And so it begins.
Let’s jump in the Wayback Machine and set our coordinates for June 11, 2007. Apple had just announced something called the “iPhone” and with it, an “innovative new way to create applications” for the device.
The premise was simple: In lieu of an actual app store, Apple urged developers to “create Web 2.0 applications which look and behave just like the applications built into iPhone”—it was just called “iPhone” back then, not “the iPhone.” Basically, if you wanted to make an app, you built it on the web.
About a year later, the actual App Store was launched and developers could build applications that lived on the phone itself instead of on the web. Web-based apps hadn’t been quite as slick as promised, and having a central repository like the App Store gave Apple a little more control over which apps ran on the iPhone and, more importantly, a 30% cut of any app sold.
Fast forward to the current day and Apple has a bit of a problem on its hands. As it turns out, certain web-based apps can actually perform well enough that app makers don’t need to build them for Apple’s App Store any more. And app makers that sell content from inside their apps don’t want to play by Apple’s new-ish rules stating that each piece of content sold within an app commands a 30% cut to Apple—and linking to an outside website to sell content from within the apps is a no-no.
Let’s say you’re Amazon and you’ve been selling e-books for the past couple years at around $10 a pop. That’s your pricing model. And all of a sudden, the books you sell on the apps that you’ve developed for some of the most popular mobile devices around—iPhone and iPad—will now see a 30% cut go right to Apple. That’s not going to work for you, especially considering that Apple sells its own e-books, too.
So now Amazon has rolled out its “Kindle Cloud Reader”—basically a web-based version of the Kindle app “that leverages HTML5 and enables customers to read Kindle books instantly using only their web browser – online or offline – with no downloading or installation required.”
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Although Amazon doesn’t come right out and say that this is so it doesn’t have to pay a cut to Apple, the press release says, “Without even leaving the app, customers can start shopping in the Kindle Store and will find a unique and immersive shopping experience built specifically for iPad’s Safari browser.” If Amazon wanted to sell a book from within an actual app, under Apple’s new rules, it’d have to pay a cut and it couldn’t link to an outside purchasing page from within the app. In order to avoid paying the 30%, it’d have to rely on people browsing its web site, buying books there, and then going into the app where the purchased books would be synchronized.
Conversely, a web-based Kindle app that looks and feels similar to a regular iPad app allows Amazon to sell books however it wants without Apple getting a cut. It’s simpler for users, too.
And Amazon isn’t alone in its strategy.
Walmart’s new streaming video service is going web-only for the iPad as well. The company recently bought out VUDU, which specializes in “subscription-free, video-on-demand,” meaning that movie rentals are being sold one at a time for a few bucks apiece. If selling a $3 movie rental through an iPad app means you’ll have to shell out a buck to Apple, the decision to build an app-like experience that lives on the iPad’s web browser instead makes a lot more sense. Walmart’s press release says, “For one touch access to VUDU, customers can add a VUDU icon to their iPad desktops by clicking the ‘Add to Home Screen’ button when on VUDU.com.”
Basically, make it look like a duck and quack like a duck without giving up 30% of the tender, juicy, succulent breast meat. (I’m sorry.)
And it’s not just the 30% cut that some app-makers are trying to avoid. You may recall that Apple’s rules against adult content prompted Playboy to build a web-based iPad offering earlier this year that grants users access to the magazine’s entire back catalog for $8 per month. It, too, is built using HTML5 and looks and feels very similar to many other magazine titles sold as standalone apps through the App Store.
Finally, aside from being able to skirt the 30% cut and the no-nudity rules, web-based apps allow app makers to not only sidestep Apple’s sometimes-long approval policy as well as create apps that function almost identically on other tablets and desktop web browsers. The build once, run everywhere concept has gotten another shot in the arm—one that Apple appears to have inadvertently administered based on some of its App Store policies.