Apple's rules on in-app purchases have claimed a prominent victim: The Financial Times's iOS apps -- one for the iPhone and one for the iPad -- were removed from the store this week, after the publication declined to make the changes required by Apple's terms.
As they currently stand, App Store rules allow publications to provide subscriber-only services through their iOS apps--however, those apps cannot provide an external link for purchasing a subscription unless they also provide a way to buy it through Apple's in-app purchase system. (These same rules recently necessitated the removal of external store links from e-reader apps.) Those in-app purchases give Apple a 30-percent cut of the revenue, as well as mandate that it -- and not the publication -- gets ownership of the subscriber data. Users can choose to provide their personal information to the publisher as well, but it's strictly on an opt-in basis.
For many publishers, the latter has been the bigger sticking point by far. Publications have traditionally made much of their livelihood by collecting information about their subscribers and using it to not only target their content, but also to aid in selling ads, by providing demographic data to advertisers. While the pushback against Apple's rules was vocal at first, many publishers have since acquiesced to Apple's terms. Industry stalwarts like Time, Hearst, Hachette, and Condé Nast have all made several of their prominent periodicals available on the App Store. Some have opted to forego any subscription links, while others have provided both external and in-app options for purchase.
Looking to Web-ward
The FT has chosen a separate path altogether. In recent months, it's been directing its subscribers to an iOS-specific, HTML5-based Web app that it's developed. The Web app provides an iOS-like interface, with the ability to tap on articles to view them, adjust text sizes, and even share content via email, Twitter, and Facebook. The publication is also making video content available in its app, and it even prompts users to place a shortcut on their Home screen; that allows the app to run full-screen without Safari's interface. And, of course, content can be locked down to just subscribers and registered users.
There's nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, it's totally in keeping with Apple's stated two-pronged strategy for mobile software: the curated aisles of the App Store versus the open wilds of the Web. With a Web app, the FT has complete control of its content and features -- no defaulting to Apple. In this regard, the Financial Times isn't alone. Amazon, for example, recently launched Cloud Reader, a Web-based interface for reading Kindle books, and others, including online video purveyor Vudu, have followed suit.
However, the Web route isn't without its risks. As good as HTML5 has gotten, it sill can't match all the whiz-bang capabilities of iOS's native apps -- for instance, it can't integrate as closely with other apps and data on the device. Plus, the lack of Financial Times apps may disappoint users who go searching for them on the App Store. While existing users of the apps will likely be able to continue reading through the native apps for the moment, there will no doubt come a point when the apps' technology falls behind the times.