Amazon Brings HTML5 Support to Fire TV

Amazon recently announced full support for publishing HTML5 apps to the Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. Amazon thinks the move will tempt developers to push beyond creating apps for mobile devices and tackle the living room as well. Amazon promises porting the apps will be relatively painless, but there are a few things worth considering before devoting resources to making the jump. 

According to Amazon, developers who have already written HTML5 Web apps for its Fire tablets and Fire phone can push their existing hosted Web apps to its line of Fire TV devices using the same workflow. In order to make this possible, Amazon made some additions to its WebView tools, which are what power Web apps on Amazon's platform. 

For example, developers now have access to Amazon's In App Purchase API via JavaScript, as well as a new starter template optimized for what Amazon calls the "10-foot experience." Developers have to worry about some additional hardware as well. The updated WebView tools offer access to the Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick remotes. Further, they also have access to analog input from the Amazon Fire TV Game Controller. With these basics in hand, Amazon thinks developers should be able to extend their apps from slates to HDTVs without any trouble.

If you're not familiar with WebView, it relies on time-tested standards such as WebGL, GPU-optimized CSS3 Transition and JavaScript code. Amazon goes so far as to suggest that developers should sell their Web apps for Fire TV at a premium alongside their existing library of Amazon apps and games. 

There are a few caveats here. First, Amazon's line of Fire-branded devices runs Android, but Amazon's forked version thereof. There's no access to Google Play Services involved here. The Fire user interface differs significantly from that of native Android hardware. The good news is that Amazon's Fire tablets are relatively popular. They rank in the top five — if not the top three — as far as usage in the United States goes (behind Apple and Samsung). Amazon Prime and its media-streaming benefits are a big reason Fire tablets are popular with consumers. With Prime content, Amazon thinks the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick should be shoo-ins for living room media junkies.

However, Amazon is going head to head with Apple and Google. Apple's Apple TV, Google's Android TV, and Amazon's Fire TV are all similar in that they are small boxes that sit next to your TV and connect to online content. They can be controlled by remotes, smartphones or tablets. All three cost $99. Google's Chromecast and Amazon's Fire TV Stick are small HDMI-based dongles that are controlled through smartphone/tablet apps. They are most often used to steaming device-based content to an HDTV. They both cost less than $40. 

Apple TV isn't a viable target for developers (yet), but it is really popular with consumers. Why? It offers iPhone and iPad owners easy access to their music, movies, photos and more. Apple says the product is a success. Google's Chromecast has found a niche among Android device owners, too, especially since it costs just $35. In fact, Chromecast just surpassed Apple TV in terms of usage in the U.S.

Google's Android TV product is brand new. Its main purpose is to serve as a media hub for Android device owners and their Play Store content, but it runs apps, too. In fact, games and other apps are already for sale via Android TV. Android TV is off to a slow start, but it just went on sale in November. Given the popularity of Android devices in the market, it won't be long before consumers get savvy to Android TV's benefits — and broaden the potential market for developers. 

Bottom line: If you've already invested in creating Web apps for Amazon's Fire tablets and Fire phone, you may as well port those apps to Fire TV. The numbers aren't as impressive as Google's, but they're not bad. If you haven't tackled Amazon's Fire devices at all, well, that's a different story.

Eric Zeman I am a journalist who covers the mobile telecommunications industry. I freelance for ProgrammableWeb and other online properties.

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