This week, the iPad app world is frantically sorting through some recent changes in its environment. Last Monday, Apple quietly altered its app approval policies in a way that will make publishers much happier. Specifically, Apple has relaxed control over whether apps can access content paid for outside of the App Store’s purchase APIs. The company has also allowed publishers to price however they want, both outside and inside of the app.
In the same week, FT.com released a subscription-based HTML5 web app intended for iPad users that bypasses Apple entirely, giving the publisher its own path to market that does not depend on or enrich Apple directly. The coincidence of these two events is not lost on most of us industry observers and is the topic of a Forrester report issued by my colleague Nick Thomas last Friday. In it, Nick explains why the FT’s move is probably the first of many such moves by the most recognized publishers, even with Apple’s newly announced policy reversal.
But while publishers figure out their next steps for their content apps, there’s one app that no one is talking about but I believe everyone should have their eye on. It’s the Amazon Kindle app. This app violates even Apple’s revised policies and will soon face a day of reckoning when Apple's June 30th deadline for compliance comes up.
I don’t claim to know Amazon's plans, but I will claim to tell Amazon what it should do:
The most important outcome of this week’s emerging tussle between Apple and Google is that we are about to have an intense and financially difficult conversation about what a fair price is for delivering customers to developers, publishers, and producers. Economically, this is one of the most critical issues that has to be resolved for the future of electronic content. Very soon, a majority of consumer experiences (that which we used to refer to as the media) will be digital. But not until the people who will develop those experiences have unambiguous, market-clearing rules for how they can expect to profit from those experiences.
The question comes down to this: Is 30% a fair price for Apple to charge? I must be clear about my intentions here. I do not employ the word “fair” the way my children often do. I am not whining about Apple’s right to charge whatever it wants. Apple may do whatever is best for shareholders in the short- and long-run. I argued yesterday that Apple’s recent decision does not serve its shareholders in the long run. Google announced One Pass yesterday – hastily, I might add – in order to signal to Apple and its shareholders that monopoly power rarely lasts forever. But none of that questions the ultimate morality of Apple’s decision or its rights.
I use the word “fair” to refer to a state of economic efficiency. A fair price is one that maximizes not just individual revenue, but total revenue across all players. Such revenue maximization cannot be achieved without simultaneously satisfying the largest possible number of consumers with the greatest possible amount of innovation.
Brace for impact. What I'm about to say is going to make a lot of people angry, including some of the people at Google who are going to rightly point out that when they pre-briefed me on today's Google eBooks announcement, we never once discussed ad-supported reading.
Instead, they told me all about their plan to establish a set of tools that will offer eBooks to people looking for book information through Google's search engine. They explained that this will make it possible for the millions of people who conduct book-related searches every day to have easy access to 3 million books -- some out of copyright, some out of print but under copyright, and a full range of in-print titles including bestsellers. They also described how independent booksellers will be able to use the same set of web-based commerce and reading tools to build their own branded eBook stores to finally extend their brick-and-mortar customer relationships into the digital space.
Since then, I've spoken to half a dozen reporters who were also pre-briefed and they have all had a similar set of questions: can Google compete against Amazon (no, but it can compete against Barnes & Noble), is it too late to make a dent in a mature market (no, less than 10% of online adults in the US read eBooks, there's plenty of room to grow), is Google's cloud-based strategy unique (yes and no, it supports all devices except the Kindle, but the Kindle platform actually supports as many devices as Google will).