Thoughts on iOS Content Purchase

Posted on Feb 16, 2011

I’d like to take a moment to talk about Apple’s new policy on paid ‘content’ in iOS applications. If you don’t live in the Apple bubble I live in, let me explain: Esentially, all apps that allow users to comsume pay-for content (magazines, music, books etc.) must allow the user to buy access to that content in-app, using their iTunes account. For this, Apple will take 30% of the retail price of the content. Content can also be sold outside of the app, via whatever means you can think of (books on your web site, an newspaper subscription bought via a newsagent etc), but the in-app price - which includes Apple’s 30%, remember - must be identical to or less than the out-of-app price. An app also cannot promote that content can be bought outside of it, even if it is possible to do so (e.g. no linking to your web site to get the users to buy subscriptions there rather than using in-app purchase). The Apple press release I linked to earlier talks about subscriptions, but Apple has confirmed that the rules apply to all content, not just subscriptions - books too, for example.

You may argue that my opinion is clouded. I make book reading software, and license technology to other companies that make book reading software. Software like this, presuming Apple’s rules don’t change, is now essentially not economically viable for iOS devices (if you’re a iOS device owner, I hope you like iBooks). For the book publishing model that humanity seems to have settled on[1] there simply isn’t a 30% margin left to give Apple. I agree that I’m at the sharp end of this policy change, but I don’t think that’s what’s causing my disquiet over it.


First, the specifics of the new policy. Taking 30% of the sales of all content a device can consume is simply unreasonable. It’s superficially similar to the situation with apps sold through the App Store, where Apple takes 30% of the purchase price of every app sold, but with the App Store Apple is providing things: the software that people use to discover and browse apps; hosting of the apps; a fast, worldwide download service. It’s much more than just processing payment. With the new content rules though, Apple essentially wants the same 30% for doing much less. They provide payment processing, and they track purchases. Even the ‘tracking purchases’ part is of arguable utility because, since the app producer has to serve the content themselves, they will need to duplicate much of this functionality on their own systems too. For in-app content, nowhere near 30% of the cost of producing and selling the content is borne by Apple.

Secondly, regardless of how ‘fair’ the cut provided to Apple is, mandating a payment system is quite draconian. With content purchases, they’re not doing much more than an app developer can do by themselves - they’re simply not permitting them to.

Incidentally, I don’t even think that Apple is making the right business decision here. If people can’t listen to Spotify or Pandora, can’t read their Kindle or B&N books, will Apple’s hardware entice them? I genuinely believe that it’s in Apple’s long term interests to allow these services on iOS devices (and don’t belive the argument that they are ‘allowed’ now - Apple knows that services like this can’t survive 30% of their revenue being taken).


Disregarding the unreasonable magnitude of the 30% cut, there’s another reason I find this change troubling.

The intent behind Apple’s policies always seemed consistent to me in the past. The policies themselves may have been opaque and sometimes confusing, and were often inconsistently and capriciously applied, but the intent behind them didn’t seem to change. I certaninly didn’t agree with all the policies, but they at least seemed reasonable. I could respect them. Apple seemed to have integrity. With this change though, that’s no longer true. Apple has simply changed the policy for what apps are allowed to do to one that’s not only different, it has a different intent behind it.

There are lots of companies - and lots of people - who have expended great effort in creating wonderful software over the past couple of years, software that Apple actively encouraged and helped them to create. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, that software cannot be released because, as I’ve previously touched on, even if Apple’s payment system were adopted, to release the software would now be to choose to lose money.


Despite all this, I still love my Apple devices. I can’t help it. Apple produces the best things. I don’t think it would be exaggerating to say that current Apple hardware, in every major category - laptops, phones, and tablets - is the best in the world. The things Apple produces today are the most complex, yet, almost confoundingly, among the most elegant technology mankind has ever produced. The best pieces of technology mankind has ever produced. Not only are the devices better, they make me, as a developer, better. I make better things when I make them for Apple devices.

Using the tools Apple provides, I could make a great new book reading app. There are lots of people out there who could make great book reading apps. Except now they can’t. Great music apps. Except now they can’t. Apps that do wonderful, crazy things that we can’t imagine. Except now they can’t. This decision by Apple will set back the progress of technology.

“Just make these apps for other platforms,” you say! I wish that there were alternatives that were as good as iOS, but there just aren’t. Eveything else available - basically meaning Android at this point - is clunkier, less easy to use, less beautiful. Maybe HP’s (nee Palm’s) WebOS or Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 will change that, but I’m skeptical. There’s too little ambition, too little vision, and too little attention to detail and consistency in the offerings other companies are producing. There might be technologically more advanced phones out there than the first 2007 iPhone now, but there’s still nothing that’s as consistent, easy, and pleasurable to use. For reasons that you could write a book about (and many have tried to), other companies can’t seem to produce things like today’s Apple can.


For years, I’ve helped to build ‘Apple things’. I’ve evangelised Apple things to my family and friends. I love my iPad. My MacBook Air is the best computer I’ve ever used. More than that though, I want to make the best things I can make, and that means making them for Apple platforms. At the same time, I don’t want to be responsible any more for what I fear the Apple ecosystem might turn into, and what that might turn the world of our future into. To employ a little hyperbole, I don’t want to wake up in 1984 knowing that, with however good intentions, I helped to build it.

So I’m torn. Should I make the best things I can, on devices I enjoy using, or turn to another platform, giving up the benefits of Apple’s platforms that I enjoy so much for a perhaps misplaced feeling of freedom? Should I continue to enthuse to friends and family about the best technology our species has ever come up with, or dourly make their lives worse, at least in the short term, by advising against it?

Maybe in a week or two these things will shake themselves out and things will look more reasonable. I’m sure I’ll be able to rationalise away some of my current angst. That worries me too though. Perhaps some day I’ll wake up in 1984, not even realising I helped to build it.

[1] You might argue that it’s not the best one we could have come up with, that it has too many middle-men, and I might actually agree with you, but that’s arguing against reality at the moment.