Apple, Time, Inc. Fighting Over Ability To Sell Digital Subscriptions?

Time, Inc. and Apple are going through a rough patch. Time wants to be able to sell digital subscriptions of its properties, including Sports Illustrated, via the iTunes Store, but Apple won’t let that happen. This puts Time in a weird spot: it can either sell its magazines like any company would sell any widget on the iTunes Store (giving Apple complete control in the process), it can negotiate a new situation with Apple so that it can take control of the selling of digital subscriptions, or it can try to strong-arm Apple into getting its way—perhaps by pulling all of its content off the iTunes Store.

It’s strange that it ever came to this. Time and Apple have had a pretty good relationship in the past, so much so that Apple went out of its way to invite Time to develop an iPad App. A sort of, “Hey, we’ve got this thing called the iPad coming out. It’s going to be a hit. You might want to develop an App for it…”

But Time was expecting to be able to sell subscriptions on the iTunes Store like it sells them everywhere else: controlling the transactions, keeping tabs on its readers by maintaining a list of current subscribers, taking it that steady, delicious revenue, etc.

Basically, Time wanted to use the iTunes Store just as it uses the U.S. Postal Service, as nothing more than a means to delivering content to its subscribers.

Apparently Apple was cool with that, at least early on in the relationship. It was prepared to let Time do whatever, if only because it could then say, “Look at all the great Apps we have on the iPad…”

Obviously that changed, and no one knows why. Did Steve Jobs have a change of heart, and if so, why? Does he want to do to the magazine and newspaper industry—which is falling over itself trying to figure out the next play—what he did to the music industry? (Control it, essentially.) Did Apple simply want a bigger cut of Time’s digital revenue?

It’s a mystery, especially when you consider that Apple has deals with News Corp. and Amazon that aren’t too dissimilar from what Time wants.

Time, to its credit, at some point realized the foolishness of hitching its wagon exclusively to the iTunes Store. “We are working with a number of partners and potential partners and hope to offer in-app subscriptions some time later this year,” it says.

Exactly who those “partners and potential partners” are, who knows. The names that come to mind include Amazon (the new Kindle DX would be a fine device for magazine reading, provided you don’t care to see color photographs, which, unfortunately, are a big part of many of Time’s magazine) and Google. Android could easily power some sort of magazine App, but where would you read the App? It’s not like Google has an iPad-like device out there, nor are there phones with large enough screens to make reading a long article worth the trouble.

Tough times to be in the media business, but like an old professor of mine use to say: the ice business (collecting, transporting, and selling) used to be huge—where is it now?