Are Apple's iPhone E-Reader Rules Changing? Tough to Tell

By  |  Monday, January 31, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Back in November, Sony said it would have an iPhone app that would provide access to e-books from its Reader store out by December. That month came and went. So has January. And now Sony is saying that Apple rejected its iPhone app (an Android version did make it onto the Market):

Unfortunately, with little notice, Apple changed the way it enforces its rules and this will prevent the current version of the Reader™ for iPhone® from being available in the app store. We opened a dialog with Apple to see if we can come up with an equitable resolution but reached an impasse at this time. We’re exploring other avenues to bring the Reader experience to Apple mobile devices. We know that many of you are eagerly awaiting the application and we appreciate your continued patience.

Sony’s note doesn’t explain why Apple nixed the program, but a New York Times piece by Claire Cain Miller and Miguel Heft does. The story is alarming–but it’s also confusing rather than clarifying.

First, it says:

The company [Apple] has told some applications developers, including Sony, that they can no longer sell content, like e-books, within their apps, or let customers have access to purchases they have made outside the App Store.

Uh oh. Existing e-book apps from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo–I wrote about them recently for–all let you read books you’ve bought in your browser (either on the phone or elsewhere) on purchased on an e-reading device.

But then the Times story says this:

Apple told Sony that from now on, all in-app purchases would have to go through Apple, said Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading division.

Well, that’s pernicious: If e-book sellers can’t let iPhone owners read books they’ve bought elsewhere, the whole idea of “buy once, read anywhere” crumbles. A Kindle app that could only pull up books bought in the App Store would barely qualify as a Kindle app at all. And Amazon might choose to opt out of selling books to iPhone users altogether rather than pay Apple a commission on each tome it sold.

Er, hold on a moment, though–there’s no “from now on” happening here. The e-reading apps that are already in the App Store don’t permit in-app purchases of books, either. If Sony submitted a Reader app with in-app book buying and was refused admittance to the App Store, it’s only being required to play by the same rules as other e-book merchants. (Apple itself offers iBooks, which offers in-app book-buying.)

If Sony’s rejected app sent you to the iPhone’s browser to buy books, like the Amazon, B&N, and Kobo ones do–well, why doesn’t the Times say so? And just who are the other developers who have been told they can’t sell content within apps?

[UPDATE: A representative of Sony’s PR company wrote to tell me that the functionality of the rejected iPhone app is “essentially the same” as the Reader app for Android–which, like other companies’ iPhone apps, launches a browser for book buying. I hope there’s some explanation here other than Apple intentionally changing the rules that other e-reader apps have played by until now. We’ll see. Maybe…]

If Apple is indeed revoking the ability to read digital books you’ve bought elsewhere on an iPhone, it’s upsetting, anti-competitive, and self-defeating. (I use the Kindle app so much that if it were crippled or unavailable on the iPhone, I’d switch to a different phone) It might also have something to do with the reported imminent arrival of App Store features that permit periodical subscriptions–maybe they also involve single-copy purchases. But I don’t think we know enough yet to understand what’s going on here. And Apple, as is its wont, declined to comment to the Times–so it may be a while before it’s clear what the implications are. Here’s hoping it’s all about a misunderstanding rather than a chance in policy.


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8 Comments For This Post

  1. Tommy Carlier Says:

    In Belgium, Apple has been in the news because it doesn't allow newspapers to give free access to their content to their existing subscribers.

  2. @BenjaminZAMayo Says:

    I think it's because Sony was doing purchasing in-app using their own system for in-app purchase, not Apple's.

    The rule isn't new. Amazon (and Nook) sidestep it by kicking you out to a web browser to purchase. Sony seems to just need to do the same to be approved.

    FYI, the rule isn't unique either to Apple. Google rejected the Kongregrate app recently for doing the same thing – distributing content not through a Google system.

  3. Ian Betteridge Says:

    Not sure about that Benjamin. As far as I'm aware, Sony's ebook store is currently only a website – no other Sony readers (software or hardware) have a built-in purchasing system that doesn't simply kick you out to the web. I can't see them building a special in-app purchasing system which doesn't do the same on iPhone/iPad.

    Of course, without confirmation from Sony on what the feature was, we can't be sure. But it doesn't make sense to me that they'd follow a route for iOS that is unique, and that they must have known wouldn't be accepted by Apple.

  4. @1to1Discovery Says:

    If this were truly a change in policy, wouldn't Apple have already booted Kindle, Kobo and the like? Apple hasn't hesitated to boot apps it's previously approved in the past.

  5. VemiHemi Says:

    Wow, kinda crazy when you think about it dude. Wow.

  6. DesiLinguist Says:

    Like Harry says, this has the potential to be quite upsetting to me. The Kindle app probably gets the most use everyday on my iPad. I have built up a library of Kindle books and I am not willing to part with them. I love my iPad but such a move on Apple's part would only cause headaches to their loyal customers (like me).

    Like many apple brouhahas, I am hoping that this is either misinterpretation or spreading misinformation.

  7. Rajani_Isa Says:

    The subscription feature wouldn't have anything to do with this – the ability for one-time in-app purchases is already well established – most of the comic readers work this way.

  8. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    If past is prologue, Sony broke the rules and is now trying to make it seem like it is Apple's fault in the press, hoping to get their way. This has happened again and again. If Sony had a real case, they would be clearer about it.