Peter Kafka

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Sports Illustrated Gets the Tablet Subscriptions It Wants. Do Tablet Users Want Sports Illustrated Subscriptions?

Why can’t you buy subscriptions to digital magazines on the iPad? Because Apple won’t give publishers what they want: Control of their subscribers’ information.

But Google doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Which is why Time Inc. just showed off a new subscription option that will work on Android tablets and phones.

As I reported yesterday, Time Inc. hopes to power all of its magazine offerings using this platform, so consider the Sports Illustrated offer that kicks off today a preview of the future.

The broad strokes: Consumers download the magazine app from Google, but go to a Time Inc. Web site to enter their billing info and pick out a subscription option. The three main flavors:

• Print/Digital (Samsung Galaxy/Android Smartphone/Web): $48 annually or $4.99/month
• Digital Only: $3.99/month
• Current print customers will get the digital version for free until the end of their subscription.

Google will keep an undisclosed percentage of the transaction, but that money isn’t crucial to Time Warner’s publishing unit. The data is. (For a good overview of why that matters, check out this essay from former Time Inc. SVP John Squires.)

So now Time Inc., at least, gets what it wants. Will that be enough to make tablet users happy?

Time Inc. executives, along with their counterparts at every other big publisher, believe the reason iPad magazines haven’t taken off so far is that they’ve been selling them at print newsstand prices–a single copy of Sports Illustrated’s iPad app goes for $4.99. All of them pay close attention to the reviews they get from iTunes commenters, who are consistent complainers about price.

“It bums us out when we get reviewed as being a shitty application, simply because it costs too much,” SI Editor Terry McDonell said at the publisher’s news conference this morning.

So why not just slash the price? Because Time Inc. and others really want to sell subscriptions, and they want a big price difference between a single copy and a multi-issue commitment. And now they have one: Four issues of Sports Illustrated on Android costs less than a single copy on your iPad.

But it’s also possible that iPad magazines haven’t taken off yet simply because they’re still replicas, more or less, of paper magazines, with a dash of extra video or other multimedia goodies. And that when push comes to shove, print magazine readers may enjoy reading magazines in print magazine form. And that tablet users may be looking for something else altogether, which doesn’t really exist yet.

And now that price isn’t an issue, we get to find out.