Why the iPad is Still Really Good for Magazines

It seems that quite a few of the big magazine companies are unhappy about the way that Apple is managing, ‘controlling’ if you like, the app store. First there was an article in Folio magazine, then this was picked up by All Things Digital and then the blogosphere erupted. According to Folio magazine:

…. getting an app approved can be a frustrating ordeal, especially when publishers find out at the 11th hour that their proposal has been rejected (in what increasingly seems to be arbitrary fashion). Condé Nast famously had to rework its iPad apps when Apple announced that it wouldn’t accept Flash. The iPad is Great But Remember—It’s Apple’s Way or the Highway

This is loose reporting. First, developers obviously hear ‘at the 11th hour’ (which just means ‘at the end of the process’) that their app has or has not been approved by Apple. Do you think that they would be happier to be told before they submitted it that their app was going to be rejected? There is no timetable involved, there is no guaranteed outcome to the process. It is an ‘approval’ process. Second, the Apple approval process is certainly getting to be more predictable and less arbitrary. There are some reassuring signs that it is loosening up somewhat. Third, it is ludicrous to suggest that Condé Nast were caught by surprise that Apple would not support Flash. This was clear well before the iPad was launched and should have been obvious to anybody who was following Apple’s strategy for the iPhone in 2009. Apple would have had to change tack significantly to support Flash and if Condé Nast were listening to Adobe whispers, rather than Apple directions, they were clueless. Adobe …. words fail me. It is not doing a good job for the magazine industry.

And Peter Kafka at All Things Digital says:

Time Inc. executives “have been going nuts,” trying to figure out how to get Apple (AAPL) to approve a subscription plan. One of the more desperate suggestions, which apparently didn’t get traction: Pulling the publisher’s apps out of the iTunes store altogether.
Subscriptions, whether they’re for ink-and-paper magazines or their digital editions, are a big deal for Time Inc. and every other magazine publisher. They value them in part because they provide recurring revenue, but primarily because they provide a treasure trove of data. Time Inc’s iPad Problem is Trouble for Every Magazine Publisher

Some bloggers have turned this into a generalised fact. The e-consultancy blog reports it as a universal truth that magazine subscriptions are not allowed: “So far, no other publisher has been able to sell subscriptions through the iTunes store either.” This is completely false. Exact Editions has been selling subscriptions to magazines through iTunes for nearly a year. Plenty of other developers are now doing so. Exact Editions may have been the first developer to help magazine publishers sell subscriptions through iTunes, but there are now dozens more. Peter Kafka has got it wrong in suggesting that Time Inc does not know how to sell magazine subscriptions through the iTunes system. The problem is, as he hints in his next sentence, that Time may want to develop its own in-app subscription service and its own analytical reporting on customer usage. Both of these are no-no’s with the Apple iTunes terms and conditions.

Apple is being more explicit and more open with its policies and its directions to the market than it was a year ago. The terms and conditions for app development are now published. If Time is not reading the developer agreement that it has signed up to, that is not something to “go nuts” about. Apple should not be blamed for objecting to magazine publishers trying to re-invent the wheel on in-App subscriptions. iTunes already supports in-app purchasing on magazine subscriptions and the market will get very messy if there are lots of different terms and conditions for buying stuff through iTunes. Nor should Apple be blamed for not allowing publishers to invent and deploy any form of spy-ware or tracking software that they attach to ‘their’ magazines when deployed in iTunes. One of the snags with the still nascent Android app developer market is that there is not yet a recommendable and standard method for deploying in-app subscriptions. I hope that there will be soon. But, when it comes it will have arrived because Google or a major Android player deploys it. The Android market-place will not work if each participant re-invents all the commercial rules. Apple is doing us all a service in trying to establish solid and consumer-trustable e-commerce standards. Apple is also, in my view very rightly, jealously guarding and defending the privacy of its users. If the magazine publishers (or the games publishers) were allowed to deploy all the intrusive and malevolent data-collection services that can be devised for mobile e-commerce we would all be the losers. I am not suggesting that Time Warner will put intrusive tools in its apps, but I am saying that we need a gatekeeper to make sure that rogue publishers and developers do not abuse the system. On this, I trust Apple more than I trust Time Warner or WPP. Apple has to do some of this for the apps market if it is to be trustable, and Google will have to do something similar for its Android market it its going to work.

There are ways of selling subscriptions to magazines in iTunes; there are ways of selling subscriptions to digital magazines on the web that can then be read with a free or paid for iTunes app; there are ways of doing most of what magazine publishers want to do. Some of it can be done within the Apple e-commerce system. Some of it has to be done in another way. But the fact is that the iPad is a wonderful device on which to read a good magazine and the big magazine publishers need to get on board quickly and with subscription services that users will buy. Apple is not stopping them. They are reluctant to sell through Apple to consumers whose identity they cannot track. But the plain fact is that this is always the way they have sold single copies through the news stand, nobody knows who buys a news stand copy. iTunes is the digital equivalent of the kiosk. It is the way publishers can sell magazines to the general market, without getting much feedback on who is buying. That is a good start, but iTunes is not a good way of selling annual subscriptions at the prices that publishers would like to charge for annual subs to magazines or newspapers. iTunes is not a good way of selling to a highly targeted market. B2B publishers will sell some magazines through iTunes but it is not the way they are going to nurture their core audience (precisely because the publisher will find it hard to determine exactly who the readers are). If the big publishers want to sell annual subscriptions to consumer magazines they will need to figure out how to sell them direct. They will need to build their own digital circulation and not expect Apple to do it all for them. It can be done and is being done. The best place to start will be by converting the existing print subscribers to digital subscriptions (not ‘instead of’ print subscriptions but ‘as well as’). Furthermore, magazine publishers should be careful for what they wish. To hope or expect that Apple is going to solve all their distribution and platform problems is to bank on a solution that would be uncomfortably monopolistic and threatening to their long-term interests.

Get cracking on the iPad, but look also to what you can do with the web to sell subscriptions to your services. This is the direction that magazines should be taking.

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