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Steve Jobs clarifies 'Subscription Gate' confusion with more confusion

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The increasingly convoluted morass of Apple's latest App Store Guidelines – notably whether software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps are now verboten in the sacred store – has prompted what may be a response from Steve Jobs himself.

"We created subscriptions for publishing apps, not SaaS apps. Sent from my iPhone," is how Jobs reportedly responded to an email requesting clarification of Apple's guidelines for iOS apps that offer subscriptions for SaaS apps.

Well, that's what a certain unnamed MacRumors reader claims – you can find that reader's full email to Jobs in MacRumors's report.

As with all of Jobs' purported email message, however – including his famous "Not that big of a deal" missive – there's no way to know whether the message is actually from The Man himself.

One MacRumors commenter, dcranston, is skeptical: "This Steve email strikes me as a fake," he writes. "It just doesn't seem likely Steve would use 'SaaS' in a sentence, particularly with that capitalization, and on an iPhone to boot (that tries to correct 'saas' to 'aaas')."

SaaS or aaas notwithstanding, what Box.net's chief executive and co-founder Aaron Levie dubbed "Subscription-Gate" in a post on his company blog is riling iOS developers.

As The Reg reported on Monday, developer Rich Ziade released an open letter to Apple after Cupertino's App Store police rejected his iOS app, Readability, which cleans web pages of their ads and animations, leaving only more-readable text.

What was particularly galling to Ziade was that Apple had lifted the open source page-cleaning code that Readability's parent, Arc90 Labs had developed, and baked it into the Mac version of Safari last Summer.

If you consider Readability a publisher, Apple's rejection makes sense – Cupertino's guidelines say that apps that offer content subscriptions must include an in-app purchasing (IAP) offer, from which Apple gets a 30 per cent cut. Readability's subscription fee is $5 per month, and their submitted iOS app didn't offer IAP.

But is Readability truly a publisher, or is it a service that simply allows you to choose to clean up a web page – one that you choose, not one that Readability publishes – for easier reading? If it's the latter, it can be argued that it's a SaaS app – and Steve Jobs may or may not have said that SaaS apps are okay.

Another iOS developer, Chris Leydon of social networking screenshot-sharer TinyGrab of the UK, has also weighed in on the controversy. "I'm sad to say that as of today we can no longer provide development support to iOS, officially, through the app store," he writes in a blog post that details how Apple's new restrictions make it impossible for his account-based service app to be included in the App Store. "Until Apple loosen up on their restrictions we're ceasing all active development on TinyGrab for iPhone."

Readability's Ziade had said of Apple's restriction: "We believe that [Apple's] new policy smacks of greed." Leydon also uses the g-word: "Apple’s new greedy model doesn’t just affect the developers of applications, it also has a horrible adverse effect on end users."

The SaaS-or-no-SaaS conundrum has other developers in a bind, as well – think of the companies that create iOS apps such as Dropbox, Evernote, Salesforce, and Box.net, for example. If the purported Jobsian email is real, perhaps they have nothing to worry about. If not, section 11.2 of the App Store Review Guidelines, as quoted by Ziade, may give them pause: "Apps utilizing a system other than the In App Purchase API (IAP) to purchase content, functionality, or services in an app will be rejected."

"Services" sounds quite a bit like, well, "service" – such as in Software-as-a...

Box.net's Levie talked about some of the aspects of the subscription restrictions in his blog post. After suggesting that IAPs make it comfortably easy for publishers to sell subscriptions, he adds: "That said, Apple rolled this out the wrong way. Apple has been unclear, as far as I can tell, about the who, what, when, and why of this move."

Levie – and the rest of the iOS ecosystem – want some clarity from Apple about what will and will not be kosher in the iOS App Store. "This could have a dramatic effect on our development process, the next rev of our product, and more," he writes.

One possibly real or possibly fake email from Steve Jobs is not sufficient evidence upon which to build a business plan. And Apple, as is their time-honored tradition, did not respond to our request for clarification. ®

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