Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

From Savior to Despot

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 6, 2011 --  

A rebellion against Apple's iPad subscription terms could be good for technology and newspapers alike.

The year 2009 was not a good time to be in the newspaper business. A punishing recession following decades of declining readership forced several big city newspapers close, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News and the Tucson Citizen. Those papers that remained intact were thinner, smaller and scared for their lives.

So when Apple unveiled the iPad in January 2010 as a cutting edge system for media distribution, there was more than a little excitement. Rupart Murdoch quipped, "it may well be the saving of the newspaper industry"1 and the New York Times and the Hearst Corporation raced to build iPad editions even before the first tablets shipped.2

Eighteen months later, much of the initial hope is beginning to die. On August 30, the Financial Times became the first major newspaper to pull its iPad app from Apple's App Store.3 It, like many in the newspaper industry, was enraged by the subscription terms Apple unveiled earlier this year -- demanding a 30 percent cut of all subscription revenue purchased through its applications starting June 30 of this year.4 If Steve Jobs had sounded like a savior in 2010, he sounded more like a mob boss demanding his cut in 2011.

The Financial Times didn't much like this. Nor did it like the thought that Apple would retain and refuse to share all the customer data for subscriptions sold through its App Store. In response, the FT quickly built itself a new newspaper application for the iPad that runs entirely within the iPad's web browser, thereby circumventing Apple's heavy-handed terms on subscriptions with native apps.

Since releasing its new iPad edition in June, the FT continued to distribute its old iPad app in the App Store, yet refused to include a subscription button that would allow Apple to take its cut. Two months after Apple's June 30 deadline, the FT apparently gave up on negotiations with Apple and disappeared from the App Store.

The FT may not be the only one to go. Last month, Amazon also released a web browser version of the Kindle electronic book reader for the iPad. While it did comply Apple's subscription terms in order to keep its pre-existing native app in the App Store, the presence of a new browser version means that it could pull out at any time. Other publications, such as the New York Times and the Economist have also agreed to Apple's terms -- at least for now.

Given that mobile sales continue to disappoint publishers, there may be little financial incentive for newspapers to fight back right away. One of the few publications releasing sales numbers, the Economist, has sold only about 5,000 digital subscriptions compared with 840,000 paper subscriptions in North America5. Clearly, these aren't industry saving numbers. But if and when mobile publishing does become lucrative, the FT has shown that a 30 percent cut doesn't have to go to Apple.

Such newfound cracks in Apple's walled garden are extremely welcome for two reasons. First, Apple's control freak behavior -- both toward the publishing industry and the mobile internet in general -- deserves the same popular response as a Middle Eastern despot. Those who believe in an open society and an open internet should oppose centralized control by any one company, and support any effort to rebel against it.

Second, industry acceptance of native apps for tablets and smartphones is antiquated and reminiscent of the mid-1990s on the PC. Beginning with the first Dot Com boom, web applications built with open technologies began replacing inefficient and bloated desktop apps built with proprietary technologies. Yet on mobile devices, the trend toward web applications has been startlingly absent, despite emerging technologies called HTML 5 that make this easier than ever. Fortunately, the rebellion against Apple's subscription terms is also a rebellion against the native app.

If successful, this revolution will overturn the rule of the despotic regime in Cupertino, and reign in the proliferation of native mobile apps in favor of web-based alternatives. And given a little more luck, the revolution might help keep the newspaper industry chugging along, too.

Related Web Columns:

Is It Yours?, April 5, 2011

News From the Forest, October 26, 2010

Death of the Daily, March 10, 2009


1. The Guardian, Rupert Murdoch defiant: 'I'll stop Google taking our news for nothing', April 7, 2010

2. The New York Times, With Apple Tablet, Print Media Hope for a Payday, January 25, 2010

3. Paid Content, Financial Times Apps Finally Pulled From iOS , August 30, 2011

4. Los Angeles Times, Apple unveils magazine, newspaper subscription terms, Feburary 15, 2011

5. Folio, Publishers Continue to Look for Tablet Relief Outside of iPad, September 1, 2011

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