Publishers’ iPad Subs’ Grumbles Earn Apple Antitrust Attention

What is Apple’s preferred big idea for iPad news and magazine subscriptions? We don’t know – a possible newsstand announcement may have been pushed back with the joint The Daily announcement, or scheduled with an upcoming iPad 2 announcement.

But what we do know is, some publishers this week voiced concern about terms Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is apparently requiring over subscription titles, and Belgium is already investigating whether that supposed strategy breaches antitrust law.

Reports this week say Apple will not let publishers offer annual-subscription magazines without running the billing through iTunes Store, through which they currently cough up 30 percent commission from individual app sales and in-app renewals.

In a statement Belgium’s economy minister Vincent van Quickborne says he has tasked the country’s Competition Authority with “quickly” investigating “whether Apple is guilty of abuse of power“, because multiple Belgian and Dutch publishers had complained about this.


Currently, publishers loathe to offer readers iTunes Store’s in-app recurring payments mechanism can handle billing independently, using their own account systems – that lets them keep more data and all the income, but requires users to complete an additional sign-up step.

A stipulation banning non-iTunes payments – if one is being made – would be like a red rag to the bull of publishers, many of which, at least in private, already complain that Apple does not give them the kind of customer data to which they are accustomed in print and on web.

Such publishers have cropped up in several reports this week. They include Belgian publisher Roularta and Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblat, which says it received a letter from Apple telling it it must separate billing for its subscription iPad edition from its other subscription formats, like print and web, according to the Netherlands’ own De Tijd paper. Other publishers’ tongues are wagging, like in this Quora discussion.

The effect of such a move would be Apple severing publishers’ link between print and tablet, as consumers begin switching their reading habits from the former to the latter.

This would put Apple in a strong position to own the economics of an exclusively iPad-based periodical ecosystem that’s set to grow and grow – but would ruffle feather upon feather in the process.

We will only know the detail when Apple (and, if reports are to be believed, Rupert Murdoch) make their announcement.

Belgium’s Van Quickborne, you might note, has been complaining on Twitter lately about Apple “censoring” iTunes Store and about the merits of Safari versus Firefox.