Apple Finally Lets ‘Reader’ Apps Link Out to Sign-Up Pages

Many of the iPhone or iPad apps you use to read, listen to, or watch entertainment can now add a previously banned button allowing you to sign up for or manage an account on the web.

This news came in a Wednesday Apple developer post announcing that “reader apps”—defined as those primarily offering “magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, or video”—could add this obvious functionality.

Apple typically keeps 15% or 30% of digital transactions from iOS or iPadOS apps, even when the content purchased is a song, book, or video hosted elsewhere and Apple only processes a payment. As such, it has forbidden apps that charged for digital content from linking to sign-up or account-management web pages. Companies that didn’t want to let Apple collect that cut could work around this ban with instructions like this Kafka-esque line in Netflix’s app: “You can’t sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it’s a hassle.”

Apple previewed its change to this policy in September, when it settled a Japan Fair Trade Commission investigation and said it would extend the terms of that deal to developers everywhere. But the specifics of its new “External Link Account Entitlement” show Apple relaxing its control only slightly. Developers can only display one message above a link that may not include pricing details but must convey the following warning, as if it’s 1995 and you’re leaving AOL’s walled garden for the scary, wide-open web:

You’re about to leave the app and go to an external website. You will no longer be transacting with Apple.”

This small liberalization is unlikely to slow moves by regulators in the European Union to force Apple to allow both third-party payment mechanisms and non-App Store downloads.

The EU’s pending Digital Markets Act would also apply to Google, which in recent years has moved to adopt many of Apple’s control-freak practices and keep its own cut of subscription revenue—reduced last fall to 15%, although a new Media Program with separate membership criteria can lower that further to 10%.

For example, as part of a policy Google announced only weeks after Apple said it would accept sign-up links in reader apps, Google no longer allows Android developers of apps that offer subscription-based access to content to “lead users to a payment method other than Google Play” or provide in-app links “that lead users from an app to a payment method other than Google Play’s billing system.”

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