Updated 3:50 p.m. PT to reflect Barnes & Noble updating its Nook iOS apps.
Apple has finally brought the hammer down on e-reader apps, enforcing its new in-app subscription rules that require app developers to strip out any links to external mechanisms for purchasing digital books or subscriptions.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Canada-based Kobo have all updated their iOS e-reader apps, with Barnes & Noble temporarily removing its Nook for iPad app from the App Store and sending out a press release late in the afternoon saying it would soon update the app to offer the "interactive magazine experience first available on the Nook Color."
As we, Apple's twice amended its terms for subscriptions in the App Store, which require companies to give Apple a 30 percent cut on sales their apps generate. In the past, e-reading apps Kindle, Nook, and Kobo have avoided paying the cut by sending customers to a Web-based interface outside the app.
When Apple issued its App Store subscription rules last February, it basically made it impossible for e-book sellers to continue operating its apps under the new terms without losing money. Then, in June, Apple softened its stance somewhat but the new terms still required developers to remove links to external mechanisms for purchase (a "buy button," for example).
With the new updates, you can still access your Kindle, Kobo, and Nook libraries from any iOS device and use all the features previously available in those e-reading apps. But you'll have to buy your e-books on the company's respective Web sites, then sync your libraries via the app.
In a statement in its forum, Amazon announced the changes in its typical low-key manner:
We wanted to let you know that we've updated our Kindle app for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. The big change is that you can now use the Kindle app to read over 100 Kindle newspapers and magazines including the Economist, as well as share favorite passages from your reading via Facebook and Twitter. In order to comply with recent policy changes by Apple, we've also removed the "Kindle Store" link from within the app that opened Safari and took you to the Kindle Store. You can still shop as you always have--just open Safari and go to www.amazon.com/kindlestore. If you want, you can bookmark that URL. Your Kindle books will be delivered automatically to your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, just as before.
While the change may not be a huge deal for existing users, when we met with Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis recently in our offices, he said it may present some confusion for new customers.
"Aside from not having any links to an e-bookstore," Serbinis said, "you can't even mention your Web site or explain to readers from within the app how to purchase books and get them onto the device. It's very simple to do, but some people downloading the app for the first time might not figure it out."
Indeed, the new Kindle and Kobo iOS apps are completely devoid of any mention of the company's Web site or how to get e-books onto your iOS device. However, as soon as this reporter signed in to his Kobo account (on an iPad), the library updated to include a new purchase from Kobo's online eBookstore.
It's unclear what would happen if you simply chose not to update the apps and left the links in place. Presumably, Apple could disable the apps with a new update to iOS and it could very easily force you to update your e-reader apps to use them with iOS 5.Another move would simply be to force the developer to remove its app from the App Store altogether, which may have been what happened with the Google Books app, which disappeared from the App Store over the weekend and has now returned without its store links. Separately, The Wall Street Journal announced that it will soon remove all purchasing options from with its iOS apps to comply with Apple's new rules.
When all is said and done, Apple's iBooks will be the only iOS app that will allow you to buy e-books directly from within the app. But at least Apple has allowed e-reading apps from other companies to remain in the App Store. You can choose to see that as a magnanimous gesture--or not.