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Should Apple Be the Gatekeeper for Magazine Subscription Data?

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Google and Apple last week announced competing online payment systems to allow publishers to charge for content on digital devices. Apple's system is designed to work with the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, while Google announced that its will work with "tablets, smartphones and websites." Presumably most of the tablets and phones will be running Google's Android operating system but it's possible that its system will also work on other mobile platforms.

One difference between the Apple and Google platforms is that Apple will charge publishers 30 percent of the subscription revenue while Google plans to keep only 10 percent. But perhaps a more important distinction is the way the two companies plan to handle customer data.

On its website, Apple said that "customers purchasing a subscription through the App Store will be given the option of providing the publisher with their name, email address and zip code when they subscribe." The key word is option. By default, only Apple will have that information. Google, which in general takes a more open approach to developers, will reportedly pass that information on to publishers.

The issue of access to customer information is important to the publishing industry, according to Nina Link, CEO of MPA -- The Association of Magazine Media. In an interview, she said that "publishers have historically had relationships directly with the consumer and have access to data as they renew them year after year and as they offer them additional products that are targeted to their interests."

Her concern with the Apple model is that "it now becomes Apple's relationship and Apple's data," which she described as "problematic for us."

I can see both sides of this issue. In Apple's defense, there may be times when people don't want a publisher to know who they are, just as they don't want to pass on personally identifiable information to some websites they visit. They might be concerned that the publisher will send them spam or sell their e-mail address, or perhaps they have a reason to not want anyone to know they're reading or viewing that material.

It's not unlike using electronic shopping services where you entrust a company like Apple, Google or Amazon with your credit card information so you can buy from an affiliated merchant without worrying about that merchant getting access to your information.

However, the MPA's Link said instances of magazines misusing customer data are "rare and far between."

I wouldn't have much of a problem with Apple's approach if it weren't for the fact that its IOS devices are a relatively closed ecosystem. Unless you "jailbreak" your IOS device, it's very difficult to load in an app without going through Apple's App Store. And that has given Apple a great deal of control over the apps that run on its platform.

That level of control has allowed Apple to censor apps for a variety of reasons, ranging from duplication of existing apps to its efforts to keep porn and malware from being used on its products. While that latter motivation may seem noble, it's also presumptuous. Steve Jobs has a perfect right to keep legal adult content away from his own devices and those of his minor children, but I don't see why he has a right to decide for the rest of us.

Admittedly, I feel more confident downloading apps from the Apple store than I do from the Android Marketplace because I know that Apple strives to protect users from malicious software. But that's also true for Download.com(owned by CBS, my part-time employer) and other reputable Web-based download services. The problem with Apple's solution is that Apple becomes the gatekeeper for all things consumed on its platform.

I'd have no problem with Apple's approach if it were one of many ways to access content and applications for its devices. It's fine with me that Apple gets to decide what products it carries in its brick and mortar stores, because there are lots of other retailers who sell accessories for Apple products or software to run on its Macintosh computers. But I would have a major problem if Apple were to prohibit people from distributing those products outside its stores.

As we adjust our eyes to the dawn of the mobile information age, I think back to the early days of the PC industry. When Steve Wozniak designed that first Apple II, he ingeniously included slots so that other hardware vendors could enhance his product. And like other PC makers, he and Steve Jobs also made it easy for software developers to write and market their own programs with no encumbrances from Apple. The same is true for Macintosh software. IBM and Microsoft also made no efforts to control developers, and they spawned a multibillion dollar software industry.

Click here for my CNET/CBS News podcast interview with MPA's Nina Link

This article also appears in the San Jose Mercury News and on LarrysWorld.com

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