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Time Inc. breaks the iPad logjam

This week's People app is free to subscribers. Time, SI and Fortune are expected to follow

There's more to the iPad issue of People that appeared on the Apple (aapl) App Store this morning than Sandra Bullock's new joy.

This People app may also signal the end of a four-and-a-half-month impasse that put the digital dreams of every major magazine publisher on hold.

Until now, the iPad versions of People, Time, Sports Illustrated and Fortune have cost the same as the newsstand price -- $3.99 for each issue of People, $4.99 to $5.99 each for the rest -- even if you were already paying to get the paper edition in the mail.

That changed with this week's People iPad app, which is, for the first time, free to People subscribers. Fortune and the rest of Time Inc.'s (twx) flagship magazines are expected to adopt the same pricing structure within the next 30 days, according to a source close to the project who spoke off the record.

On the record, Time Inc. spokesperson Dawn Bridges is more cautious: "We are looking at various subscription opportunities for all of our titles," she says

But now that Apple has made it possible for one title, other magazines will want to follow suit.

It's not clear what took so long. Publishers who were encouraged to build iPad apps by Steve Jobs himself say were ready from the start to make them free to subscribers. Until now, however, Apple would neither give them the tools they needed, nor explain what was holding them up. The publishers still can't sell subscriptions through the App Store, which is how they would prefer to do it.

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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