Spotify Bets on Apple Antitrust

Their new paid podcast feature only makes sense in a world where in-app purchase rules are relaxed.

This week Spotify announced that anyone in the US can now offer paid subscription podcasts through their platform. When I heard about this, I thought it was pretty cool! Spotify has a huge audience—365 million monthly listeners–and any feature that reduces the friction for that many people to discover and pay creators for their work is great.

The only problem is, it’s profoundly broken.

On Spotify’s desktop app for Mac, when you try to play a locked episode from a paid podcast, it shows you a blue pop-up that just says “Go to the show notes, or visit the creator’s site for more information.” No link, no button, nothing. The iOS app is even worse. Not only does it lack any sort of clear subscribe button, it doesn’t even tell you to look at the show notes! It just says, “Support the show to unlock access to every episode, plus any extra content,” and then there’s a button that says “Got it.” 

No! We don’t “got it”!!

If you’ve ever developed an iPhone app with in-app payments, you know exactly what’s going on here. The reason this feature is broken has nothing to do with incompetence on Spotify’s part. In fact, I find this design to be sort of hilariously brilliant. Usually when you design a product, the only constraints you need to worry about are your users’ psychology, or the limits of technology and physics. But as any iOS app designer understands, there’s another consideration here that cannot be ignored: Apple’s desires. And in this case, Spotify has done an amazing job evading the spirit of Apple’s policies to better serve podcast creators and listeners, while obeying the letter of Apple’s law.

I like to imagine the app review negotiation went something like this:

Apple: You can’t sell digital content or functionality in apps without using our in-app purchase system, which gives us control over the customer relationship and allows us to take a 30% cut off the top. If you don’t like it, don’t make an iPhone app.

Spotify: Ok, but if people buy subscriptions to our podcasts elsewhere, can they consume it in the app?

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