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The Guardian Jilts Old iPhone App in Favor of Subscriptions Model

Subscriptions are possible with Apple–it’s just complicated. For The Guardian, it was worth the shift, for a sustainable revenue stream.

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The Guardian debuts a new version of its iPhone app this week. That might not be newsworthy in itself, but for this: the app will be changing from a one-time purchase to a subscriptions model, powered by Urban Airship, the Oregon-based start-up with expertise in navigating Apple’s byzantine subscription rules. (We reported a few months back on a recent funding round for the company.) With the News Corp.’s iPad Daily having recently been delayed, reportedly because of difficulties with a new subscription service, The Guardian‘s step is a reminder than contrary to popular believe, Apple does allow subscriptions per se–it’s just, well, complicated.

The Guardian launched the first version of its app in late 2009. It wasn’t broken, from a user standpoint–it even nabbed a couple of awards–but The Guardian decided to fix it all the same. It had charged a one-off £2.39 for the app, but as it planned to introduce new features, it appears to have decided it needed a renewable revenue stream. Now, in the UK, it’s charging £2.99 for a six-month subscription and £3.99 for year-long subscription. (In the US, the app is still free.) Those with the existing app can hang onto it for another six months, at which point they’ll need to switch over if they want The Guardian‘s content while mobile.

The Guardian app is different from other apps whose subscriptions are powered by Urban Airship, like Newsweek‘s. Content isn’t downloaded, but rather unlocked, and Urban Airship offers “a simple turnkey user-management layer that sits on top of in-app purchase,” in the words of Urban Airship’s Jessica Davis. “This is where we see the market headed–as it become easier to make feeds ‘unlockable’ to paid subscribers, this is a realistic and viable model for any app.”

Davis sums up The Guardian app story, in an e-mail:

“It’s another data point in the ongoing debate about what ‘Apple does and
does not allow.’ The bottom line is that Apple does ‘allow’
subscriptions, and we provide the software and the server infrastructure
that allows developers to use this revenue model. At this time,
publishers are discouraged because they can’t take their existing
business model to mobile, but we’ll start to see more content providers
leverage the unique qualities offered by mobile (real-time, feedback
loop w/ rich-media push notifications, in-the-pocket access to
customers, etc.) and developing mobile-focused business models.”

So if you have an app and want to shift its revenue to a subscriptions model, don’t be discouraged by reports that such a thing is “impossible.” Says Davis, “The reality is that it’s just ‘hard’ to do those things, and Apple requires the developer to do it themselves.” Apple is a stickler for its own rules, but with a bit of fancy footwork and creativity with in-app purchase, most publishers can currently implement the model they’re looking for.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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