Will Apple force ebook vendors to sell through the App Store or face eviction from the iPad, iPhone?

Apple's response to reports that it was forcing alternate e-readers out of the App Store leaves many questions and concerns.

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Shortly after I published my earlier post on Sony's claim that Apple had rejected its Sony Reader app and changed its policies to prevent iPhone and iPad apps from accessing content not purchased through Apple's in-app payment system, Apple spokeswoman Trudy Miller told All Things Digital that the company "not changed our developer terms or guidelines" – making it seem like Sony was crying foul for violating Apple's terms and Apple had simply begun enforcing existing policies more stringently.

Were that all there was to her statement, all the concern about the future of other content-based apps on Apple's iOS devices probably would have evaporated.

However, she offered some elaboration on the policy in question and how Apple is no choosing to enforce it. "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 statement adds a whole new dimension to the situation. It clearly says that Apple hasn't altered its policies, but if the company is going to globally enforce its existing policies (which have gone completely unenforced when it comes to e-readers and other content apps) in the manner Miller describes, the ultimate effect will be a major shift regardless of the semantics Apple wants to use.

That short statement doesn't really provide a lot of insight into how or when – or even if -A pple will continue its crackdown to include more established e-reader platforms on iOS devices like the Kindle, Nook, Kobo Reader, or the newer Google Books. It sounds more like Apple is reserving the right to continue that crackdown if and when it chooses.

Of course, there's an way to avoid Apple's ebook wrath: rewrite your app to make all content available through it in addition to any other mechanisms – thus giving Apple a 30% cut of any sales.

This isn't something that is going to happen easily. Each vendor already has a backend payment and fulfillment solution in place that deals with their internal systems and connects to devices specific to their platforms as well as tablet and smartphone apps. Getting those systems to integrate with Apple's App Store payment system would be difficult at best and might very well be close to impossible. Even if it is possible, are these companies really likely to want to expend the effort and cost, particularly when Apple will then take a sizable cut of sales? My guess would be no.

What's most puzzling about the move is that it seems very short-sighted on Apple's part. The company's own iBookstore has a fraction of the titles that Amazon does. That's one huge advantage to the iPad, you can source books from multiple vendors (it's why I have more books in the Kindle app on my iPad than in iBooks, despite preferring iBooks as an e-reader). Maybe Apple loses some ebook sales to Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but offering access to all these alternative stores makes the iPad a more compelling e-reader option than either the Kindle or Nook.

If Apple really pushes in this direction, it will be a PR mess for the company. That's not a good thing to have around your tablet platform when other tablet platforms are launching (Android, PlayBook, webOS, even MeeGo) or when other e-reader platforms are gaining tablet-like capabilities (the Nook Color being a great example as it is essentially a basic tablet for half the price of an iPad). Apple can probably afford to be seen acting selfish and controlling around iOS for now, but that impression could cost the company six, twelve, or eighteen months down the road. After all, Apple already has a bad impression when it comes to some of its App Store policies.

Of course, there's another solution for ebook vendors who want to get their titles on the iPhone or iPad without bowing to Apple's demand: create a web-app version of your app. Google started its ebook strategysolution for developers who want to avoid any of Apple's App Store policies and/or want to create a truly multi-platform option in a single step.

Perhaps the biggest question is what about users who have already downloaded ebook store apps and have content on them purchased outside the App Store? Will some future update kill them or will existing users continue to have access to them and existing purchases (perhaps even new purchases since they're downloaded outside the App Store)? That creates a lot of gray area and could leave Apple (and/or ebook vendors) open to lawsuits.

Let's here your thoughts. Is this really not a policy change as Apple claims? Is Apple getting to arrogant for its own (or its customers') good? Will this news make you hesitate buying an iPad or even cause you to purchase a competing tablet? Or is this just a senseless concern? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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