We last month reported on Kobo's plans to bypass the App Store and release an HTML5 ereader, but online giant Amazon has beaten the Canadian bookseller to the punch. In an attempt to push its ideal of 'buy once, read everywhere', Amazon has unveiled Kindle Cloud Reader.
Amazon's press release states that the new online app "leverages HTML5 and enables customers to read Kindle books instantly using only their web browser, online or offline, with no downloading or installation required". It syncs with your Kindle library and bookmarks, and is currently optimised for Safari on iPad, Safari on desktop and Chrome.
"We are excited to take this leap forward […] and help customers access their library instantly from anywhere," said Dorothy Nicholls, director of Amazon Kindle. "We’ve written the application from the ground up in HTML5, so that customers can also access their content offline directly from their browser. The flexibility of HTML5 allows us to build one application that automatically adapts to the platform you're using, from Chrome to iOS." And in an obvious nod to Apple's increasingly restrictive rules regarding iOS apps, Nicholls added: "To make it easy and seamless to discover new books, we've added an integrated, touch optimised store directly into Cloud Reader, allowing customers one-click access to a vast selection of books."
Native versus web apps
While it's understandable that Amazon's released its new Kindle app, 'freeing' itself from relying on Apple and providing customers who cannot get past the separation of the iOS Kindle reading app and buying books in Safari, not everyone's convinced the HTML5 Cloud Reader is the best way forward.
Developer Matt Gemmell has in the past told .net that he believes HTML5 is "great technology and offers most of what you'd want in terms of interactivity, rendering and so forth," but counters that its platform-agnostic nature means it "doesn't benefit from the many niceties of each platform". Amazon's new app hasn't changed his mind: "The 'control' issue could be a false benefit, in the sense that HTML5 is at the mercy of the browser,” he says. “Safari/WebKit are excellent, but you can't go anywhere near as deep in terms of performance optimisation or graphical and interactive flourishes as you can with native code. That's just a fact of life, and will be a negative point for HTML5 apps on every single platform. It's the old story of the big cost of 'write once, run anywhere': the experience tends to be the lowest common denominator."
Initial testing of Cloud Reader on an iPad seems to bear this out. It's a reasonably impressive effort, especially when run outside of Safari, but it certainly doesn't feel anywhere near as responsive as a native app, and from a usability perspective it pales in comparison to Amazon's native iOS Kindle app. Ironically, if you run the web app from the home screen or Safari on iPad (at least in the UK), you're still kicked into Safari when accessing the store.
Gemmell believes that native apps will win out, at least in the short to medium term, primarily because they're more usable. "The arguments I've seen that are pro-web tend to be technological, and they're maybe mostly true,” he says. “But consumers don't buy based on quickness of updates, newness of technology, or whether their vendor is 'in control' of the development process. Users couldn't care less, particularly non-techie users. They take convenience over some notional ideal of platform-agnosticism any day."