Shifting sands

Shifting sands

Does this announcement signify the new battlefield in the e-book wars (apologies for that increasingly tired metaphor)? A couple of days after the Sony Reader for Android App was launched, the news has come out that Apple has rejected the Sony app for the iOS. On the Sony Reader store website, Sony has said:

"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."

And the New York Times is quoting Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading division, that Apple has told Sony that henceforth all in-app purchases would have to have to go through Apple's ecosystem (my italics).

Whoa, there. This is a tectonic shift for Apple, whose policy until now is that the more content available on iPads and iPhones (as long as Steve Jobs didn't object to the prurient nature) the more attractive the device would be to consumers. Is Apple now saying the device is no longer the thing? Particularly as Android powered phones and tablets are closing the gap in terms of functionality. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Apple discovered painfully that for computers it was about the software, not the hardware. It may be relearning a similar lesson now that mobiles and tablets are becoming about the platform and content and not the device. 

Android, it should be noted, has just become the global leader in smartphone software (edging out Nokia's Symbian), according to analysts Canalys. Over 32.9m Android devices sold in the last quarter 2010 worldwide to Symbian's 31m. Though let's not put Apple out to pasture yet; it has been doing quite well, with 16.2m iPhones shipped in that same period, up from 8.7m in the fourth quarter 2009. This on top of the about 47m iPads that were sold in 2010. 

If this is indeed Apple's new blanket policy (and there is some doubt on that score) on all types of in-app purchasing, the obvious question is what does this do to the Kindle App, available on the App Store (which, of course, has the same purchasing model as the Sony Reader)—and to a lesser extent Kobo, Stanza, Nook and the other e-book aggregators available as apps? The Kindle in particular has been wildly successful as an app; some estimates say that as much as 30% of all Kindle e-books sales are solely through apps rather than the Kindle device. 

Of course, it may be Apple simply enforcing the letter of the law in its app agreements, with any actual in-app purchases which go through the Apple store are split on the typical 70/30 agency terms. Adrian Kingsley-Hughes argues on ZDnet that Apple was simply doing that with Sony was taking liberties with its app, confining most of the purchasing truly in-app, but not running it through the Apple store. This is unlike Kindle, Nook etc. whose "in-app" purchasing uses Safari and other native iOS applications to access the web and purchase e-books.    

Is this a change of policy and will Apple retroactively change its relationship with the likes of Amazon? Both Apple and Amazon have declined to comment (I should install a keyboard shortcut for that phrase). Yet if that decision is on the cards and it does indicate a sense of, if not panic from Apple, at least an admission that it believes its previous policy of being collaborative with Amazon et al was misguided indeed.