Earlier this month, Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) cost Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) some serious money. Netflix pulled its App Store payment option, which allowed the streaming-TV company to keep more of its own subscriber fees while cutting Apple out of the equation. Netflix's move is part of a growing trend that is costing Apple dearly and, to some observers, suggests that the platform-tax revenue model as a whole may be threatened. But not so fast: There are still reasons to believe that platforms like iOS can act as hubs for subscription apps and make money doing so.
Apple, Amazon, and subscription-hub models
Apple isn't the only company that is leveraging the popularity of an operating system or platform in order to make money off of other services' subscription fees. Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) does this, too. So does Roku (NASDAQ:ROKU), which allows users to subscribe to some apps through their Roku account.
There's a reason that services like Netflix ever let platforms get away with taking chunks of their subscription fees. These platforms create sales: A Roku user with their payment information already recorded can start a free trial with the touch of a button. Netflix cut ties with Apple over high fees -- some estimates pegged the value of Apple's Netflix cut to be as high as $1.4 billion -- but the huge figure there also illustrates just how many users were signing up for Netflix on Apple devices and using their Apple accounts to pay.
For subscription services, major platforms such as Apple's App Store, Amazon's Prime Video, and Roku offer exposure and sales leads.
Netflix, Spotify, and the war on the "Apple tax"
But this model didn't make sense for Netflix anymore, and Netflix cut it. Spotify (NYSE:SPOT) is reportedly considering the same move. Does this signal the death of Apple-like platform taxes and Amazon-like subscription hubs?
Not necessarily. Netflix carefully considered its options before cutting Apple out, and its tests suggested that users would still sign up for Netflix without an iOS device. Spotify may yet come to the same conclusion. But it does not necessarily follow that other services will be able to work this magic. Netflix is much larger than its nearest streaming-video-on-demand (SVOD) competition. It has 139 million subscribers worldwide as of the fourth quarter; Hulu has north of 23 million.
Of course, this doesn't put a billion dollars back in Apple's pocket, but it does suggest that there could still be a market for platform-based subscription payment options -- from smaller streaming services. Let's take a closer look.
Why subscription hubs remain powerful
There are really two types of "platform taxes" to consider. The first is the one that happens on the operating system level: A service with its own app for iOS or Roku might allow users to pay with an Apple or Roku account. The second is when the streaming architecture itself is outsourced as well, as with Amazon Channels, which absorbs entire services into Amazon's own streaming app.
The second type of subscription-tax model seems particularly promising. While huge companies may be moving away from platform-level taxes, smaller services actually seem to be moving toward hubs. Take CuriosityStream, which debuted as a stand-alone app but is now available through Amazon Channels and as part of skinny bundles like Dish's (NASDAQ:DISH) Sling TV. Here, large companies like Amazon can flex their muscles at the streaming infrastructure level.
Apple has an app that could work like this too: Its TV app brings together streams from multiple sources, including paid subscription services that can be signed up for right there in the app. Apple's TV app is well positioned to offer smaller subscription services a good deal on streaming and billing.
The sort of model we see in Amazon Channels and Apple's TV app works well with services that are newer and smaller than Netflix and Spotify. Such a model may well be the future of the subscription hub -- and the subscription tax.
Platforms, subscriptions, and the future
Netflix doesn't need Apple, but plenty of services do need the help of Apple, Amazon, and other giants with muscle in the streaming, platform, and app departments.
In some ways, this is familiar. Cable once transformed the way channels were created. Once, new channels only needed broadcast towers; after cable overtook over-the-air TV, however, new channels had to cut carriage deals with the cable providers that controlled the underground networks that reached their viewers. Someday, platforms like Apple's and Amazon's may control our media selection in much the same way. While Netflix has the power to go directly to its consumers and Disney (NYSE:DIS) has the cash to start fresh with a stand-alone app, the future of smaller streaming subscriptions like CuriosityStream is likely tied up with the future of the subscription and payment hubs run by companies like Apple and Amazon.