Jobs: New In-App Subscription Rules Just for Publishers

Considering the controversy surrounding Apple’s new in-app purchasing rules, Steve Jobs was bound to provide an email response to a concerned user/developer at some point. That happened yesterday, when one dev reportedly emailed Jobs regarding his concern that the new subscription rules would endanger Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) apps. With typical Jobs-ian brevity, Steve sent the following reply (via MacRumors):

We created subscriptions for publishing apps, not SaaS apps.

The email exchange follows the recent rejection of the Readability app for not abiding by the in-app subscription App Store (s aapl) guidelines. Readability is an app that provides users with stripped-down, ad-free versions of web-based content for the sake of easier reading. The app’s developers announced yesterday that they had received a rejection notice for violating the terms of the new in-app subscription rules, and posted their reply to Apple, in which they argued that the policy was unfair and suggested they would remain focused on web-based solutions, rather than comply with Apple’s revenue sharing model.

Readability works by allowing users to pay a monthly subscription of their choosing (beginning at $5.00). That revenue is split 70/30 between the creators of the content (writers and publishers) and 30 percent goes to maintaining and building Readability itself. The app’s developers argue that if Apple takes a 30 percent cut, the whole basis of their business model is undermined.

Some, like Marco Arment, took Readability’s rejection as a sign that Apple was indeed planning on clamping down on all subscription-based apps, even those that merely offered users access to subscription-based services they’d signed up for on the web, such as Dropbox. Jobs’ reply seems to suggest that in fact, those apps won’t be affected. Looked at objectively, Readability seems to fall under the blanket category of “publisher” much more easily than do services like Dropbox and other SaaS apps like Evernote. Presumably, SaaS apps that chose to do so will still be able to access Apple’s in-app subscription tools, though we’ll have to wait and see if anyone decides to use them.

Of course, like other App Store guidelines, Apple’s in-app subscription policy is far from crystal clear, and leaves plenty of room for interpretation. The guidelines are designed like that on purpose to allow Apple plenty of wiggle room when deciding what applications are and aren’t allowed in the App Store. By keeping the definition of “publisher” nebulous, it can take stock of developer and customer response to its policy implementation and soften or crack down accordingly. Do streaming video providers like Netflix (s nflx) and Hulu count as SaaS apps, or publishers under Apple’s guidelines, for instance? How Apple decides to interpret their role could allow it to save relationships with major content partners that add value to the iOS platform.

For now at least, Apple’s interpretation of its new rules will spare SaaS providers, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe forever. Apple didn’t need to change its policy to block the sale of e-books through means other than in-app purchasing, it just changed the way it chose to recognize and enforce its own guidelines. If it makes business sense down the road, there’s no reason Apple couldn’t similarly change the way it views in-app subscriptions, too.

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