Apple Hasn’t Fixed App Store Subscriptions, but It’s a Start

This is a huge deal

Key Takeaways

  • Apple will let apps link to their own subscription signup pages.
  • The new rules only apply to 'reader apps.'
  • These apps will no longer have to pay Apple’s 30% cut.
Two people looking through a window with the Apple logo above them.

Zhiyue Xu / Unsplash

Apple has finally caved to government pressure and ditched its most ridiculous App Store rule.

In response to a Japanese investigation, Apple will let so-called 'reader' apps link out to their parent websites. Netflix, Spotify, Kindle, and similar apps can now link to their own subscription pages, where users can sign up, and everybody can avoid paying Apple’s 30% cut of in-app subscriptions.

"It's astounding Apple let things get this far. Why are they risking antitrust scrutiny around the world, as well as setting fire to their relationship with developers, over a minority part of the business?" says app developer David Heinemeier Hansson on Twitter

Apple’s Most Ridiculous Rule

Many apps, including Netflix and Spotify, have long had their own subscription options, but they were not allowed to mention them in their apps. Some services chose not to offer subscriptions via the App Store. Others opted to offer them but added on an extra ~30% to cover Apple’s cut. 

Someone choosing an app on an iPhone with a laptop computer in the background.

Árpád Czapp / Unsplash

That’s not really a problem for Netflix because everyone knows you can just visit Netflix.com. But for lesser-known apps, it makes it impossible to sell a subscription without Apple taking almost a third. 

Thanks to the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) investigation, Apple has now dropped this rule. From "early 2022," apps will be allowed to link users to their sites. 

Apple’s Claims

Apple likes to say that the App Store is a safe place where users are happy to buy apps, and that’s true—to an extent. People really are comfortable buying apps and subscribing, partly because they trust the App Store’s payment system, partly because it’s so easy, and partly because you can unsubscribe instantly, with one click.

But Apple is also disingenuous in its App Store claims. People already feel fine giving their credit card numbers to companies other than Apple. We subscribe to Amazon Prime, Netflix, email services, and plenty more. We buy physical goods online all the time. Apple is not, despite what it likes to say, the only safe store on the internet. 

However, there are some big advantages to using the App Store, especially for subscriptions. 

A brand new iPhone and AirPods sitting on a glass table next to an iPhone box.

Drew Coffman / Unsplash

Reader Apps?

First, it's important to note that this only covers subscriptions and only for the Apple-invented category of "reader apps." This is from Apple’s press release on the subject:

"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." [emphasis added]

Thus, Spotify is a "reader" app, but Kindle, which does offer digital goods for sale, would seem not to be. Apple says it will update its guidelines before the change in 2022, but right now, Apple says that "reader apps provide previously purchased content or content subscriptions for digital magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, and video.”

Regular subscriptions which unlock features, or just pay for the app itself, are not covered here. 

Easy Out

The very best part of iOS and Mac subscriptions is the ease of canceling them. You can sign up for a week- or month-long trial and immediately head to your subscription page (in the App Store or the iCloud settings), and cancel it. The trial will run, and you’ll never pay a penny unless you re-subscribe. 

An Apple store front as viewed across a busy street with traffic passing by.

Andy Wang / Unsplash

All your subscriptions are listed, and you can stop or start them or change subscription tiers at any time. Subscriptions purchased through the App Store are also subject to parental controls. 

Apple could provide an approved framework to manage external subscriptions, forcing app makers to include them in this list. That would be the best of both worlds—Apple doesn’t get to tax subscriptions, but users can still easily manage them. 

The App Store is certainly convenient for users, but this crack, under regulatory pressure, may be the start of making the app store good for developers, too.

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