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Latest Tech: Apple concedes to let apps like Netflix, Spotify, and Kindle link to the web to sign up

While vocal app developers accused Apple last week of spinning a lawsuit settlement into an App Store change that was barely a change at all, the company appears to be making a true, if small concession today: Apple says it will let developers of “reader” apps (think Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon’s Kindle app) directly link their customers to their own sign-up website, where they could potentially skirt Apple’s in-app payment system (and its 30 percent cut) entirely, in those cases where they haven’t already.

In a press release, Apple claims that the move will close an investigation by the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC), and that it’ll only apply to those sorts of “reader” apps right now — a category that was originally designed by Apple to placate companies like Netflix and Hulu by allowing them to let users simply sign into their existing account instead of signing up for a new subscription via the App Store (and having to pay Apple’s fees).

The JFTC has confirmed the agreement in a press release of its own, saying that the move by Apple “would eliminate the suspected violation of the Antimonopoly Act.” The commission, which has been investigating Apple since 2016, says the company has pledged to report on the status of app review transparency once a year for the next three years. According to the JFTC, Apple proposed changing its app review guidelines in response to the investigation.

Currently, the Netflix and Spotify apps on iOS are useless if you don’t already have a subscription: both of them only offer a sign-in page, with no link out to their website, and a cheeky apology. “You can’t sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it’s a hassle,” reads the Netflix app’s splash page. The Amazon Kindle app, by contrast, offers a basic “Create a new Amazon account” page inside the app itself, but doesn’t let you buy books there, or even in the standard Amazon app. You have to go to a mobile browser to purchase.

The message that greets you when opening the Netflix app on iOS.

The rule change has an extremely limited scope, as Apple claims it only agreed to let developers of so-called reader apps to “share a single link to their website to help users set up and manage their account.” Apple also says it will “help developers of reader apps protect users when they link them to an external website to make purchases,” which suggests it will have specific guidelines for how these links appear.

It’s also worth noting that when Apple rejected the Hey email app, and even after it later modified that controversial decision, the company was very clear that email apps do not count as “reader” apps, even if you similarly subscribe outside of the app and the only thing you can do without an account is sign in.

It also seems like Apple may be slightly redefining what a “reader” app means: While the company’s App Review Guidelines suggest that a reader app “may” allow users to access previously purchased content (presumably alongside in-app purchases, like Netflix offered for years), Apple’s new press release specifies that “developers of reader apps do not offer in-app digital goods and services for purchase (bolding ours).

That would mean that Apple’s only offering this exception to companies that aren’t contributing any in-app purchase commissions to Apple anyways. Which, admittedly, include some of Apple’s sternest critics like Spotify.

Some critics of Apple’s anti-steering rules have suggested they could charge users less if they could direct them to their own website instead of Apple’s IAP, since they wouldn’t have to pay Apple that extra 30 percent and could thus pass along the savings. But if Apple’s “reader” category doesn’t wind up including apps that offer IAP, that idea probably won’t be possible under Apple’s new rule.

It may be a while before we find out the answers to these questions: Apple says the rule won’t go into effect until early 2022.

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