While Apple’s penchant for secrecy contributes to its mystique, it is also responsible for a kind of 21st century Kremlinology where every one of Steve Jobs’ words is carefully analyzed for hidden meanings. At times, Jobs will bypass the regular PR channels and respond to email himself. Generally, these emails clear the air when there is some confusion and with regards to Apple’s new in-app subscription program, there seems to be plenty of that going around. Just a few days ago, Apple denied an iPhone app from time-shifted reading service Readability because it offered a third-party subscription service without offering Apple’s own service at the same time – a restriction of Apple’s in-app subscription program that ensures that Apple will get a 30% cut of all subscriptions.

This was the first real test of how Apple would react to an app that wasn’t a magazine, newspaper or music service with a subscription feature. The app, of course, was quickly denied for violating Apple’s guidelines. Indeed, as John Gruber points out, it’s hard to argue that Readability does not offer a publishing service (Gruber argues that “Readability needs Apple to publish an app in the App Store. Apple doesn’t need Readability.”)

Steve & Apple Inc.
Image by marcopako  via Flickr

After this episode, a curious developer asked Steve Jobs to clarify the rules, to which Jobs replied:

“We created subscriptions for publishing apps, not SaaS apps.”

That, of course, is great to hear, but as TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld rightly asks, what exactly is Jobs’ definition of a “publishing app?” Schonfeld also notes that Apple’s own guidelines currently say any app that offers subscriptions for “content, functionality, or services in an app” must offer users the ability to subscribe through Apple’s own system. But these new rules – if indeed they are new rules – leave it unclear where exactly the boundary between publishing and other apps is. Does publishing only refer to text-heavy apps? What about music apps? Photo services? Do Netflix, MOG, Rdio meet Apple’s definition of a publisher? Does Flipboard? Is an app that is essentially just a gateway to content a “publishing app”?

As I said last week, I think Apple’s in-app subscription rules go a few steps too far. I hope today’s email from Jobs is a sign that Apple is reconsidering its rules and plans to loosen its restrictions.