Apple to let reader apps steer users towards out-of-App-Store purchasing following Japanese watchdog probe

Regulator says it's happy book, music, newspaper programs can now whisper of the universe beyond the iOS walled garden


Updated Apple has said it will make a small but important change to its App Store worldwide after Japan's Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) stuck a probe into the US giant's treatment of so-called reader apps.

Specifically, the iPhone goliath will, from early next year, allow these applications to "include an in-app link to their web site for users to set up or manage an account". And by these applications, we mean apps that offer digital magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, and video that can be purchased or subscribed.

Apple will also "help developers of reader apps protect users when they link them to an external website to make purchases".

To understand this change, consider the Kindle app for iOS, which lets users read e-books they have bought from Amazon.com. Kindle for iOS is useless unless users already have an Amazon account, and the app isn't allowed to tell users – with a link or otherwise – where they need to go to sign up and get content.

Apple's change means that apps like Kindle for iOS can include a link to an external site that creates and handles user accounts. That will make it significantly easier for punters to get started with the application.

It also means that Apple will allow payments on those external sites.

But Apple allows that already.

For example, users can't buy e-books from within Kindle for iOS. Buying e-books on iOS remains the exclusive privilege of Apple's own Books app. Those who prefer Amazonian or other e-books have to, say, use the web or the Amazon app to put stuff into their accounts, and then sync their Kindle on iOS app with their Bezos-built bookshelf.

Netflix, also classified as a Reader app, has operated the same way since 2018, when it stopped using in-app payments in favour of direct transactions with new customers.

So while Apple is making it easier to buy content from sources other than its App Store, it doesn't mean that content-reading apps can start selling stuff directly to users from the applications.

Apple's take on this is: "To ensure a safe and seamless user experience, the App Store's guidelines require developers to sell digital services and subscriptions using Apple's in-app payment system."

In fact, the iGiant said: "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" – wow, so generous – "to their web site to help users set up and manage their account.

"We have great respect for the Japan Fair Trade Commission and appreciate the work we've done together, which will help developers of reader apps make it easier for users to set up and manage their apps and services, while protecting their privacy and maintaining their trust," said Phil Schiller, the Apple fellow who oversees the App Store, in a canned statement.

The Commission was, at the time of writing, silent on the matter on its web site and social media channels. Apple said the investigation into it is over as a result of proposing the changes outlined above.

The change to the App Store T&Cs is Apple's second in recent days. Last week's settlement of a US antitrust case saw the iTitan pledge to alter app price points, change search results, and offer assistance to small developers. ®

Updated to add at 0620 UTC, September 2

Japan's Fair Trade Commission has published its reasoning in the matter. The commission explained it had concerns that an inability to access content sales through an app could hurt developers, explained its concerns to Apple, and was satisfied that Apple's actions as detailed above reduce the likelihood of such harms occurring.

Documents detailing that thinking, and some lovely charts, can be found here in English. The commission's tweet below links to documents in Japanese.

This article was revised to add the quote from Apple that it would "help developers of reader apps protect users when they link them to an external website to make purchases," and explain what that meant.

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