Amazon blazed the trail for eBooks with their Kindle platform, starting with the original Kindle device and the Kindle store. Since then, they’ve broaden their scope, and released native reader apps for almost every platform available: Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, and more. Even still, that didn’t cut it. If there wasn’t a native app for your platform, you simply couldn’t read your Kindle books. Linux and Chromebooks, among others, were out of luck.
That’s all over now. Amazon just released their new Kindle Cloud Reader, a full-featured Kindle web app so you can read your Kindle books right in your browser. It’s got all the features you’d expect, lets you save your books for offline reading, and even works great on the iPad. After the break, we’ve got screenshots and more info about the newest Kindle app, the app that just might be the main future of the Kindle platform.
Kindle’s Latest Platform: The Web
After Google, Amazon is easily one of the biggest players in the world of web apps. They may not make many web apps themselves, other than their new Cloud Player, but their EC2 and S3 cloud services power many of the most popular web apps. Plus, Amazon is the most popular online store, and if you’ve ever purchased anything online, odds are you’ve purchased something from Amazon.
I’ve used Amazon’s Search Inside feature to look at digital copies of books online for years, even using it as a quick way to search through paper books I already own. Now, you can take your normal reading time to the browser, too. Kindle Cloud Reader is easy to find with the memorable address of read.amazon.com, and once you’ve signed in with your Amazon account, you’ll be ready to read all of your Kindle books in moments. Don’t own any Kindle books? You can now purchase eBooks and read them directly in your browser, no app or device required.
The first time you open Cloud Reader, you’ll need to give it a few moments to cache the app. You’ll also need to allow it to store up to 50Mb offline in your browser, which lets you read books offline and load them faster even if you’re connected to the internet. Once you’ve done that, you can browse through your books and read them right from your browser.
Kindle Cloud Reader uses the new HTML5 standard Web SQL database to store your books offline, which only is currently available in recent versions of Safari and Chrome. For now, you won’t be able to read your books in Firefox or IE.
Reading in Cloud Reader is a great experience. All of your highlights, bookmarks, and notes are synced from your other Kindle apps, and the book will automatically open to the last page you read. You can browse through bookmarks and more with the sidebar, or close it to see just your text. Navigate the text with the arrows on the right and left in the app, or with your keyboard arrow keys. Or, if you want to jump to another section, drag the scrubber on the bottom to quickly switch to another position, or open the table of contents from the top menu.
The only problem with the reading experience right now is that you can’t highlight text or add new notes in Cloud Reader. In fact, you can’t select text to look it up in a dictionary, or copy anything from the app. That’s to be expected, of course, to prevent piracy, but it would be nice to have dictionary and highlighting integration just like the normal Kindle apps. For now, though, it’s a start, and a very nice one at that.
Everyone’s not content to read their books in a column of black text on white, so Amazon included their standard Kindle style settings as well. You can pick your font size, decrease or increase the margins, and choose from a white, sepia, or black background. eBooks still aren’t anywhere near as nicely formatted as high quality printed books, but Kindle Cloud Reader is one of the best looking Kindle apps yet. Hopefully, going forward, we’ll continue to see better formatting options for eBooks in apps and the browser.
When you start reading a book in Kindle Cloud Reader, it’ll quickly load the last page you’d read in your other Kindle apps, and then will start downloading the book in the background so you can navigate easier and read your books offline. Alternately, you can click and hold on a book icon in your Kindle library, and select to save it offline. Once you’ve done this, you’ll be able to read your books in your browser anytime, even if you’re in a plane, on a train, or huddled down in the rain (just keep your computer dry). In fact, you can type in the standard read.amazon.com address in your address bar, and it’ll open the app just like you were connected to the internet. Magical.
Reading Online From Your iPad, Too
Kindle Cloud Reader works great from the iPad’s browser too. For now, it’s the only mobile device supported, but I’d imagine they’ll expand it to work on smartphones and Android tablets eventually. On the iPad, you’ll need to first allow Cloud Reader to store offline data as Chrome and Safari, and then Cloud Reader will take a few moments to cache the app offline. Then, tap and hold on any book to pin and save it for offline reading.
Amazon and many other eBook retailers have had trouble with Apple’s recent requirements that they sell books through Apple’s in-app purchases, or they must remove links to purchase books from their apps. So, instead of giving 30% of their revenue to Apple, Amazon opted to remove links to the Kindle Store in their iPad app.
With Cloud Reader, though, Amazon got around Apple’s restrictions. They’ve built in a beautiful tablet interface for the Kindle store, so you can easily find and purchase books right from Safari. Sure, you could use the normal Amazon site from the iPad, but this gives you a really nice way to buy books that looks almost as great as the iBooks store.
But Cloud Reader isn’t just for buying books on the iPad. Dive into your books, and you’ve got the same great interface you’d expect in any other Kindle tablet app. Tap the sides of the pages or swipe to go to the next or previous pages, and tap the center of the page to show or hide the top toolbar. The web app is incredibly responsive, and if you’re running it full-screen, it really doesn’t feel much different from the Kindle app for iPad. If anything, it looks a bit nicer.
Want to read full-screen on the iPad? Save a bookmark for Kindle Cloud Reader to your home screen, and you can read without the top address bar in Safari.
The only problem is, the offline mode doesn’t work perfect. If you’ve already got Cloud Reader open in Safari, and then go offline, you can continue reading your saved books. But if you close the page, you can’t reopen it while you’re offline. The iPad doesn’t support offline web apps fully right now, but it’s half-way there.
Cloud Reader: The App to End All Kindle Apps?
I’ve read Kindle books under a palm tree, in bed, and even bought a Kindle book from a netbook over a tethered cell phone internet connection from the back of a taxi in Bangkok. Funny thing is, I’ve never even owned a Kindle device. Instead, I’ve read Kindle books from the PC and iOS apps. Amazon’s Kindle platform has grown much larger than their devices, and the main reason I’d choose to purchase books from the Kindle store is that I know I can always read them anywhere.
That’s now the case more than ever before. No matter what computing device you have, if you’ve got a browser, you’ve got your Kindle. Amazon doesn’t have to play with the rules on anyone’s App Store, or take the time to code a new app for the latest tablet OS of 2014. Instead, its platform is now the web, and it should just work anywhere.
Right now, Kindle Cloud Reader is a bit picky. It only runs in Chrome in any OS, and Safari on Windows, Mac OS, and iPad. But going forward, Amazon could make it increasingly flexible, and perhaps leave native apps behind. In general, I prefer web apps that also can work great with native apps, so you can use them offline when the ‘net’s down. But with offline storage, this is less of a need.
There’s no way for us to tell right now, but it’s possible that Amazon could switch to focusing on keeping their Kindle web app high quality, and focus less on the native apps. At the very least, they now have that choice. The good thing is, as nice as Kindle Cloud Reader is today, that wouldn’t be such a bad future.