Comixology, Amazon and Apple

Twitter is a pain in the arse, isn’t it? Someone says something you want to engage with, but you can’t really express a nuanced difference of opinion in 140 characters or less. So a lot of the “debate” I’ve seen on Twitter about Comixology’s changes has basically been people some people saying “Amazon are bad!” and others saying “No, Apple are bad, and it’s reasonable for Amazon to want to get away from them!”

(I should perhaps say that if you really don’t give two shits about how digital comics are bought and sold, you should look away now. I am obviously pretty exercised about this, and likely to go on at length, because this touches on both my profession and one of my nerdy interests.)

If you’re still here, and don’t know what I’m talking about, popular (indeed, pretty much monopolistic in real terms) digital comic merchant Comixology were purchased by Amazon a few weeks ago.

And then a couple of days ago, they announced that they were updating their applications, to change the purchase mechanism. For Android users, this just meant having to re-enter their credit card details, then business as usual. For iOs users, this meant they they could no longer make in-app purchases, and the purchasing experience has been degraded the same nigh-unusable state that Kindle purchases are on iOS – you are required to quit the reading app, use a web browser to navigate on on-line store, make your purchases, log in on the website (requiring a switch to a password manager and back again) and then make your purchases before returning to the comics app to read them. From being a one-click process, it has become a multi-stage process requiring 5 switches between 3 different apps, if you’re on iOS, while Android users still get the same simple experience.

Amazon’s reason for the change is, of course, purely commercial. They’re gambling that the sales they lose through this awful, awful user experience will be less that 30% of their iOS revenue, thereby making them a net gain, because they no longer have to pay Apple 30% of their in-app sales.

I am really, really hoping they’re wrong, and that they’ll have to re-instate the thing in a couple of months, because I think I need to stop buying comics on a point of professional principle.

On a professional level, I believe that offering one group of your users a much worse user experience than another, simply because of the device they use, is indefensible. An aside: I would be interested to see if this was challengeable under disability rights legislation. Probably not, but my objection is basically the same principle – if you are operating an on-line service, I believe you have a duty to your customers to treat them all as equally as it is possible to do. The only possible defence to this in my view is that a given user is on a device that is not capable of providing the service. This is not the case here. Amazon/Comixology are simply making it clear that they’re willing to force bad UX on some customers, simply because they don’t like the platform as much.

So what’s the other side of the argument, then? Who am I disagreeing with?

Those people who are welcoming the move are arguing that Apple are censorious, and they their 30% cut of app store revenue is inherently unreasonable, that Apple’s fixation on forcing things to be purchased through their app store is a blow against net neutrality, and in a few of the more deranged cases, arguing that anyone who says otherwise is basically a Cupertino-worshiping sheep, who has been scammed into believing that Apple should be allowed to take a 30% cut of the proceeds.

These points aren’t without merit.

I am honestly not sure that a 30% cut of in app purchases in entirely merited. I think a 30% of the actual app sales is OK, I’m less sure about in-app purchases.

But taking a second to look at the numbers, one gets a different story. The best set I could find are about a year old, but I don’t think much has happened to massively disrupt the picture they paint, which is that excluding their own apps (which are both extremely popular, and relatively expensive, and skew the numbers quite significantly), Apple make about 1-2% profit margin on the App Store and iTunes.

So they take a 30% revenue cut, but most of that is eaten by operating costs, because it’s not cheap to run a system that complex. And as it turns out the actual margins they make are pretty small. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem unreasonable greedy to me.

Those figures don’t break in-app purchases out as separate figures, but I imagine they’re the same – I don’t imagine the hosting costs for Apple to mechanically enable in-app purchases are any different from those of apps. So the margins will presumably be similar.

I do not believe the app store is a blow against net neutrality, and anyone arguing that it is is fundamentally misunderstanding and misrepresenting net neutrality in a harmful way and ought to stop. Net Neutrality is about technical-level bandwidth and traffic routing, and if you want a term to suggest that you consider walled gardens to be harmful (a position I agree with) please find another one.

I don’t think Apple have built a walled garden in iOS, and the way I think we can tell they haven’t is because Amazon can do this with Comixology. They haven’t prevented anyone from re-implementing purchasing on iOS, all they’ve said is that if you want to do it in a user-friendly way, using the technology that they’ve built, consuming computing resources that they supply, you have to cut them in, to the tune that enables them to make a 1-2% profit.

Yes, you could argue that Apple have implemented their platform in a way that makes it hard to re-implement purchasing, but I honestly believe (based on conversations with serious iOS developers) that this is largely done in the name of user security. As in, the complexity is a feature of design decisions based on building a more secure, stable and responsive platform, not a deliberate decision to make things harder for other people. I won’t deny it’s to Apple’s benefit, but I think that’s a happy (from Apple’s point of view) side-effect of their real focus.

Last one, then: Apple are censorious.

True. Simply flat out true. Apple have made some determinations about what they’re willing to sell through their stores, and they won’t sell material they believe is in contravention of that. And some good works have fallen foul of it, particularly via Comixology, funnily enough. They’re not truly censorious, in that they don’t stop anything being produced or distributed, they just won’t take any part in the distribution of anything they don’t like, and what they don’t like is a pretty wide definition of “porn”.

I can’t say Apple don’t have the right to do that, but it irks me that they use it. It would, perhaps, irk me less if they were consistent, but Apple’s content reviewers are notoriously fickle and inconsistent. Personally, I’d like to see an 18+ option added to their stores, but I do understand why that might not be high on the priority list. (Largely: it would almost certainly massively spike traffic/server loads as people started selling porn via iTunes *and* would come with a lot of “protect the kids” hassles. Basically: internet porn is, ironically, almost all downside for anyone whose core internet business isn’t porn.)

But yes, Apple have opted to be censorious in what they accept into their stores. It is annoying, if understandable, and I wish very much they did it better.

About all I can say is that, to their credit Comixology are not attempting to paint this as an attempt to get round the evil censors. Because it isn’t that, but I can understand why people might be relieved that getting round them is a pleasing side effect.

There is a last argument being advanced, that not having to pay Apple will get the creators a larger cut of the monies, and that’s good. I wouldn’t presume to argue with the idea that paying creators more is good, but Amazon are notoriously bad, over the long term, for publishers and creators, because they employ utterly shitty tactics to drive prices down. I am not convinced that a win for creators today is a net long-term gain.

I just don’t think it’s worth treating one section of your user base worse than another. It offends my professional instincts. And my personal ones, come to that. It is expressly saying “our users are nothing more than profit centres that are to be milked as hard as possible, and who will jump through as many hoops as we demand of them”. It is contemptuous.

And I’m probably not buying comics again in the near future.

Bollocks.

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