Meta piloting direct app downloads from ads, no app store required (who needs IDFAs or GAIDs now?)

By John Koetsier June 30, 2023

It has begun. According to a report in The Verge, Meta will be piloting direct app downloads later this year in Europe. That’s straight from a tap on an ad in Facebook to an instant app install on your mobile device, bypassing Google Play and the iOS App Store. This, as the saying goes, changes everything. Specifically, it breaks the app store model that Google and Apple have used to manage, protect, control, and profit from their mobile operating system duopoly.

As I wrote almost a year ago in July 2022, it’s all enabled by the Digital Markets Act. From my post back then:

Google and Apple are most definitely on the target list for exactly this kind of legislation, and will most certainly be defined under the DMA as “gatekeepers” that govern access, to greater or lesser degrees, to their massive mobile platforms.

Specifically in the context of mobile apps, that probably means something like this:

  • People can delete pre-installed apps
  • People will able to side-load apps, or install them just like you might install an app from the internet on a desktop computer
  • Businesses can create independent app stores
  • Apps can use third-party payment processing
  • Apps can interoperate with core services around messaging
  • Apps can use hardware features that platforms might have reserved for themselves
  • People can switch AI assistants

The report says that Meta will start experimenting with Android first, which is less risky because it already allows app side-loading. But you can bet that iOS will be coming as well.

Meta has confirmed the plan in a statement to The Verge by spokesperson Tom Channick:

“We’ve always been interested in helping developers distribute their apps, and new options would add more competition in this space. Developers deserve more ways to easily get their apps to the people that want them.”

Direct app downloads: more money for app developers, better targeting for Meta?

The opportunity here is huge for both Meta and for app developers.

Meta’s pitch, according to the story, is that they will not take a cut of app publisher’s in-app purchases. That’s theoretically an immediate 30% boost in revenue, although in practice payment processors and handling costs will reduce that bump.

(Of course, this could change if the initiative is wildly successful.)

The other implication however is that Meta could regain much of the premium targeting capability it lost when Apple neutered the IDFA by permission-gating it behind App Tracking Transparency.

ATT vastly reduced behavioral signal that Facebook gained from tens if not hundreds of thousands of apps and thereby chopped off a significant percentage of Meta’s competitive advantage versus other, smaller, less content fortress-y ad networks and platforms. One function of the IDFA was to report results over time to Facebook, which then not only allowed it to price its inventory higher — and report higher LTV — but also to build graphs of people and devices (audiences) that Facebook could target more effectively than pretty much anyone else.

By enabling direct download, Meta gains a first-party advantage in immediate attribution reporting, and likely — depending on the SDK Meta includes — long-term behavioral data as well.

But … Meta, meet Apple’s privacy manifests and Google’s SDK Runtime

Direct app downloads sets up an interesting collision between an immovable object and an irresistible force, because Meta will have to deal with privacy manifests on iOS and SDK Runtime on Android at some level.

Apple is introducing privacy manifests in iOS 17 and while they are a function of App Store publishing — so a direct download process shouldn’t need them — they form the basis for Apple blocking access to tracking domains. And you can bet Apple’s not going to give up that right on their devices and in their operating system just because Europe has enabled direct download.

From my post on iOS 17’s Privacy Manifests just recently:

Apple will block network requests to tracking domains if users have not granted permission via App Tracking Transparency.

My guess: Apple will figure out tracking domains that Meta is using and make life difficult. In which case Meta will encrypt all traffic and route it all via a limited set of domains, so that blocking will cause their apps to fail and make Meta uses angry at Apple … and the arms race will ante up, going tit for tat until Meta and Apple reach a new resolution (hopefully) short of mutually assured destruction.

On Android, it doesn’t get any easier, because Google is building in SDK Runtime, which I called a game-changer in February 2022.

From my post back then:

In Privacy Sandbox for Android, processes are isolated. SDKs live in a separate world. Adtech SDKs are no longer able to see and track app usage via persistent identifiers without developer knowledge and consent, and they’re also going to have a much more difficult time collecting perishable identifiers, or factors that can be summed up into a temporary identifier.

SDK Runtime gives Google as well as app developers much more control over how SDKs function, what data they have access to, and where they can transmit it. Privacy Manifests do something similar for Apple. And you can bet if billions of dollars in in-app payments are at risk (as well as, let’s be honest: users’ privacy) those companies will do something to make Meta’s life harder.

Early days: much to be figured out

We are in the very early days of the Digital Markets Act, and how all these things play out remains to be seen.

My bet: it’ll start slow, get hot, and we’ll enter a fairly chaotic time in mobile growth where acquisition, costs, measurement, and marketing will all become massively more interesting, along with significantly more complex. After which everything will settle down to a new normal.

But it might be weird for us old-timers.

  • Imagine TikTok adding apps to their entertainment colossus app
  • Imagine Rovio enabling direct download from Angry Birds of all their new games
  • Imagine Reddit and Snap and Pinterest and Twitter becoming app stores
  • Imagine an influencer like Mr. Beast starting an app store, or a brand like Nike or Microsoft or Amazon doing the same
  • Imagine mega-apps and all-in-one apps actually working in North America and Europe

It’s worth remembering that despite the potential for Meta — and other major non-mobile-OS-owning platforms — here, there’s huge power in the trust that Apple and Google have built for managing downloads, privacy, security, and payments. None of that is easily replaced by direct app downloads from other parties.

But here is yet another reminder for those of us in the world of tech and business: nothing stays the same, and no one stays on top forever.

Innovation is about to kick into high gear. So is competition.

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