Steve Jobs email attempts to mollify developers, clarifies little

A new email form Apple's CEO appears to be meant to calm fears over the company's new subscription system, but doesn't really explain much.

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A new development in the brouhaha over Apple's new subscription system appeared this morning in the form of an alleged response by Steve Jobs to a developer's concerned email about the situation. The response, published at the MacRumors site, was as minimal and cryptic as we've come to expect from Apple's CEO.

The developer in question described himself as a full time iOS app creator who works with businesses that want to create Software as a Service apps that allow customers to access some form of service for which they pay money (presumably in some form of subscription relationship) and which require dedicated user logins. While there is a paid service, the apps in question are submitted to the App Store as free.

Jobs' alleged response is a single line:

We created subscriptions for publishing apps, not SaaS apps.

The response comes after the much-publicized rejection of the Readability app, which its developer views as not being a content or publication app. That opinion is debatable, since it does allow access to Internet content, for it charges users and pays writers.

That rejection prompted concerns about a broad range of SaaS-type apps including commonly used tools like Dropbox and even enterprise solutions like Salesforce.com and the range of apps that plug into 37Signals various services (including the popular Basecamp collaboration suite). In fact, the 37Signals-related apps could pose a bigger challenge since several are produced by developers independent of 37Signals.

While, there is seemingly reason to rejoice and lay the matter to rest with Jobs' statement, the truth is, it doesn't really clarify much. It may clarify Apple's intentions, but the actual text of Apple's developer agreement in question read as follows:

Apps utilizing a system other than the In App Purchase API (IAP) to purchase content, functionality, or services in an app will be rejected.

The words functionality and services are pretty clear in there. According to Jobs, this may be intended for publishers, but functionality and services could easily be applied to any type of service. Even if Apple isn't planning to use this against more traditional SaaS apps, those words mean that it can.

In fact Jobs' statement implies that Apple will determine what constitutes an SaaS app at its discretion. That language gives the company complete discretion for any app that allows a user to purchase anything other than a physical item. Whatever Apple's intentions, that means developers could find themselves rejected even if they feel their app is solely SaaS and doesn't offer content of any kind.

If this email is actually from Jobs and represents Apple's intent, then the company needs to publicly differentiate what it considers publication, content-related, and SaaS apps. If Apple can delineate that and make it clear what types of apps it considers to be potential violators of the new policy and which ones it doesn't, then it can probably defuse many of the arguments and the controversy.

I think a lot of people are willing to consider the subscription system itself as relatively benign if Apple makes it clear that it applies only to actual publications. If this won't be enforced against content-style apps that aren't publications like Netflix and Amazon's Kindle, then Apple should say so (which would probably make the entire matter drop from the public consciousness). Likewise, if SaaS apps won't be rejected under this policy, Apple should describe how it defines an SaaS app.

A solid explanation of what this impacts is probably all most people and developers really want. Unless, Apple is planning to apply this very broadly, in which case developers have a right to be unhappy (and leave the App Store if they choose).

The problem is, Apple isn't offering any real clarity. That's not a surprise. Apple has kept all its App Store acceptance policies/processes vague and private. I honestly don't expect Apple to treat this situation any differently. Unfortunately, I think that's short-sighted because it leaves a sense of distrust out there that the company could dispel. Then again, as long as Apple keeps this a mystery, it has broader discretion to use the policy whenever and however it wants.

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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