Kindle Cloud Reader Takes Web Apps to New Heights
Aug 16, 2011 5:00 AM PT
Kindle Cloud Reader, an app from Amazon, is available for free on the Web.
It's been a really long time since I've used a Web app on iOS. Before the App Store was launched, that used to be the only way to use anything resembling third-party software on an iPhone. In Year 1, nobody but Apple could develop directly for iOS ("iPhone OS" back in the day), so the best anyone could do was build a site that fit nicely on a 3.5-inch screen.
Naturally, most of the results were kind of lame, at least when compared to the software app makers can write when they're building native applications. Web apps couldn't use many of the phone's hardware resources or sensors, and they were reliant on having an Internet connection (if not WiFi, then EDGE -- this was before iPhones had 3G).
But Web apps did and still do have at least one important advantage: They don't have to play by Apple's rules. Native apps (the ones that aren't built for jailbroken phones, anyway) must live up to certain standards in order to be allowed to sell in the App Store, and they aren't just technical standards. For one thing, Apple demands security. It's also known for saying it'll reject apps it deems too racy, even though some of the stuff you can get through apps like Netflix, HBO Go and now a new Cinemax app isn't exactly Pixar-esque family entertainment.
Another rule Apple recently began enforcing regards in-app purchases, and this is where things get twisty. Say you're a developer and you've made an app through which the user can buy other stuff -- a game that lets them buy new levels after they complete the first 10, for example, or a newsstand that lets them buy and download individual papers every day. If your app is a native app, Apple would prefer you make those sales through iOS' official in-app purchase channel. Apple will handle the transaction on its end, and it's going to keep 30 percent of the revenues.
For some apps, that makes sense. For others, not so much. And app makers that don't want to use in-app purchases don't have to. They can still have their apps access content the user purchases through some other means, like a website. But if an app rejects Apple's in-app purchase system, that app can't give the user easy, one-touch access to that site.
A perfect example of this is Amazon's Kindle app. It's one of the most popular apps in the App Store, it's free, and it lets users sync up their Kindle book libraries to their Apple devices. Amazon decided it didn't want to give Apple 30 cents on every Kindle dollar it earned from iOS users, so it was forced to eliminate a feature in its native Kindle app that took users directly to the Kindle site on Safari. You can still go to Amazon, buy Kindle books and load them into the native app, but the process is a little less smooth.
Perhaps this rule is the main reason Kindle Cloud Reader exists. Regardless, it's a nearly perfect replacement for the Kindle's native iOS app, and it suggests Web apps might have a bright future on iOS.
Save for Later
Since Kindle Cloud Reader is a Web app, you'll need to access it through Safari on an iPad here. It also works on desktop versions of Safari and Chrome.
Once there, you'll need to sign in using your usual Amazon credentials. After that, your Kindle library is available to read.
One of the first things Cloud Reader will do is something that I wasn't aware Web apps could do at all. Judging by what I thought I knew about Web apps, I expected Kindle Cloud Reader to be virtually useless without a data connection. If you're on a plane or a subway -- or anywhere except home if you have a WiFi-only model -- you won't be able to read anything, or so I thought.
But an early step in Cloud Reader's setup brushes that problem aside. You're guided through an easy process to back up and store book data. Tap any book in your library, and it will "download and pin" the whole thing. A little green pin icon will appear under the book on your library page, and now you can read away while in the air, underground or anywhere else. It'll clear when you do a history/cookies/cache wipe in Settings, so just remember to not do that when you're out of data range.
The Store's Front Door
Of course, Kindle Cloud Reader does have that handy "Kindle Store" icon in the upper right-hand corner. That gives it an advantage over the native Kindle app, which was forced to either dump that button or take a potentially very painful revenue cut. But 99 percent of the time spent on a Kindle app is spent actually reading books, so it's very important to get the page interface right. With Cloud Reader, even though you're technically reading a book on a Web page, it certainly doesn't feel like it.
All the important features are here, and they're presented in a way that makes you think you're looking at a native app. You can skip to the cover, TOC, the beginning of a book, or a specific page. Font size is adjustable, as is page color (black on white, white on black and sepia). There's a sync button to snap yourself back into place when you change Kindle-friendly devices. There's a bookmark option in the corner, and the bottom has a scrubber for flipping through pages.
In fact, aside from the different icon locations, I couldn't find a single substantial difference between reading on Kindle the cloud app and Kindle the native app. The only thing that stood out at all was the fact that turning pages on the Web app is done by tapping the left or right sides of the screen; the next page then appears. In the native app, you swipe, and the page slides with you. But I count that as only a minor aesthetic difference.
If there's a good reason to use the native Kindle app instead of Kindle Cloud Reader, I can't think of it. If there's a reason to go Cloud Reader over native, it's that Kindle Store button in the corner that makes buying new books a step or two easier. All other things being equal, I'll take it.
No doubt certain other companies with well-loved iOS apps share Amazon's distaste for Apple's 30-percent in-app purchase fee. It'll be interesting to see which ones take a similar approach and start building their apps out in the wild Web.