news aggregator/company directory. The ‘Wallet’ app uses the Coinbase API to send and receive bitcoins to any address, with values denominated in BTC or USD.
DeSantis told CoinDesk he came up with the idea for the Bit Store about six months ago, while he was trying to develop an app to run on iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Doing so required expertise in those platforms’ three different programming languages: Objective C, Java, and C#.
“About six months in I found it took a lot of effort to do, and it was unnecessary,” he said in Avalonic’s introductory video.
Reaction to his announcement on reddit was overwhelmingly positive with wishes of good luck and requests for other cryptocurrency apps like litecoin and dogecoin.
Some, however, expressed skepticism that Apple would allow such rampant freedom of choice to continue for very long.
Apple is protective of its closed infrastructure, and could use both engineering and legal means to prevent circumvention, especially if it becomes popular. There’s also the 30% commission Apple receives from all sales on its own App Store, now a substantial revenue stream.
DeSantis wrote that he had actually worked for Apple in the past, learning enough to reverse engineer the system to install unofficial apps using protocols intended for enterprise, but staying within Apple’s legal guidelines.
Originally intending only to develop an independent and cross-platform app platform, he switched his focus to bitcoin after Apple banned wallet apps from its own store.
“I used to work for Apple, was even flown out to the mothership in Cupertino. As a part of training, we learned about all of the iOS protocols. After I quit I had the idea for a multi-platform store and by knowing everything that was legally possible on the iPhone I was able to figure out how to install apps without having to install apps.
It took nine months of work and wasn’t originally intended for bitcoin, but after they removed Blockchain from the App Store it seemed like a perfect fit!”
He added that he hadn’t signed any agreement prohibiting the work he’d done, that it was a new technique no-one had tried before and that his company had been in contact with lawyers for months to discuss possible scenarios.
Possible moves against Bit Store
From plugins that circumvented iTunes copy protection to iOS jailbreak techniques, Apple has previously played cat-and-mouse games with ‘creative’ developers that often ends with the developer moving on to something less frustrating.
It must be said, though, in the case of iTunes DRM it ended with Apple changing its policy by abolishing copy protection in most cases.
DeSantis doesn’t seem particularly concerned about Apple’s technical moves to block the Bit Store either, saying it would be difficult to modify iOS as it exists now to do so. He has back-up plans even if Apples tries:
“Apple can’t prevent our store’s existence because, on iOS, Safari allows applications to be installed to the the home screen. In the event that the implementation we currently have in place is compromised by an update we will modify our code to circumvent the update.
If our seamless implementation is still disabled by such a future update, which while possible isn’t likely to happen in the near future due to the damages this would cause to existing software that has existed since iOS 4, we would revert to an app store that you install with the ‘install to home screen method.
If we can install our store to the home screen, then we can install apps exactly, if not very similar, to how we are installing them now (without having to click ‘install to home screen’). Finally adding one extra step to the app install process will not remove the cloud platform we have created, our bitcoin wallet, the hardware access or the notification features.”
He went on to explain why he regards the Bit Store as legal under Apple’s own rules as they pertain to web applications, which users have always been free to add to their iOS Home Screens.
“Apple’s own documentation states that, ‘A web application is designed to look and behave in a way similar to a native application.’ Although we are taking our implementation a few steps further than the average ‘web application’, in the end we could revert back to such a state and maintain our platform.
Side loading apps on Android are nowhere near as elegant as our iOS install process. This has not stopped third-party app stores from existing on Android and we believe the same will hold true for iOS in the absolute worst case.”
Interested users can sign up for an invitation to the Bit Store beta on Avalonic’s home page.