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Summary:

Amazon’s new browser-based version of its Kindle e-book app is designed to get around Apple’s restrictions on in-app purchasing, but it is also a great example of how media companies should be looking beyond the world of apps to the future of the browser-based web.

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Amazon has released a browser-based version of its Kindle e-book app, called the Kindle Cloud Reader, in what appears to be an attempt to detour around Apple’s in-app purchasing requirements. But what the e-book retailer has also done is provide a great example of how media companies should be looking beyond the world of apps to the future of the web: one in which websites behave like apps, thanks to the magic of HTML5, and publishers can get the benefits of both without having to sell their souls to one app-store provider after another.

As Darrell notes in his review, the Kindle app mimics the native Kindle app for the iPad in almost every way (although it lacks some features such as the ability to create new notes or highlight passages). In my own use of the Cloud Reader, the one thing I noticed most of all was how fast it was at rendering pages. One of the complaints some have about browser-based apps is that they can be slow, but the Kindle app doesn’t suffer from this problem. The app also allows you to download books so they are available when you don’t have an Internet connection.

An app-based store without Apple

But the most important part of the app, at least from Amazon’s perspective, is the built-in access to the Kindle store: Clicking on a button takes you to a special version of the store optimized for the iPad’s touch interface. As Darrell explains, this allows Amazon to make it easy for users to buy books without having to go through Apple, which recently changed the terms of its license to require that retailers funnel purchases through their apps, and thus give Apple a 30-percent cut of any sale.

Amazon isn’t the first to do an end-run around Apple with an HTML5-based browser app: the Financial Times recently came out with a similar web-based, app-style version of the paper, which mimics the native iPad application, and Fortune  magazine has also experimented with an HTML5 version of one of its targeted publications. A German design firm has even come out with a browser-based prototype of an entire magazine called Aside, in part to show the ability of HTML5 to recreate the look and feel of a native app.

Another startup we have written about before, OnSwipe, is making a bid to capitalize on a web-based future for media companies: Jason Baptiste, co-founder and CEO of the company — which recently closed a $5-million Series A round of financing from a venture-capital group including Lightbank, Betaworks and Lerer Ventures — says his pitch to content publishers is that “apps are bull****,” in part because they prevent media companies from taking full advantage of the web.

Most media apps are still walled gardens

The OnSwipe founder has a point. Most apps from traditional media companies — including those from the New York Times, Wired and other publications — try hard to mimic the website version of the newspaper or magazine they are based on, but do little to take advantage of actually being part of the internet. Although some such apps offer live updates, and allow articles to be shared on Twitter or Facebook, other things are missing — including any links to web-based content outside the walled garden of that particular app, as well as reader comments, and so on.

There are other benefits to having an HTML5 browser-based app as well, as the creator of the Financial Times‘ new web version noted in an interview: A main one is that publishers don’t have to create multiple apps for different platforms such as the iPhone/iPad, Android devices, the RIM Playbook, etc. One browser-based app, done properly, is available to anyone regardless of which device they use — and it doesn’t have to go through an often torturous and opaque review process before it becomes available.

One of the most appealing things about browser-based apps, however, isn’t just that they allow publishers to get out of the clutches of Apple; it’s that they fulfill the original promise of the web, which was the ability for anyone with a browser to get access to any content regardless of what operating system or platform they were using. The web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, wrote a long essay earlier this year about his fear that walled gardens created by Apple and Facebook were taking over from the web, saying that if the process went unchecked:

[W]e could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want [and] the ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.

Browser-based apps are not the solution for every company, of course. While games like Angry Birds can be recreated fairly well with HTML5, there are some things that only native apps can do: such as including support for using the iPad’s camera, or the accelerometer that allows an app to behave differently if the device is tilted. But for content publishers such as newspapers and magazines, the ability to produce an app-like experience while maintaining control over the purchasing process should be a powerful incentive to take a cue from Amazon and start thinking about HTML5.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rego Korosi

  1. I have both the FT and the Wired apps on my ipad, and although the FT app is good, I like the Wired one better. It is more like a magazine (and nothing like their website), and it looks great. I hope Conde Nast charges more for ads on the ipad magazine than in the print version, for they will stay on my device for as long as I keep the article there. That is far better than a web ad, and even better than a print ad.

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    1. The Wired app is great, except that it is a huge download, and it is nothing like reading something that is on the internet — which to me is a detraction. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Cullen Scannell Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Tilting can trigger actions in mobile Safari. iOS 4.2 included accelerometer and gyroscope support.

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    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Cullen.

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    2. what about access to the GPS chip – any idea whether than can only be done via app, or is it possible thru iOS 4.2? thanks!

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      1. Location data is available in Mobile Safari as well.

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  3. When the iPhone originally launched, Steve Jobs said “The browser is the development platform!” (or words to that effect) and everyone went “Phfft. We want a proper SDK!”. So Apple gave them an SDK and the App Store and everyone went “Too restrictive! We’re going to develop in the browser…”

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Aidan — are you saying the only reason Apple came up with an app store was to appease developers?

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      1. Not the only reason (and I admit I was being glib) but there was a lot of negative reaction to Apple’s position on third party development when the original iPhone launched. The main reason Safari was ported to Windows was so that Windows users could develop for the iPhone. That didn’t quite work out as planned, maybe because HTML5 wasn’t quite there yet, or maybe because of developer ambivalence. Whether Apple planned the native SDK all along will only ever be known to a select group of Apple executives.

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  4. The problem that is missing in the above: doing a stand-alone HTML5 app can work for a player like FT and others who have a network (essentially their own marketplace) to begin with. As a small publisher, I now sell more Kindle copies for some titles than print copies. If those titles were stand alone web apps, I don’t think I would be able to sell at that level. Will someone create a marketplace for HTML5 reading content, making them discoverable by potential readers, supporting and developing the platform, and *not* charge a royalty?

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    1. I’m not sure if you are aware but Kindle books ARE standalone HTML “apps”. Its easy to overlook this fact if you are using publishing software tailored to creating mobi/kindle books. I’ve noticed most tools hide that fact behind word processors and hand waving. But ultimately all your content is distilled down to a compressed package of HTML and assets. It would take Amazon very little effort to expand the current Kindle file format to integrate with the new HTML5-based Cloud reader. In fact, I’m not certain it would require any extra effort aside from documentation telling publishers how to do it.

      Hosting your content within HTML5 websites under your own control and foregoing Kindle altogether… That, I suspect, would cost more than royalties for those with a small following. Because then you’re having to do your own web hosting, web design, web app development, advertising, etc. Not to mention that Kindle publisher accounts have access to an impressive array of free and discounted publishing resources and services. Nevermind the huge advertising benefit of being in the Kindle book store itself. And you have the option to offer printed copies of your books, with the added effort of reformatting for print, through Amazon proper.

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  5. Apple’s policy around the in-app purchasing requirements is skewed towards the independent content creator rather than aggregators. The idea is ‘if we bring the eyeballs to your product, then we get the 30%’. That’s a really good deal in comparison to almost every old content business model — magazine, comic, and book publishing and the old mobile app distribution model all required a large tribute to intermediaries. Even shrinkwrap software sales had a model where the content producer saw very little of the sales price (retailer gets half, distributor gets most of the remaining half.)

    Amazon, however, is not just another publisher or aggregator. They have the ability to attract eyeballs all on their own, and don’t really need Apple.
    They also have the resources to deploy a high-quality HTML5-based app, so this is a very reasonable way for them to reach customers and provide a seamless buying experience. If this app takes advantage of Safari’s HTML5 offline storage, it lacks very little in comparison to the native app.

    Also, avoiding the fragmentation issue altogether and providing an experience that supports all flavors of tablets is a great move for them.

    What remains to be seen is whether the rumored Kindle Tablet will use this same HTML5 app, or provide a native app. Since several of Amazon’s iOS apps seem to be wrapped around HTML5 anyway, it may end up being both.

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  6. I also want to point out that Amazon’s HTML5 app helps maintain their walled garden approach — if your DRM’d book files basically exist on Amazon’s cloud, the question of cracking and sharing the files goes away. Make no mistake, this is as much (if not more) a land grab as Apple’s IAP policy.

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    1. That’s a great point, Mike.

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  7. So what is the ultimate benefit of a native app? You get control of core device functionality. The other benefit is local storage. But as Amazon’s Kindle Cloud demonstrates, an HTML 5 app taking advantage of the web kit’s connectivity to such things as the device’s storage (that’s how it stores cookies), provides that as well. I would propose that it will only take a smart developer to create a piece of middleware that is provided through the traditional app store (in Amazon’s case, call it “whispersync”) that bridges the web kit with the native device APIs. Once that happens, web apps will be able to get access to some of the device’s core functionality. This is a real game changer for mobile apps in general but, especially, Apple.

    http://blog.jasonthibeault.com/index.php/2011/08/10/review-hands-on-with-amazons-kindle-cloud/

    http://blog.jasonthibeault.com/index.php/2011/08/10/a-sign-of-things-to-come-for-mobile-apps-apples-appstore/

    j

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  8. HTML5 is no brainer, but it needs more love from standards perspective. HTML5 stuff which works well on PC doesnt work on ipad without doing custom stuff.

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  9. How do I read the books when I don’t have internet connection? That’s a great idea segment yourself to people who can afford internet connection at the beach or train.

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  10. There is a product called Phone Gap that lets you integrate HTML5 with lower level device functions like GPS and Contacts, etc via javascript that calls backend code. It also works on android and other mobile platforms. I just evaluated it for work.

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