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App Store subscriptions don’t solve problems for most developers

Glenn Fleishman | June 21, 2016
While any app has the potential to offer subscriptions under Apple’s new guidelines, most apps can’t take real advantage.

Apple's news that any iOS app can offer subscriptions as an in-app purchase, not just news and streaming media apps, offers less than it seems at first glance - unless there's more to come at WWDC. Apple's Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, indicated toThe Verge that this was it for now.

While any app can offer a subscription, this doesn't mean that every app can suddenly shift from a flat-fee price to a subscription model. For a subscription approach to work, an app has to have a large library of associated stuff, constantly updated material, regularly released new features, or a cloud-based service that offers enough value for the recurring fee. There's also a possibility of using it for patronage, which some apps rely on one-time IAPs for, but it still has to offer something to qualify.

What the new policy changes

Among other rules, Apple's App Store Review Guidelines note, "If your app doesn't do something useful, unique or provide some form of lasting entertainment, or if your app is plain creepy, it may not be accepted." And: "Apps that are demo, trial or test versions will be rejected." Its What's New page that describes the new subscription policies match up. But both seemed in contradiction to Schiller's statements in several interviews.

We've confirmed with Apple that Schiller's expansive vision is an accurate one: any developer can submit an app that relies entirely on a subscription to perform a task. It can be effectively a login screen, like with Netflix and Hulu, rather than conform to the broader policy Apple has enforced on most apps that weren't periodicals and streaming media libraries to date. Schiller's examples included enterprise apps, which are effectively in continuous development. In fact, many enterprise apps are already sold on a subscription basis, but typically couldn't charge a subscription fee directly within iOS.

But Apple also stressed that not just every business model will pass its muster. Unlike with periodicals and streaming media apps, which are allowed to have no content or use without a subscription, apps in other categories will need to "make sense". As Apple notes on the What's New page, "The experience must provide ongoing value worth the recurring payment for an auto-renewable subscription to make sense."

We don't yet know precisely how Apple will evaluate that, and uncertainty is bad for developers. Schiller also promised much faster app review turnaround for developers, but speed doesn't matter if an app doesn't meet Apple's test, and Apple doesn't yet offer formal advance review of app features or business model. (We have heard of developers discussing features more broadly, but informally, with developer relations staff.)


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