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.