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Sideloading is the practice of installing software on a device without using the approved app store or software distribution channel. Some devices allow this without modification and others need to be “jailbroken” to make sideloading possible. Either way, should you?

Why Sideload Applications?

The main reason anyone would want to sideload an application onto their device is that official channels simply don’t offer the software the user needs. That’s only part of the story, though, since there are many different reasons why a given application isn’t in the official app store of your device.

For example, the application may not comply with the requirements of the app store in question or the developers may not want to pay the app store commission. For example, you won’t find video game emulation or torrenting apps in the Apple app store, since these go against their rules.

It may also be that a specific app isn’t available in your region, so the only way to install it is through sideloading. This can happen when you want to use a VPN to watch geo-restricted content, but it’s not offered through your regional store, such as on an Android TV device.

Then, sadly, one notable motivation for sideloading is piracy. Illegal copies of applications are hosted on various sites around the web and users sideload them to avoid paying. However, there are far more legitimate reasons to sideload applications on a device than the legally dubious ones.

Sideloading Varies By Platform

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Every device that’s capable of loading applications from a software channel will have its own specific way of sideloading applications. Android devices can sideload applications with minimal effort. All you need to do is enable installations from outside sources and then run a downloaded Android package (APK) to install the app.

On Apple devices, things aren’t that simple. These devices are locked down by the manufacturer and there is no official way to sideload software. That’s where the idea of “jailbreaking” a device comes from. Whether jailbreaking is legal or not depends on the consumer and copyright laws of where you live, but it’s something that the device maker obviously doesn’t want users to do.

When it comes to desktop computers such as Macs, Windows PCs, and Linux systems the concept of “sideloading” doesn’t really make sense. Since they are open systems, anyone can write software for them. All of the modern iterations of these operating systems, however, have built-in app stores of their own.

Sideloading May Have Malware Risks

One benefit of only using software from official app stores is that they have to undergo some form of quality control before they can be listed. This includes ensuring that they don’t have any malware or breach good privacy practices.

This is especially of concern when you’re downloading copies of applications that are otherwise only available through the app store for your device. These applications could have been modified by whoever made the copy to contain malware, spyware, or anything else.

Just as with any software you download from the internet, the risk of malware is low to non-existent when you’re sideloading applications from trusted sources, such as from the developer themselves. For example, Epic Games’ Fortnite can no longer be found on the Google Play Store, but you can download the Fortnite installer package directly from them, which is safe insofar as the app is exactly what the developer intended it to be and contains no outside code.

For devices that need to be jailbroken, there are also special risks such as a reduction in device security or malware introduced by the jailbreaking software itself.

Sideloading Can Require Manual Updating

When you download an app from the official app store for a device, you get automated maintenance of those apps by the store. So when a new update is issued for an app, it will automatically do the housekeeping in the background.

When you sideload an app, you’ll most likely have to manually download the latest version whenever a newer version is released. You can of course put off updates for as long as you like, or until the app stops working properly. This isn’t a huge hassle if you only have one or two sideloaded apps, but if you have many it can become a tremendous task to keep up with all the updates.

This does not apply to alternative app stores, which is a distinct concept from sideloading, Here the third-party app store still does the maintenance for apps it’s responsible for.

Should You Sideload?

Most users never need to sideload applications unless the app they want really isn’t available any other way. Sideloading isn’t inherently risky unless you have to compromise the security of your device in order to do it. Using a good antivirus application or being prudent with where you get your software makes it reasonably safe, although we cannot recommend sideloading where jailbreaking is required unless you know exactly what you’re doing.

RELATED: Jailbreaking Explained: What You Need to Know About Jailbreaking iPhones and iPads

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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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