As part of a settlement with the Japan Fair Trade Commission, Apple announced today that it would tweak its App Store rules to allow certain app developers to include a link to an external website to set up or manage accounts. This will be rolled out globally beginning in early 2022 and essentially allows developers to interact more directly with their customers.
Reader apps are those that provide content—movies, music, newspapers, e-books—but require a subscription to use. The one people are probably most familiar with is Amazon’s Kindle app, which requires you to buy e-books outside the app in order to read the content. It also includes those like Netflix and Spotify, which don’t let you sign up via the app itself. Instead, first-time users are told to sign up online, and then they can log in on the mobile app afterward. This is a roundabout way of avoiding Apple’s 15-30% commission.
In the case of huge players like Spotify and Netflix, Apple wasn’t making much money off them in this particular use case, to begin with. Apple admits this in its announcement, saying “Because developers of reader apps do not offer in-app digital goods and services for purchase, Apple agreed with the JFTC to let developers of these apps share a single link to their website to help users set up and manage their account.” Gizmodo reached out to Netflix and Spotify for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
So theoretically, this would be more useful for smaller developers looking to have a more direct relationship with their users. However, the thing is Apple gets the final say in what counts as a reader app and they still won’t be able to sell subscriptions in-app. As the Verge notes, although e-mail apps technically count as reader apps, as you can’t do anything else and there are no in-app purchases. It’s unclear how far the “reader app” definition will stretch beyond obvious players like streaming services. Reuters also quotes a JFTC official as saying the “scope of its investigation did not cover games.”
The concession is just the latest in Apple’s App Store reckoning, which kicked into high gear last year after a spat with Epic Games over in-game payments in Fortnite. Last week, Apple proposed a settlement in a class-action lawsuit with developers that would allow them to directly inform customers outside iOS apps about payment options. Meanwhile, South Korean legislators passed a bill this week that would compel both Apple and Google to allow competing payment systems, putting the infamous 30% commission in jeopardy.
Even so, some of Apple’s critics say these small concessions aren’t enough. “In Apple’s carefully-worded statement on safety, it’s hard to discern the rationale that this is safe while Fortnite accepting direct payments remains unsafe,” tweeted Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney. “Even more so if Apple deems Roblox, a game from 2006-2021 that became ‘an experience’ mid-trial, a reader app.”