Using HTML 5 to mitigate locked-down platforms like Apple iOS

Apple has created a beautiful mobile platform; but it has some drawbacks. One was highlighted yesterday, when Apple rejected an app from Sony for reading and purchasing digital books on the device.

According to Apple’s Trudy Miller, as quoted in the New York Times:

We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app.

What Miller does not spell out is the further implication, which is that the purchase must go though the Apple App Store, and is therefore subject both to approval and to a 30% fee to Apple.

There is a suggestion that Apple is only applying the rule to books at the moment, but that could change. Other readers such as Amazon’s Kindle app will be affected though, after a grace period ending June 30 2011 for existing applications.

Currently these apps have a link which opens the browser, so that users can purchase on the web, and then download to the device, and this is what is annoying Apple. It is not clear to me whether Apple will be satisfied if that link is removed, but with users still to bypass the App Store by purchasing on the web.

It matters little. It is Apple’s platform, and tight control is one of its facets that makes it what it is. Apple can argue that it is enforcing the quality of the user experience. It seems to me that there are competition concerns if Apple comes to dominate a particular market; but don’t hold your breath for change driven by regulators.

What interests me about the issue is the extent to which HTML 5 apps provide a solution. Safari/WebKit on iPhone is a capable platform, and apps can even work offline and have local shortcuts installed. You can use local storage up to at least 5MB, with the user prompted to increase the limit if it is a SQL database – SQLite is built in to the platform.

Local storage is a problem for eReaders, though you can cache a fair amount of text even in 5MB. For many apps though, it is more than enough.

The more Apple locks down and taxes its platform, the more attractive the HTML5 alternative becomes.

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