In their usual muckraking fashion (I mean that in a good way), Bleeding Cool have alerted the comics world to developments in Apple’s app store policies, which, according to BC writer Mark Seifert, could affect “comics app makers such as Comixology, Graphic.ly, and iVerse.”
I don’t think it’s as serious as Seifert fears, but I do think it’s serious.
Here’s the situation. There are some iOS apps, like the Kindle App, or Comixology’s Comics app, whose sole purpose for existing is to give you the ability to consume digital content that you have purchased from the app maker. You want to read Kindle ebooks you’ve purchased? You need the Kindle app. You want to read digital comics sold to you by Comixology? You need their Comics app. And so on. Sony submitted a similar app to the App store curators recently — their own ebook app, allowing you to read books you purchased in the Sony ebook store — and were rejected. Apple’s reasoning was that the Sony app did not allow people to purchase books from within the app. You could only read books you had purchased elsewhere on the web. Now, when you allow people to purchase digital content from within an app, you have to use Apple’s ecommerce backend, and Apple gets a 30% cut. So it makes sense that Apple would prefer to have people purchasing stuff “in-app,” as they say. What’s surprising is that this seems to be a reversal of their previous policies — evidenced by the fact that the most popular ebook app on the iOS devices (more popular even, I think, than Apple’s own ebook app), the Kindle app, works exactly the same way that the rejected Sony app did. You use it to read books you bought at Amazon.com. There’s no in-app mechanism (there seems to be one, but it doesn’t use Apple’s ecommerce backend — it just opens up an Amazon web page for you). Many in the tech world are reading this rejection as a declaration of war — not on Sony, but on Amazon. Apple has been accused in the past of using its app store guidelines to squelch competition and prop up its own non-app-store related businesses (and not just by web trolls — even the FCC was concerned). So there’s real reason to pay attention to this. Amazon is the leader of the ebook market (selling more ebooks than paperbacks), a market Apple has entered with its own iBookstore.
All of the comics-oriented ebook readers I’ve seen, including Comixology, use Apple’s in-app purchasing mechanism. Bleeding Cool’s Seifert seems to be worried that simply selling ebooks elsewhere, for other devices, and then allowing buyers to import them into the iOS device, might pose a problem. As Seifert puts it, “allowing purchases and access across multiple devices is seen as key for the growth of the digital comics market.” In other words: Comixology and others are starting to sell comics, for example, on Android phones, and on the web — and you’d want your customers to be able to take comics they bought elsewhere and import them to their iPhones and iPads, right?
I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, though. According to the San Francisco Chronicle article linked above, Apple is saying that “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.” That’s a big issue for Amazon, which has the ability to drive millions of dollars of purchases through their own well-known webstore, and for whom the 30% “tax” on in-app purchases could be a huge annoyance and profit drain, especially if more people went the in-app route than the Amazon webstore route. But for the comics apps, who are already selling stuff in-app, and who don’t already have massive multi-million dollar webstores sitting out there driving tons of sales anyway, this seems like a non-issue.
It’s still a big issue for me personally. I have hundreds of dollars worth of Kindle books that I read exclusively on my iPad (I don’t own a Kindle). I use the Kindle store specifically because I want to keep the option open, someday, of switching to an Android-powered device (or something else, maybe even a stupid Kindle) to read my ebooks, without having to stay married to Apple. If those books become unavailable to me because of warfare between Amazon and Apple, even for a very short period of time, a lot of the shine will be gone from my iPad, and I’ll be one angry Apple fanboy.