Over the last few months the tech industry has been inching toward e-book nirvana. For one thing, gadget makers keep improving e-readers while slashing prices. (I’m going to renew my bet that Amazon will begin selling the Kindle for less than $100 by the end of the year.) The bigger story, though, is the explosion of e-book purveyors. Two years ago I lamented that Amazon looked certain to gain a monopoly over the e-book market, an outcome that would have been terrible for writers, publishers, and readers. But since then Apple and Google have opened fairly comprehensive e-book stores. Even better, both Google and Amazon let you access their e-books on pretty much any device you like. This has removed the single biggest obstacle to the proliferation of e-books—the worry that they would be “locked” to specific devices.
The sorry exception to e-book universality is, as usual, Apple. Books you buy from the company’s iBookstore will only work on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. If you’ve got one of those devices, you’re actually better off buying books from Google and Amazon; those books, after all, can be read on your Apple devices and everywhere else. That makes Apple’s iBookstore pretty much useless.
Apple, which has never stood for being useless, is now hitting back at its rivals. According to the New York Times, the company has rejected Sony’s e-reading app from its App Store. The Sony app would have let people read books they’d purchased for their Sony Reader on Apple’s devices. This isn’t anything new—Sony was looking to offer the same functionality as existing iPhone apps made by Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. As a consequence, it’s hard to imagine that Sony will suffer alone. Apple has been known to apply its rules inconsistently across the App Store—it generally bans “sexy” content, yet it makes an exception for Playboy and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit app—but in this case Apple seems sure to extend these new restrictions to other e-book providers.
Apple surely won’t ban Amazon et al. from its devices. According to a statement the company released on Tuesday, it seems likely that Apple will ask e-book sellers to offer readers a way to buy books through the iTunes Store. In other words, Apple doesn’t just want a cut on books it sells through its own iBookstore, but also a 30 percent cut on books that its rivals sell, too.
That’s bad news for Amazon, which has made iPhone and iPad compatibility the centerpiece of its Kindle strategy. It’s also bad news for all of us who’d assumed that Apple would be totally fine letting users bypass its store if we wanted to use our iPhones and iPads as e-readers. Stupid us! In the long run, though, I wonder if Apple’s e-book restrictions might end up improving our devices by revealing—once and for all—the downside of the app-store model. Anyone selling “content” for mobile devices—books, games, movies, songs, magazine articles, anything—should be wary of Apple’s motives here: The company seems unlikely to rest until it gets a cut of every transaction. Lucky for all of us, there’s a perfectly good alternative to the App Store. It’s called the Web, and Apple doesn’t own it (yet).
Apple’s e-book rivals have long used the Web to sell their wares to iPhone users. When you try to buy a book from the Kindle iPhone app, for example, it redirects you to the iPhone’s Web browser. After you complete your purchase on Amazon’s mobile site (and pay with your Amazon account), you launch the Kindle app to find the book you just purchased. The circuitous route has one obvious benefit for Amazon—since Apple takes a 30 percent cut for purchases made from inside apps, pushing people outside the app is a way to bypass what’s essentially an iPhone tax. In its statement, Apple took particular aim at this practice: “We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app with in-app purchase.” So Apple will continue to let booksellers push users to their own sites to buy books, but only if companies let users buy books through Apple, too.
Apple sympathizers might point out that this is only fair when you consider the restrictions on competing devices. Amazon won’t let people buy iBooks, Google Books, or any other copy-protected content through their Kindles. So isn’t Jeff Bezos the real villain here?
Deciding which of two closed platforms is more “evil” is a mug’s game. I’ve long called for Amazon to open the Kindle to rival books, and I still think it should. But I’m more concerned about the way Apple monkeys around with the App Store. That’s not only because it affects a lot more people (there are far more iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch users than Kindle users) but also because Apple’s policies have broader-ranging implications. Now that Apple has changed the business arrangement for e-books, you can bet it’s thinking about the terms for video-streaming apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus and music apps like Pandora, or even more general e-commerce apps like Amazon’s Windowshop. If Apple wants a 30 percent cut of my Kindle book today, I assume it will want a 30 percent cut when I try to buy an actual Kindle tomorrow.
That’s why I’m hoping Amazon responds to Apple’s restriction by voluntarily pulling the Kindle app from the App Store. In its place, Amazon should create a Kindle reader for the mobile Web—a fully functional e-book app that Apple couldn’t meddle with. This browser-based app would offer all the functionality of the Kindle app for the iPhone and iPad—you’d be able to buy books, read them, bookmark them, highlight them, and sync your position in each book across all other Kindle-capable devices. Building this app shouldn’t be too hard; Amazon has already created a Kindle reader for full Web browsers. What’s more, because the mobile Web is pretty consistent across all kinds of devices, the mobile Web edition of the Kindle would work not just on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, but also on Android, Palm, BlackBerry, and Windows phones and tablets.
It’s not just Amazon that would benefit from a shift to Web apps. I’d extend the same advice to Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and everyone else who wants to sell media to mobile users. Apple has made it clear that it won’t stand for competition from within the App Store. So why play along?