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Ebook Wars: The (Amazon) Empire Strikes Back

A page using the new Kindle Cloud Reader on an iPad. Credit: Skip Ferderber

Get out your light sabers: the war between Apple’s iTunes Store and the companies rebelling against Apple’s demands for profit-sharing rules has just heated up.

On Wednesday (Aug. 10), Amazon.com announced the debut of the Kindle Cloud Reader, which allows Kindle book owners to both buy and read their ebooks via online web browsers, and all books are stored in the “cloud” for reading anytime, anywhere.  Books can also be downloaded for offline reading.

The reader so far is only available on Apple Safari and Google Chrome browsers running on PCs and Macs — and, of major importance strategically, on Apple’s iPads via the Safari web browser. 

Other browsers will follow in coming months including Internet Explorer, Firefox, and BlackBerry’s PlayBook according to the press release. A call to Amazon’s PR office regarding the status of Android browsers was not immediately returned.

With the announcement, Seattle-based Amazon effectively bypasses Apple’s recent tough stance on companies directly selling their wares to customers through free apps from the iTunes app store, thus failing to give Apple a significant share of those profits. Apple reportedly now requires a 30 percent commission on all digital content from orders placed from within iOS apps: a commission rate not set when the companies first brought their products on line. 

On July 26, following reported pressure from Apple that it would begin strenuously enforcing its 30 percent commission rate, Amazon and Barnes & Noble announced they were shutting down their in-app sales.  Customers were instead instructed to go to the Internet and buy directly from their respective websites. 

Some have speculated Apple’s policies were meant to make consumers’ content purchases more difficult with these other stores, and make in-app sales through Apple’s own iBookstore a more attractive way to buy.  Apple’s in-app move might even cause some publishers to look more favorably about selling books through the Apple store who to date have been leery about Apple’s cut of the profits.      

Ironically the announcement escalates the battle by turning Apple’s own championing of HTML5 animation — and the blackout of Amazon Flash on iPads and iPhone browsers — into a feature now being used against it.  The Christian Science Monitor characterized it as a “win” for Amazon over Apple.

While books have been available for purchase from the Amazon Kindle website, then subsequently synced with the Kindle app, the new Kindle Cloud Reader is a full-fledged ebook reader within the browser itself. No app installation or downloading is required. Books can be downloaded and read offline — setting up the account on my iPad required me to agree to cache 50 megabytes of storage to store my books for offline reading.

In practice, few changes are evident with the browser version of the reader, based on my tests of the reader on my iPad and a Chrome browser on a PC.  Instead of an app, it’s a browser bookmark. At least in this initial version, there’s no text search nor two-page view.  Kindle apps continue functioning per usual on iOS and Android devices, and Amazon’s syncing process, through an active Internet connection that allows books read on all devices to be updated to the last read page, applies to this reader and all other Kindle apps.

Apple isn’t the only company taking this route; the Financial Times and Kobo Books have already announced development of their own on-line readers in HTML5. 

The bigger picture, however, may be a further demonstration of Amazon’s plans to become your main content provider of books, magazines, newspapers, movies, music, apps, et. al, available on any platform, versus Apple’s similar ambitions but limited to its own equipment.  

Whether Apple has any plans to counter, or even comment, on Amazon’s plans is anyone’s guess.  Since, however, Amazon tablets are more than strongly rumored to be waiting in the wings — some foresee them as the only major effort that might succeed in denting Apple’s market dominance in iPads — any reaction by Apple will be closely watched.

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