When Apple took its heavy-handed action against retailers last month, stopping them selling from within iPad and iPhone apps, those retailers were inevitably going to search for ways to avoid this happening in future. Any business would want to know that its very existence wasn’t subject to the changing whims of Apple management.
It turns out that Amazon wasn’t just thinking about its vulnerability, it was well on its way to removing it. We’ve seen a first shot today with its launch of the Kindle Cloud Reader, a so-called web app for ebook reading.
Web apps can circumvent Apple’s App Store rules since they are actually applications that run on the internet (often with offline operation too) and are built using open internet technologies. They bypass both Apple’s proprietary programs and its App Store.
Kobo was quick to announce last month it planned to take this route albeit with an unspecified delivery date. This is understandable since it’s not a trivial development task to build an app with the level of usability demanded of an ebook reading app. The problem is that key technologies, especially the new HTML5, are still in their infancy and don’t yet match native apps for performance and usability.
Even Google fell at the last hurdle, releasing native ebook reading apps for Apple and Android platforms last year rather than HTML5 web apps for its Google Ebooks system. Google had been a vocal proponent of the web app and cloud reading approach in its build-up to the launch of Google Editions/Ebooks so their absence was a surprise and pointed to how technically challenging this route remains as these technologies still mature.
All of which makes what Amazon has just done especially impressive.
The Kindle Cloud Reader is an ebook reader app built using HTML5 and web technologies that looks and works just like the native ebook reading apps. And, of course, inside it is a link to the Kindle store so you can shop from within the app. The reader works both online and offline when there’s no internet connection available.
I’ve been playing with it this morning and it’s impressive. It’s hard to know exactly how impressive until I have time to curl up with a book or three and read for lengthy periods but my guess is that it’s going to be at least 95% as good as the current Kindle app, the benchmark for ebook reading apps in my opinion.
Most of the obvious differences from the native Kindle app relate to the slightly slower speed initially downloading an ebook and occasional pauses of a second or so in page turning. But most of the time, it’s quick, it’s very responsive, and it preserves the senstivity that the Kindle app has which makes a light tap or tiny swipe all you need to instantly turn pages. And it emulates the bookmarking, fonts, page sync and many other features of the native iPad app.
One missing feature is the way the Kindle reader switches from a single page view to a two facing pages when you switch to landscape mode. I couldn’t see this feature and, while nice, it’s not a deal breaker and will no doubt be added to a future version, as will search capability hopefully.
In its first release, you’ll need either a Google Chrome browser or the Safari browser on a PC/Mac, or an iPad’s Safari browser (all of these broswers use the WebKit engine). No iPhone version is available yet and future support for other broswers, such as Firefox and Internet Explorer, is promised.
By putting out a first class web app, Amazon is almost certain to energise the whole move to this approach and away from native apps. While essential for some applications, native apps are an expensive route to take and become even more challenging with the demand to support multiple platforms. Developers like web apps because they promise a single app (with minor variations) that covers all platforms — as well as release from the tyranny and whim of Apple.