The iPad was supposed to herald a new era in publishing. But the growing rift between Apple and Time Inc. shows that the early troubles clouding digital magazines have only gotten worse. So: is iTunes a mailbox or a newsstand?
It's a question that really comes down to control. Publishers like Time Inc. want to be able to treat iTunes like any other method of distribution. They want a subscription model that provides steady revenue, they want the demographic data that advertisers pay top dollar for. And why wouldn't they? Last year subscriptions accounted for 90% of magazine sales. Which is why when Apple didn't approve a subscription Sports Illustrated app, Time Inc. was frustrated enough to consider pulling out of iTunes altogether.
On Apple's side of the ledger, they've had so much success with their walled garden approach to music content that it makes sense they'd want to extend that control to publishing. It's not like they don't have the technology technology to support in-app subscriptions: you can already do that with the Wall Street Journal.
Apple may be overreaching in this case. The idea that people would go back and keep buying single issues of a magazine for $5 a piece makes no more sense in iTunes than it does at the newsstand. And a subscription model would surely generate enough iAd revenue to make up for the lower per-issue cost.
If magazines are going to survive on the iPad, you're going to have to be able to subscribe to them. And if the iPad's going to be the future of media, it's going to need to embrace at least in part the existing model. Or we can all just wait for an Android tablet to come along that lets content creators be content sellers as well. [Media Memo]