Is Apple’s digital subscription plan good or bad for consumers?

by on February 21, 2011 · 6 comments

There has been much hand wringing about Apple’s new in-app subscription system for publishers and even [one report]( that antitrust enforcers have begun looking into the matter.

The purpose of the antitrust laws is to protect consumers, not companies, so the simple fact that Apple will take a 30% cut from publishers who want to offer subscriptions on iOS devices should not be enough to trigger scrutiny. So, my guess at what a theory of consumer harm against Apple might be is this: Apple not only takes a 30% cut of any subscription purchased in-app on an iOS device, it also requires publishers to offer as low a price on iOS as they offer anywhere else. Therefore, a case could be made that a publisher faced with Apple’s 30% fee (and unable to simply raise prices by 30% just on Apple’s devices) might raise prices on all platforms enough to cover Apple’s cut. So, assuming market power of course, Apple’s new policy could affect all digital subscription pricing.

Yet it’s hard to talk about market power in such a nascent sector. Digital subscriptions didn’t exist 5 years ago, and they do now in large part thanks to Apple. The right market structure is sorting itself out right now and yes, Apple does seem to have a well-earned lead as the innovator in the space. But if the original Mac taught us anything, is that a lead in a nascent sector is no guarantee of monopoly and regulators would be creating serious disincentives to innovation if they meddle.

Digital publishing is very much a contestable market. I hardly need to point out that the day after Apple’s announcement, [Google made public]( its own very competitive subscription service. And while the iPad is ahead of the game right now, Android tablets are only now beginning to hit the market. If [declining iPhone market share]( is any indication, Android will nip at Apple’s heels in the tablet space as well. And let’s not forget other formidable (and somewhat-formidable) competitors in the likes of HP’s WebOS, Microsoft-Nokia, and RIM.

Moreover, while the consumer harm is speculative, the potential consumer benefits of Apple’s subscription service are pretty clear:

– **Ease of Use & Security:** Apple’s app store is a tremendous innovation if nothing else because it creates a simple payment system consumers trust. iPad users will tell you they much prefer one-click subscriptions managed through Apple than having to create many accounts with disparate publishers, which incidentally improves security.
– **Privacy:** One thing that sets Google’s offering apart from Apple’s is that they will share with publishers information about subscribers. Apple, on the other hand, gives users the choice of sharing information with publishers, and then it’s only limited information. This should please privacy conscious consumers.
– **Subsidized Devices:** As a [recently viral article in Wired]( suggests, the reason Apple is able to offer the iPad entry price of $500 (which rivals are having a hard time meeting) is that Apple is a vertically integrated company. This means that the 30% from subscriptions potentially subsidizes the iPad’s low price, thus benefitting consumers.

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