Will Apple throw the book at e-book apps?
March 17, 2009 | 3:14 pm
Apple’s OS 3.0 preview event has just ended, and brought to light some very interesting new features. There is no shortage of coverage of the event; here is Ars Technica’s recorded liveblog and their post-event wrap-up. Gizmodo offers a “definitive guide” to 3.0’s features.
OS 3.0 will ship this “summer”. (My guess is June, to coincide with any new hardware introductions made then.) It will be free for iPhone 3G users, and $9.95 for iPod Touch users. It was not mentioned whether it would be free or $9.95 for first-gen iPhone users, but it will work on those older phones as well (though some features would not be supported by the older devices).
Although no new hardware was announced (dashing the hopes of some who had thought Apple might confirm the “netbook” rumors making the rounds), many of the most-desired missing features have been announced for the new OS: copy and paste, push notifications, MMS messaging, peer-to-peer connection, landscape keyboard in more apps, and so on.
The iPhone will be able to connect much more extensively to Bluetooth accessories such as speakers. Tethering will be supported, but will depend on individual carriers to allow it.
However, the very first new feature that was announced during the event caused me some concern over what it might mean to e-book applications on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform.
The In-App Store
After Apple SVP Scott Forstall had bragged on how well the iPhone and App Store had been doing lately, he talked about the high demand among developers for support for alternate business models—subscriptions, additional-level expansion packs, and purchasable content within apps.
Forstall even mentioned e-books specifically, quoted by Ars as saying, "These days you have to sell one application per book, for example, and developers want a book store built into the app." He then announced, "Today we’re supporting all of these additional business models."
Forstall talked about buying additional levels for a game after you have completed it (which will be good news for developers of level-based games such as Warfare, Inc.) and later on, an EA rep demonstrated The Sims 3.0 for iPhone, showing how it was possible to buy additional content right from within the game.
Only paid apps would be able to have purchased-content in-app stores, and the in-game stores would be run through the App Store, requiring typing in your password just like any other purchase. Apple would take the same 30% cut it gets from App Store purchases.
What About Existing “In-App” E-Bookstores?
It is easy to imagine that this might be a good thing for e-book apps that do not have their own associated e-book stores. For example, under this system the makers of the Classics app could sell new bundles of prettily-formatted public-domain books for their reader without having to wrap the reader around them individually.
But what was never addressed, in the presentation or in the Q&A afterward, was what this might mean for e-book apps that already have their own stores that can be accessed from within the app itself: eReader, Stanza, Shortcovers, and Kindle. (And Bookshelf can download Baen Webscription purchases, though not make them from within the app itself.)
These apps are free (except for Bookshelf), so they would not be eligible for a paid-content in-app store anyway. But they do allow users to make purchases from within the app’s interface—even the Kindle app will let you buy a book from the end of its sample chapter. This is usually done by calling WebKit so the actual purchase is handled via the Web, but all the same the users never have to leave the application.
It is hard to imagine that Apple would cut a company the size of Amazon off, but might they be inclined to ditch eReader, Stanza, or Shortcovers for violating the “no in-app store” rule? It is hard to imagine that they would do so in light of how long the apps have already been approved—but on the other hand, as free apps, these are not making Apple any money, nor does Apple have any control over the content.
Content control was a reason that Apple had not allowed in-app stores up to this point—wanting to make sure everything you could get from the store stayed family-friendly. This is why the “Murderdrome” comic app-book was rejected, giving rise to cries of “censorship.” (Although I seem to recall that at the time, Apple had actually suggested they sell just the comic book app and offer the content separately.)
Many of the titles available through third-party bookstores are the sort of erotica that would not fit the squeaky-clean image Apple wants to promote. It is hard to imagine Apple allowing e-book erotica in an in-app store when it would not allow the “Murderdrome” appbook in its app store.
I would hope that Apple will let its own in-app stores be for companies that do business exclusively through those apps. They should let companies that offer content for multiple platforms continue to do so, selling to iPhone-users through the same store by which they sell to everyone else. It would be the sensible thing to do, and I would really hate to indulge in anti-Apple paranoia just after chiding others for the same thing.