Think Different

This app could end Apple's monopoly — and Steve Jobs would love it

Riley Testut's app, AltStore, could transform the way we use iPhones and iPads.

Riley Testut

When he was growing up, all Riley Testut wanted was to become an app developer.

Now, at just 24 years old, he's one of the most beloved iOS developers in the world — but if Apple Inc. had its way, customers would never use Riley's products again.

As the creator of GBA4iOS, which allowed iPhone users to play Game Boy Advance games on their devices, Testut was patient zero for the current controversy around Apple's anti-competitive App Store policies. He's since gone on to create AltStore, a legal alternative to the App Store that does not require users to jailbreak their phones. Testut's resume has cast him as a central voice in the movement against the tech behemoth. You'd never know it from talking to him, though, since he's also one of Apple's biggest fans.

History

"The first thing I wanted to do was be a video game developer, work for Nintendo, and make lots of cool games," Testut told me over a FaceTime call. "I’ve always been interested in computers but it was in seventh grade that I saved up to buy an iPhone 3G." His sister had gotten the phone before him and it had captured his imagination like nothing before in his life. He had to own one.

"I was obsessed with downloading apps for it. Once I found out that it was possible, I was like ‘I really wanna make my own app for this.’ I had zero programming experience at that point but my parents believed in me enough to let me have a Mac laptop. So I started teaching myself programming and then released my first app a few months later. It was called Shoot Around, and it used the [camera's viewfinder] as the background of the app and you could shoot virtual lasers at people around you."

“I was obsessed with downloading apps

It was an exciting, if inauspicious, start. "Everything was made in Paint. Literally the app icon was made in Paint. The laser was made in Paint," he laughed. "I had no design skills, but it worked and it was cool. I remember waking up and seeing it in the App Store and that was an amazing feeling." It's still available in Apple's software marketplace today, but purely for nostalgic reasons.

I'd been following Testut's career long before I even knew his name. GBA4iOS had become something of a sensation among millennials when I was in college. We craved things to do on our newly purchased iPhones and had some knee jerk nostalgia for our discarded Game Boys. For a year or so it was common to see classmates whip out Zelda or Mario and tap away during lectures.

GBA4iOS had become something of a sensation

Testut, a Texas native, had no idea these older kids across the country were worshiping his creation. He was too busy idolizing Apple founder Steve Jobs. The appeal of Jobs to a young, aspiring tech entrepreneur is so obvious as to have already become American folklore. This, despite Jobs' notoriously abusive leadership style.

"Steve Jobs was brilliant but I don't idolize his behavior. I think he was an asshole. I think that was a huge flaw of his but, honestly, everything I'm doing now really is me drawing from his playbook," Riley explains. "I'm literally such a huge Apple fan. I've watched how they've built their App Store. I've watched what they've focused on. I've watched what their ideals were. I've really been trying to build AltStore in the image of the App Store from what I've learned from Steve Jobs.”

Two important Steves.Tom Munnecke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jobs himself famously began his career in tech by developing video games at Atari. In a move that has clearly inspired Testut, Jobs started Apple by fleecing Xerox PARC out of innovations, like the computer mouse, which would be key to the success of the Macintosh as a product line. Through films like Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin's Steve Jobs and 1999's Pirates of Silicon Valley, the exciting — and somewhat shady — history of Apple would become the stuff of legend.

As for Riley's history, Testut is one of four kids and describes his parents as "incredibly supportive" of his dream. Today, Riley lives with roommates and uses his downtime to smoke weed, watch movies, and play video games. Specifically, Nintendo's Pokémon franchise. It's actually because of Pokémon that Riley's career as a developer started to take off. He only made his first massive hit, GBA4iOS, as a way for him and his friends to play Pokémon on their phones. The problem for Testut was that Apple, unlike Android, does not allow emulation apps in its store, despite the legality of such products.

"I found a way to distribute it to anyone using an enterprise certificate, which basically meant I could distribute to anyone without having another device. It’s meant for companies to give apps to their employees — I just used it to give it to anyone. From then on, literally anyone could go to my website and download the app," Testut told Spark SC in 2017. "People love Nintendo so much that there's a drive to emulate these games," he told me.

"And then Apple shut that down." This would mark the official beginning of his long, complicated relationship with the company.

Apple shut that down

After the demise of GBA4iOS, Apple introduced its Swift programming language and Testut was eager to learn it inside and out. "The standard was so low for [apps that existed] outside the App Store. I wanted to raise the bar. I wanted to say 'Hey people can still build stuff outside the app store if you want to,'" he told me. "A lot of that [polish] is Caroline [Moore], my partner, who started off as a design partner and now is just a full partner with AltStore. She's been the one that's guided me in making designs."

Before he could release Delta, Apple offered Riley, a fresh graduate of USC with a degree in Computer Programming, a job on their WatchOS team. At first Testut was intrigued, but after learning that it would mean he would have to sacrifice his work on Delta, he declined. “My friends thought I was crazy for giving up a guaranteed job at Apple so I could go pursue a Patreon to make apps outside the App Store. I only did it because I knew from my past experience that people wanted something like this. If I hadn't had my experience with GBA4iOS, I don't think I would've made this gamble," he says. "It could've failed very easily.”

Many nerdy hours were lost to this creation.GBA4iOS

The apps that arose from Testut's experimentations with Swift include emulation powerhouse Delta, his new clipboard manager Clip, and AltStore. They're all incredibly high quality experiences — indistinguishable from the crop of Apple-approved fare. Delta, a successor to GBA4iOS, allows users to emulate nearly everything from Nintendo's library of classic games, many of which are no longer available in stores, with jaw-dropping accuracy. The systems supported include NES, SNES, N64, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and even the Nintendo DS. Apple's corporate stance on emulation is similar to gaming industry executives, who feel that the practice is unethical and encourages piracy.

Today

Testut disagrees. For him, it's about a bigger moral issue. "I think it's fully ethical. I think emulation for the sake of preserving these games is so important. We've read stories of game developers who just threw away source code for old games because they never knew it was going to be important. We can lose so much, so many valuable pieces of art, if we don't focus on a way of preserving them." For Nintendo's part, they've only ever requested that Riley avoid using their copyrighted logos, to which he has happily complied.

“We can lose so much, so many valuable pieces of art

To get this software in the hands of gamers, Testut sought to change Apple's mind about the issue. "In the very beginning I talked to Apple at WWDC about Delta and I asked if there was a way I could get into the store," he explains. "That's when they at first said 'Oh yeah, I think we could make it work if you provided us a whitelist of games we could review with each update to make sure they were safe for everyone in the App Store.' I heard that from one of their [App Store] review people." So Riley set out to build a version of his app that could finally get the company's blessing.

"I was like, 'Okay, cool, I can actually afford to invest time into this because maybe I could be in the App Store, even with that weird caveat of only allowing certain games to be emulated.' I worked on it for another year and then I went back to them. The same guy told me 'Actually we've talked about it. We won't. We can't allow it into the App Store,' and didn't give me any information beyond that. I had done a lot of work on Delta. I didn't just want to throw it away. The App Store was my first choice but I had to find some other way to distribute it."

Gamers love the Xbox Game Pass streaming app for Android.Peter Summers/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The company's line about its desire to "approve" and whitelist every game that could run within Delta would later become the exact logic it is currently using to shutout its biggest gaming competitors from the App Store today. Microsoft, Sony, NVIDIA, Facebook, and Google might be taking the brunt of Apple's attacks on competition — but Riley will forever be the first.

xCloud may have Riley to thank.Riley Testut

Following this rejection, he created AltStore, which would function as his very own App Store; a place where he could make the decisions. “Delta, it was my baby, but with AltStore I knew people were going through all this hacky stuff to get [my apps] in the first place so I had to make it seem like a real app. If it just seemed like it was a really hacky thing, no one would have jumped through all the hoops to get it. A lot of time was spent making sure that it felt like a real app, like an app that could be in the App Store but just wasn’t.”

Testut launched AltStore on Saturday, September 28th, 2019. It recently surpassed one million downloads.

That's a lot of iPhones.AltStore

The appeal of AltStore is it's ease of use. “Unlike other unofficial app stores today, AltStore does not rely on enterprise certificates, which Apple has been cracking down on more and more recently. Instead, it relies on a lesser-known developer feature that allows you to use your Apple ID to install apps you’ve developed yourself with Xcode, Apple’s development toolkit,” explained Testut to Apple Gazette during the app's launch.

For the end user, this means you simply need to install AltStore's desktop app and a corresponding Mail plug in, log in with your Apple credentials, and install the app on the device of your choosing. Once you've got AltStore, you're only a few taps away from getting Delta, Clip, or anything else listed within.

AltStore features a clean, user-friendly design.AltStore

Testut also assures users that, unlike some jailbroken apps you'd find floating around online, it's perfectly safe. "AltStore is a fully native, sandboxed iOS application that allows you to sideload apps by essentially 'tricking' your phone into thinking it’s installing apps that you made yourself, when really they can be any apps whatsoever," Testut told Hot Hardware. "I’ve done everything I can to ensure these credentials are handled properly (i.e. it’s never sent to any third party server, only sent directly to Apple for authentication, and then stored securely in the device’s keychain so nothing else can retrieve it), but since it doesn’t matter what Apple ID is provided, you are more than welcome to create throwaway accounts if desired."

The future

You'd think that this would be where the story ends: David and Goliath found a way to coexist in harmony and they lived happily ever after. But making a career just out of the sight of a hostile tech giant is an inherently unstable thing to do. The announcement of Apple's switch to its own proprietary silicon, which is very similar in design to iOS and iPadOS devices, could be a lifeline for Delta.

“It’s perfectly safe

Riley says that the company's transition to Apple Silicon should be extremely smooth, which makes his job porting his apps over to MacOS quite easy. “Apple has just done everything for me. Which I think makes sense because they're trying to make iPhone apps run just normally, unmodified. So they're filling all these gaps.”

But while Testut settled into a long, quarantined summer working on AltStore and getting Delta up and running for desktops and laptops, Apple's relationships with its App Store developers, the US government, and EU legislators has devolved into complete chaos. Epic Games, one of the largest video game publishers in history, has gone on a legal warpath against the App Store's monopolistic policies and arduous 30% fee on developers' revenue.

Unlike Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, Testut doesn't want to burn Apple to the ground. He just wants to be able to give away his apps on his own website. “I do think they're viewing it from a security standpoint. These devices are so personal that they do take it seriously that you don't want to install a bunch of software that can really screw up your entire personal life," he tells me. But with the iPad being positioned further and further as a replacement for MacOS, there needs to be some relief for consumers looking for more options. "If you're trying to position [these products] for doing more than just communicating and stuff, then [developers] need to be able to push the boundaries. I don't really know what Apple's thinking internally at this point, because it's kind of at a crossroads with what they want to do with the platform."

"If I had to guess, it would be that they don't want to upset their partnerships with companies like Nintendo or anything like that. I mean that makes sense, but again, that's only a problem because there's only one App Store. If there were other ways, Apple wouldn't care as much because they'd say they couldn't do anything about it." That has certainly worked out for Apple's largest competition, Google's Play Store on Android.

Testut knows that Android would welcome AltStore and Delta and Clip and anything else he chose to create with open arms. But Android doesn't interest Testut. It wasn't his dream.

Fortnite's fandom is too big for Apple to ignore.JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

“Nintendo and Apple, I think they genuinely get that it's more than just the product. Apple, they say they're a design company. Not a technology company. And I think that's very true. They use technology to deliver people these experiences and create amazing things. I think the same is true of Nintendo. I think you can argue they're not really a video game company. They just want people to really have fun with their devices and that's why their whole outlook on it is so different. They're not trying to just make games to make games.”

But Apple isn't a scrappy start-up anymore. They're the wealthiest corporation on earth and with that comes a responsibility to shareholders, who don't really care if Apple designs the best experiences. They just want it to maximize profits. "Apple has shown repeatedly they won’t listen to any criticism that doesn’t make this much noise," Testut recently tweeted about Epic Games' very public lawsuit. "In a perfect world, Apple would have an open dialogue with developers about what they want from the App Store; instead, they do *nothing* until publicly called out."

It's hard not to empathize with Testut, who seems to want Apple to be something it isn't and hasn't been for a long time — an underdog. Reminiscing about Apple's history, I ask him about its legendary ad campaigns and his mind goes directly to their most famous TV spot, known by fans as "Here's to the crazy ones."

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." — Apple

“Their whole like commercial, round peg/square holes, [Apple is] so opposite of that now. You are not here for the troublemakers. You don't like the troublemakers. ‘Hello. I'm trying to do what your commercial says…’ and you don't like it. What?”

Apple used to encourage you to rebel.Apple

For Testut and AltStore, the future is entirely up in the air. The increased success brings with it a spotlight, which could cause Apple to close the technical loopholes AltStore requires to function. Before that happens, Testut wants to get more apps listed, if only to make his point. "Right now I'm just trying not to anger Apple, because I do like Apple. I want to coexist with them in a perfect world. So I'm trying to carve out my own niche and make sure that I'm trying to showcase good apps. I know that if AltStore is going to turn into like something that showcases a lot of bad, scummy apps, the whole argument for third party app stores is kind of lost."

You can see the appeal.Dolphin

One of those apps is Dolphin, a beloved emulator for GameCube and Wii games, which helps to round out the store's Nintendo-themed offerings. "Dolphin, oh my god, I was so happy when that came out. That was incredible! When I launched AltStore it was only just for Delta. Because it was still so new, I had to build out a lot of stuff to support other apps. Then in April I released an update to AltStore that allowed you to side load any app from Safari and that has caused AltStore to grow the most," he explains. Of AltStore's other additions, he says "One's a terminal. Like, it's a full-feature terminal, but you just can't do that on the iPad normally and that's crazy. I'm a developer. I don't like the terminal a lot, but I need to use it sometimes."

"We've seen all these brand new apps come out since people saw that there was a way to distribute them. We saw Dolphin come out and we saw UTM, the virtual machine app to run Windows and Mac on your iPad. All of these are well made and just wouldn't have existed before," he adds.

For Testut, rooting for AltStore doesn't mean rooting against Apple's own store. In fact, quite the opposite. "I personally want Apple to be stringent on the App Store. As a consumer, I really like that, in general, Apple is reviewing everything. Apple's curation of the App Store and making it safe was huge for people wanting to download apps and try things out."

Here's some free consultant work, Apple.Riley Testut

But Apple doesn’t have just one App Store anymore, thanks to Riley. “With all the antitrust stuff, there are so many hypotheticals being thrown about. Like, 'What would happen if Apple allowed outside apps?' I think AltStore is key to saying 'Hey, here's actual data. Here's what people are using it for.”

For now, the majority of Testut's income comes through Patreon supporters but the dream of being able to partner with Apple remains alive and well. "Honestly, I've already been thinking that — if at any point this becomes officially allowed, I can pivot very easily into just becoming a full storefront," he says cheerfully.

“What would happen if Apple allowed outside apps?”

One day soon, likely against its will, Apple will have to deal with a world that's evolved past the need for a walled garden — and a large part of that change will have been made by trailblazers like Riley Testut who kept the dream alive.

Here's to the crazy ones.