The news began making its way across the web on February 1: Apple had rejected Sony's e-reader app, refusing to make it available in the App store.
As reported in the New York Times, Sony had submitted an iOS app that would let users of Apple's popular iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch devices read e-books that had been purchased through Sony's Reader Store. Sony's app would include a purchase function that would take users out of the app, launch the mobile Safari browser on their iDevice and allow them to buy e-books directly from the Reader Store. This is similar functionality to Amazon's immensely popular Kindle app, which allows iOS users to purchase and read Kindle e-books. While the Android version of Sony's Reader app is now available, Sony posted the following message to iOS users on its Reader Store website (complete with a teaser photo of the Reader app on an iPhone 4):
"We would like to update everyone on the status of our Reader™ for iPhone® mobile application. We created an app that we’re very excited about, which includes all the features you’ve come to expect from a mobile reading application – including access to your existing collection, synching with your Reader Daily Edition™ and purchasing new content as is possible on other mobile platforms.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. We’re exploring other avenues to bring the Reader experience to Apple mobile devices. We know that many of you are eagerly awaiting the application and we appreciate your continued patience."
What's With Apple?
Apple's App Store has had an existing policy requiring any app that allows users to make a purchase outside of the app (by opening a browser window to complete the transaction), to offer a similar capability within the application. The reason for this is all about money. If a transaction takes place outside of an app, Apple gets nothing, but the company takes a 30 percent cut of all in-app purchases. So if someone buys a book through Amazon's Kindle app (which uses a browser-based transaction), Apple gets no money. Not only that, but the Kindle app (and Reader app, had it been approved), compete with Apple's own iBooks service, which sells e-books to Apple device owners. Apple's response to why it allowed the Kindle app -which clearly does not play by the App Store rules- while denying the Sony Reader app has been along the lines that it has just begun tightening up enforcement of the App Store policies.
What Does This Mean for E-Books?
As Sony says in the message to customers, the company is at an impasse with Apple. For the moment, it means that people who own a Sony e-reader can't easily read their e-books purchased through Sony's Reader Store on their iPad, iPhone or iPod. It also means that iDevice owners don't have access to the contents of Sony's Reader Store.
The big picture is a little more cloudy. The profitability and long term viability of Apple's iBooks service is clearly threatened by apps that allow access to other e-book retailers who may offer a wider selection of titles and/or lower pricing. If Apple were to impose the in-app purchase requirement cited with Sony on Amazon, any books purchased through the Kindle app would then require Apple receiving a 30 percent cut. That would leave Amazon with the options of absorbing the extra cost if someone chose to buy from within the Kindle app instead of taking the extra steps to buy through their web browser (meaning Amazon would likely lose money on those purchases), or passing the increased cost on to customers. You can see why Sony is at an impasse and why Amazon must be getting nervous.
At the end of the day, it's people who read e-books who are going to be most impacted by how this showdown ultimately plays out and Apple iPad users will be on the front lines. Hopefully a compromise can be reached that doesn't result in e-book price hikes for iOS users, while encouraging what has been a growing trend toward a diversity of e-book sources and platform neutrality.