Playboy Bypasses the App Store: A Model for Other Digital Magazines?

Playboy finally arrived fully uncensored on the iPad (s aapl) Thursday, but it couldn’t go through the prudish App Store to get there. Instead, it arrives as an iPad-optimized web app, which means it doesn’t have to abide by the App Store’s rules, or share subscription revenue with Apple. Sounds like a sweet deal, but is it a model that will be attractive to other magazines?
Obviously, Playboy had little choice but to go the route of a web app with its uncensored iPad offering. While Playboy does have an app in the App Store, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the content of the magazine, and because of the restrictions against nudity and pornography in the App Store guidelines, it never could. But there are advantages to Playboy’s approach that extend beyond just sidestepping the censors.
The magazine doesn’t have to deal with Apple’s in-app subscription system, or the tithes the company expects from publishers in exchange for using it, for instance. The $8 monthly subscription fee that Playboy charges for access to its web app goes directly to its bottom line, without having to take out a 30-percent cut for Apple. Playboy also gets complete control over its relationship with the consumer. When you fill out your valuable personal info at sign-up, Playboy gets instant access to that info, without Apple’s pesky permissions dialog getting in the way.
Playboy’s web app also does a pretty good impression of a native app. The app detects orientation rotation, and provides you with either a single page or two-page layout accordingly, and it transitions smoothly between pages with swipe animations. Table of contents items are hyperlinked, so you can just tap on an article title to jump to that piece. If you add a shortcut icon to your iPad’s home screen, you might not even notice the app is housed in a browser.
But while the web app fairly accurately resembles a native app, a native app it is not. And that means it comes with some caveats, like no offline access, the occasional stutter when switching orientations, and an experience that doesn’t go very far beyond being a scanned digital representation of the print original. There are, for instance, no interactive features within the magazines themselves, and even the most recent issue (every single Playboy ever published is available to subscribers, an admittedly nice bonus) has fairly low-res text that’s hard to read and made somewhat fuzzy by JPEG artifacts. Also, two-page features and ads have a visible seam down the middle that rarely, if ever matches up correctly.
Playboy also doesn’t support multitasking, and asks for your login credentials every time you jump out of and back into the app. But the web app’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t do any local caching, so if you’re not connected to the internet, you have no access to any content whatsoever. Most native iPad magazine apps, by contrast, provide you with offline access once an issue is fully downloaded to your device.
Playboy may derive some potential benefit for itself by avoiding the institution that is Apple’s App Store, but it’s not doing customers any favors in the process. The web app only superficially resembles a native one, and I suspect App Store reviewers would’ve greeted the low-res scans with underwhelming scores, had Apple’s family values not precluded the possibility entirely.
The bottom line is that if publishers want to cut Apple out of the equation, they need to take extra care to ensure the product they come up with in the process is one that users are willing to venture afield to find. The App Store may be a more confining space, but it also takes care of a lot of the legwork related to marketing and discovery. Staying outside the gates requires a lot more effort than it looks like Playboy is wiling to put in.