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iOS Exploit That Lets Developers Add 'Animated' App Icons Discovered: How it Works

An iOS exploit allows developers to show animated app icons by sidestepping two restrictions that prevent icons from being automatically changed.

iOS Exploit That Lets Developers Add 'Animated' App Icons Discovered: How it Works

Photo Credit: Unsplash/ Lucas Hoang

Apple is expected to patch the exploit that enables animated app icons from being displayed

  • Only the iOS Clock and Calendar apps have dynamic icons
  • Apple does not allow any third-party interactive app icons on iOS
  • iOS 18 will reportedly allow users to customise app icon colours

iOS has many useful and interesting features, but when it comes to app icons, the system is quite rigid. While Apple allows app developers to make use of a feature called Alternate App Icons to add one or more app icons that users can switch between, these changes can only be added manually by the user, eliminating the option for developers to include an interactive or animated icon. However, a developer has found an iOS exploit that bypasses these restrictions to add animation to app icons.

iOS Animated App Icon Exploit: How it Works

As explained by researcher Bryce Bostwick in a blog post, this iOS exploit solves two key problems. First, iOS sends an alert to the user every time the app icon is changed. Second, the Alternate App Icons feature does not work in the background, which means unless the app is active, the effect cannot be implemented. This is pointless because if an app is active, the user cannot see the icon anyway.

Bostwick illustrates two workarounds to bypass these restrictions. To override the alert system, the researcher uses a private call to an iOS application programming interface (API). This is a straightforward fix requiring minor changes in the API code, as illustrated by him in a YouTube video. The second change requires comprehensive fixes and changing the UI application state.

By completing both steps, Bostwick showed that it is indeed possible to add multiple app icons and then have them switch so fast that it gives the appearance of animation. Notably, developers should not try this as Apple will likely review the changes and reject them immediately.

Animated App Icons on iOS Are Purely Cosmetic

While it is a quirky feature that would make sense for some apps (Apple already allows dynamic icons for its Clock and Calendar apps), for most third-party apps it would just be a party trick. Additionally, there is a potential for abuse as developers can use underhanded tricks to get the users' attention to the app.

There are technical issues as well. To change app icons fast enough would require the app running in the background which can result in faster draining of the battery. The app icon animation itself may drain the battery further. Apple likely restricts this action considering these reasons and is likely to patch the exploit that allows this functionality.

However, according to a report, Apple is planning to offer some app icon customisation to users with iOS 18. The company might allow users to recolour the app icon and place the icons anywhere on the Home Screen, ditching its standard grid pattern.

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Further reading: iOS, iOS 18, iOS Animated Icons, Apple, Apps, iPhone
Akash Dutta
Akash Dutta is a Senior Sub Editor at Gadgets 360. He is particularly interested in the social impact of technological developments and loves reading about emerging fields such as AI, metaverse, and fediverse. In his free time, he can be seen supporting his favourite football club - Chelsea, watching movies and anime, and sharing passionate opinions on food. More
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