I went to update the Kobo app on my iPad this morning but stopped when I saw what has changed. The main reason for the update is to cut access  to the Kobo ebookstore from within the reading app. Instead, you have to fire up a separate browser, go to their store and make the purchase outside the app.

It might sound small but in the all-important ease-of-use and promotional stakes, this is a big deal and gives Apple a potentially decisive edge over competitors. It’s a customer-unfriendly move which Apple has forced on Kobo (and a growing number of competitors) to meet its draconian new developer rules.

From 1 July, app developers were required to pay Apple 30% of any sale made via a link inside the app. A commission that high is as much or more than a retailer’s margin. So effectively this means there can only be one in-app ebook retailer now, Apple with its iBookStore, giving it a big ease-of-use boost over its competition.

News is coming through that other apps are now being changed or pulled to meet Apple’s changed terms of service. Google has pulled its app completely from the App Store and Barnes and Noble has updated its Nook for Kids app (but not yet its main Nook app). [Update 3pm: Add txtr and Bluefire to this list].

We’re still waiting to see what happens to Amazon’s Kindle app but, given that large players are now having to buckle to Apple’s rules, it looks increasingly likely that the Kindle’s seamless purchasing experience is going to disappear too. And no sign yet of an update to local Kobo partner apps including Whitcoulls in my part of the world. [Update 26 July: Amazon's app has been modified to remove the link to its store. Google's app is back in the App Store, modified with links removed to comply with the new rules.]

For now, my recommendation is that you should avoid the Kobo app upgrade to preserve the convenience of in-app purchasing for as long as you can. I’ve just tested it, buying a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (highly recommended) through the in-app purchase, so as of 25 July it’s still operating from the old app. Once you update, you’ll have to fire up the Kobo website from a separate browser to buy your ebooks.

Perhaps when Steve Jobs famously said, “the fact is, people don’t read anymore”, he wasn’t referring to what’s happening today, he was thinking about his vision for an Apple-centric future. Who cares if the ebook industry shrinks and people read less when he can sell them a game app instead and take his 30% cut.

One piece of timing I’m pleased about: Last week, I retired my trusty iPod Touch as an ebook reader when I bought a new Android phone.  I guess I’ll be doing the same with my iPad soon.

Footnote: Please, Kobo, use this opportunity to fix up that awful Android app of yours. I can understand that Kindle-like syncing across reading devices is a hard one to implement, but to offer no search facility and, in the Android app, no bookmarks either (!) to help find your place again makes reading across multiple devices almost impossibly time-consuming and difficult. I don’t want to switch to Kindle but this is a killer.

Footnote 2: Here’s a piece from Mike Shatzkin that points out publishers are now operating in an environment over which they have little control, and that Apple’s iBookStore will be the big beneficiary of Apple’s change. I’d make a further point. While much of the loss of sales from Kobo et al won’t actually be lost sales for publishers — it will simply transfer the sale from Kobo etc to Apple — it will be bad for the industry. This is because the market overall benefits from more retail players reaching more customers and finding more ways to expand the market. Don’t expect Apple, which has little financial stake and no emotional stake in the book market, to do what companies like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and, yes, Kobo did – pioneer a new markets for books, almost from scratch.


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