February 01, 2011, 12:54 PM —
According to a NY Times article today, Apple is allegedly cracking down on any developer who wants to sell content through their app for the iPhone or iPad. The article specifically quotes and references Sony, who had its e-reader app rejected from the store for creating a virtual store front and selling content without using Apple's in-app purchase system. The article implies that Sony's app rejection signal a major sea change in how Apple views any app that delivers content purchased outside the app store (particularly citing Amazon's Kindle app and Netflix's app that allows for streaming video content to both the iPhone and iPad).
Before I get into discussing this, I think it's important to note, as Ars Technica points out, that this appears to be enforcement of an existing policy rather than a new policy as is being reported in some pieces on the matter.
I'll readily admit that Apple does keep a tight leash on iOS app developers and goes too far sometimes. Apple did raise some concerns in this area recently when it informed a number of newspapers and magazines that beginning in April, all subscription sales must use its in-app payment system (or the subscription model the company is all but certain to announce tomorrow).
Of course, Sony hasn't been fully forthcoming with details as to why it feels this is a sudden change, which is what makes it easy to believe it was an enforcement of an existing policy rather than an explicit change (as is the case with the newspapers and imagines).
With Apple and Amazon both refusing to comment on the matter, there's no way to make any really solid conclusions, but I can't help but feel like Sony is behaving like a child who thinks it got punished for no reason. Apple has been pretty clear about the terms for in-app purchases since the feature was introduced this summer. From my reading of the information (which is really only coming from Sony at this point), it sounds like the company was violating that by building a system into its app that allowed users to directly purchase content from its e-reader store, bypassing Apple's in-app payment system.
Granted, there's an argument to be made that any developer should be able to create and run their own payment system that can be accessed from inside their apps. But, Sony like every other iOS developer should be aware of what Apple does and doesn't allow in the app store. And it sounds like Sony simply didn't think those restrictions applied to it and is making a fuss when it found out otherwise.
Then there's the chorus of "What about Netflix? What about Amazon?" and the people throwing those questions out need to think about how both apps handle content.
Netflix doesn't actually sell anything. It provides access to content and to allows users to manage account details (including their DVD and Instant queues). You don't actually make a purchase of content within its app. The closest you can come to making any type of purchase is choosing a different membership plan or changing your payment information (which is more like what you can do with a banking app than a content purchase).
Amazon is a little bit closer to in-app purchases (as is Barnes and Noble's Nook app), but it still doesn't let you actually buy anything. If you tap the button to browse the Kindle store, the app does nothing more than launch Safari and point it to the appropriate web page on Amazon's site. All the app does is give you access to external data and sync with Amazon's server. The actual transaction doesn't occur within the app.
That might be a very fine point to make. After all, the effect of buying a book (or choosing a sample of a book) using Safari on an iPad and then accessing it when you go back to the Kindle app is almost the same as if you had bought the book in the app itself. But the fact is, there is a distinction between exiting an app, making an online purchase (either on an iOS device or a PC), and returning to the app.
I strongly suspect this is why neither Amazon nor Barnes and Noble has added in-app purchasing to their apps. Certainly, the process would be simple. Plenty of apps have defacto browsers built into them, most based on the webkit APIs that also power Safari, that could access web-based storefronts inside an app. Neither company chose to do that because it would've meant tangling with Apple's terms and conditions. Sony could have take the same approach and I'm willing to bet would've had its app approved.
While it may seem like I'm going out of my to defend Apple's policies, I'm merely pointing out some facts that a lot of people seem to be overlooking.
I'm not saying that Apple's approach is good for developers, content companies, or consumers. I'd personally like to see Apple back off the over-regulation and I'd really like to see them step down the censorship of the App Store.
But, I know the score on both fronts. With news stories like this one, it's reasonable to believe most consumers know the score. If I choose to buy an iPad, I know that that is a tradeoff I'm making (even if I'm not thrilled to be making it).
The same goes for developers. Sony knew what Apple's restrictions were when it chose to create an app. Any iOS developer ought to be aware of not just Apple's terms but of Apple's heavy handedness when exercising those terms. Again, choosing to develop for iOS, with its curated store and access to 160 million customers means tradeoffs in terms of the supported development environment and Apple's restrictions.
I'm willing to bet a lot of readers will disagree with my assessment or opinion of the situation. So if you disagree (or agree), let me/us know in the comments.