Apple iPad subscriptions: Problems and Solutions

There’s lots of chatter today about the issues Time Inc is having with Apple and the subscriptions portion of its iPad apps. As Peter Kafka writes today on All Things Digital, Apple rejected the subscription version of the Time Magazine app, surprising Time executives and forcing the publisher to only sell single copies of the magazines, meaning users need to download and pay for each issue as individual transactions. All purchases use iTunes as a middleman.

Considering this is an entirely new medium for content, it’s no surprise that the industry is working out some kinks. Given the debate we wanted to share some of our insight, developed through engagement with our customers in the publishing industry, who are integrating our solution as we speak for their upcoming iPad magazine apps, which plan to offer subscriptions.

In a nutshell, when it comes to taking publications to iPads and other mobile devices, publishers face several challenges:

  •     No way to offer subscriptions (only single-issue downloads)
  •     No clear way to track conversion rates when subscriptions end
  •     No way to offer magazine subscriptions as gifts
  •     No easy way to alert app users to new content

Publishers want subscriptions so they can have valuable customer data – this is how they demonstrate value to advertisers and has been thus for eons. Users want subscriptions because it costs a lot less per issue. I know I much prefer the $1 / issue of Vanity Fair each month than the $5 or whatever at the newsstand.

How Urban Airship is addressing these challenges through StoreFront

Our subscription feature, a component of its in-app purchase offering, is designed to manage all aspects of the subscription flow to mobile devices, including delivering new content, alerting subscribers to new content and tracking the billing aspects associated with ongoing downloads. So the team here built a great way to manage the flow of content. With StoreFront, they’ve also created a way to let customers avoid two main issues Apple implies are the reason for the rejection.

1) Concern about customer data. We don’t keep track of any data on the customers. Meaning we don’t actually store customer email addresses or UDIDs, just hashed versions. Publishers might obtain information about their target audience through their own devices, but StoreFront doesn’t help at all with that. We simply manage who has access to what content based on the hashed data and then deliver the content.

2) Revenue share. StoreFront subscriptions still funnel through iTunes; users get new content from within the app. The billing set up is the same as with any app delivering content via in-app purchase.

So that’s how we are helping publishers while staying in compliance with all of Apple’s published guidelines. We can’t promise perfection, but we know we’re close. We hope to see the publication apps from our customers available soon. (personally, I can’t wait; these are apps of beauty). When the apps are available, we’ll be sure to mention it. In the meantime, we are watching how this plays out very closely.