Apple's message to eBook vendors and users isn't yet clear, but points toward only in-app purchases
It's been a busy day for App Store watchers. With a New York Times article last night citing in-app book purchasing as a key issue in the rejection of the Sony Reader app, and Apple's later non-clarifying clarification of the company's policy on parity for purchasing in and out of apps, we're all left a bit confused. Can you have a third-party ereader app on iOS at all without Apple's purchasing infrastructure? Where can you buy content? Is the Kindle app doomed?
I don't think the Kindle app is going anywhere right away; for one thing, it's always handled book sales through Safari rather than in-app (something Sony's infrastructure wasn't tuned for, as Christina Warren points out, but that it may be ready for now -- see the second half of this post). Sony says that it "submitted [the app] in accordance with the precedent set by other eBook retailers," which could mean just about anything. Jason Snell's analysis over at Macworld is intriguing.
But there's a deeper question that needs to be asked: Can Amazon or Barnes & Noble remain on the App Store without introducing a way to send more money in Apple's direction?
When Apple's new in-app purchase policies came to light recently, pundits wondered what it might mean to eBook developers in the App Store. Apple had initially allowed web-based commerce to provide content for App Store items, including subscriptions or individual purchases. Then, Apple began rejecting subscription-based magazines that used external channels rather than in-app purchases to make money and updated its developer agreement to make this stance clear.
The rejection of Sony's Reader app has us wondering if this new policy spells doom for our favorite eReader of all: the Kindle app. The wildly popular Kindle software is generally considered the best book reader on iOS, despite its non-Apple provenance. Being free, Apple is not only hosting Kindle without revenue on App Store, but they've been entirely excluded from the normal 30% revenue stream that in-app purchase provides.
That's not something that generally makes Apple happy.
Apple explained the situation further after being contacted by several reporters. "We have not changed our developer terms or guidelines. We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app with in-app purchase."
The Sony Reader might have been using in-app purchases direct to the Sony web store -- something that certainly doesn't work with Apple's rules -- or it might not. Based on Sony's screenshots at its app status page, the store section definitely looks like it is running in Mobile Safari (note the toolbar at the bottom). This is consistent with what Amazon and Barnes & Noble have been doing, with users jumping out to the browser to handle purchasing steps.
Assuming that is what Sony was intending to do, it sounds as Apple is taking things one step further: Basically, Apple is telling application providers that they better start offering in-app purchase when selling books, making life sweeter for Apple to the tune of 30% of sales that originate in the apps versus browser-based sales.
As RWW reported, this is already happening for subscription-based publishing on the App Store. Apple has offered developers and periodical publishers a grace period to introduce in-app purchase to transition from external content sources, but by June 30 of this year they are expected to have the new tools in place or face app rejection. Developers, as always, are left to adjust their business plans to Apple's somewhat fluid third party strategy.
We won't know if Kindle, Nook or other eBook readers will feel the same pinch as Sony for a while yet -- but it seems clear that if you were looking forward to an integrated book purchasing experience and a smooth commerce solution from those third parties, you should definitely stop holding your breath.
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