Apple should clarify iOS subscription policy

Is Apple treating all App Store developers equally? While Cupertino remains characteristically tight-lipped, recent reports suggest that Apple has reached individual agreements with large publishers as the company strives to increase the number of publishers—especially prominent ones—using its in-app subscription program.

In February of this year, Apple formally launched its in-app subscription program. In a press release at the time, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was quoted at length describing Apple’s subscription policy:

Our philosophy is simple—when Apple brings a new subscriber to the app, Apple earns a 30 percent share; when the publisher brings an existing or new subscriber to the app, the publisher keeps 100 percent and Apple earns nothing… All we require is that, if a publisher is making a subscription offer outside of the app, the same (or better) offer be made inside the app, so that customers can easily subscribe with one-click right in the app. [emphasis added]

In case Jobs’s quote wasn’t clear enough, Apple’s press release got even more explicit:

… Apple does require that if a publisher chooses to sell a digital subscription separately outside of the app, that same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app.

Despite whether you agreed or disagreed with the policy, it was clear, publicized by Apple, and simple to interpret.

Until it wasn’t.

It wasn’t until early May that major publishers finally started embracing iOS subscriptions. Yet it seems as though each major publisher to make an iPad announcement has had its own unique arrangement. Time, for example, announced that print subscribers could now get free access to Time, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune via those magazines’ respective iPad apps. (Time’s People Magazine app began offering such a feature all the way back in August 2010.) But there’s no option for non-print subscribers to purchase in-app subscriptions. That seems to fly in the face of Jobs’s statement that “if a publisher is making a subscription offer outside of the app, the same (or better) offer be made inside the app.”

So how is Time pulling this off? According to The Wall Street Journal , the publisher struck a deal with Apple, via the company’s vice president of Internet services, Eddy Cue.

Time isn’t the only publisher to bend Apple’s ear, either. Publishing giant Hearst subsequently announced plans to bring Esquire, Popular Mechanics, and O to the iPad, complete with in-app subscriptions. The Wall Street Journal quoted a Hearst spokeswoman as saying “We came to a fair and equitable deal [with Apple]” after what the Journal described as “months of negotiations.” The details of that negotiation, and whether it concerned price, subscriber data, or other considerations, weren’t disclosed.

But, though Hearst sells Esquire print subscriptions for $8 per year (or $6 per year if you prepay for three years in advance), the publisher says that the iPad subscription will cost $2 per month or $20 per year. So much for Apple’s stipulation that the “same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app.”

Lest you think just Hearst and Time were alone in reaching their own deals with Apple, let’s throw Condé Nast into the mix. The publisher has already added support for in-app subscriptions to its New Yorker app, and similar offerings for Vanity Fair, Glamour, Golf Digest, Allure, Wired, Self, and GQ are reportedly on the way. All but the weekly New Yorker will reportedly be offered for $2 per issue or $20 per year. But Vanity Fair and Wired offer a two-year print subscriptions for $30, which their iPad offerings seemingly won’t match or beat. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital blog reports that Condé Nast got “a few concessions” from Apple before agreeing to launch iOS subscriptions. Sensing a pattern here?

It seems obvious, given all this evidence, that Apple is treating big publishers differently from other potential providers of App Store subscriptions—perhaps even taking them on a case-by-case basis. (The same may be true for Apple’s policy on sellers of digital content, like e-books.) Apple, however, hasn’t responded to Macworld’s inquiries about the details of its negotiations with those publishers, and whether they represent a wholesale policy change.

If Apple really has elected to adjust its subscription rules for certain large publishers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, it means that print subscribers of many popular publications can now access those magazines on the iPad, and new customers can, for the first time, subscribe via the iPad to magazines that previously hadn’t embraced Apple’s tablet. Given Apple’s self-appointed App Store gatekeeper stance, the company certainly has ultimate authority on whether it enforces rules separately for apps and publishers.

Where Apple may be misstepping, however, is in the lack of any public comment regarding its clearly evolving policy. If Apple is making rule changes across the board, that’s good news for publishers, and Apple should make sure that information is available to all interested parties. Right now, we could theoretically be missing out on great apps with worthy content, because developers and publishers believe they’ll be beholden to rules that Apple may in fact be abandoning. If, on the other hand, Apple is only enforcing those rules selectively, that’s a harder message to deliver, but it’s still one the company should stand behind publicly.

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