Kindle Fire promises to burn Android to the ground
September 30th, 2011
Daniel Eran Dilger
Android advocates seem confident that Amazon’s low cost new Kindle Fire will finally breathe some life into the Android tablet market, giving Google a boost after an embarrassing year of tablet failures. They’re wrong, here’s why.
A unique approach in tablets
The Kindle Fire is an interesting product. It’s essentially RIM’s PlayBook, stripped down resource-wise in order to sell at a price that may indeed finally find a substantial market for tablets outside of Apple’s iPad.
Amazon’s approach to tablets is unique in that, firstly, it is targeting a much lower category of functionality at a substantially lower price than the iPad, rather than struggling to match Apple’s two year head start in tablet apps while also working to release the same quality of hardware at a similar price point.
Over the past two years, RIM, HP, Motorola and Samsung have all failed miserably at trying to closely match the iPad rather than creating a significantly differentiated competitor as Amazon has.
Secondly, as a retailer rather than a hardware maker, Amazon is building around a very different business model than Apple or struggling tablet hardware competitors. Amazon is banking on subsidizing the Kindle Fire itself in the hopes that it will turn out to be a proprietary channel for movies, music, books, apps and other content, which is where Amazon makes its money.
A false hope for Android
If the new device takes off and sells in significant quantities this holiday season, pundits will crown it the first successful non-iPad tablet and draw up charts depicting how Apple’s tablet market share is now shrinking below 80-90 percent, much as they scrambled to do last winter when Samsung announced having shipped 2 million Galaxy Tabs (which, coincidentally, is about what you need to populate a global channel even if you don’t actually sell anything).
Ideological advocates of Android are also praying for the day they can change their comparisons of “all-Android smartphones vs. the iPhone” to “all Android devices versus iOS,” finally being able to suggest that Android is good for more than just replacing various Linux/Java/Flash platform alternatives on smartphones with a monoculture.
The Kindle Fire’s use of Android, however, is actually terrible for Android, both in terms of how it will further fragment the platform and in how it burns to the ground the core premise of what Google hoped to deliver as an open source platform of choice and freedom.
Resetting the Android tablet clock to zero
As a vehicle for Amazon content, the Kindle Fire is not any more of an open choice than Apple’s iPad, and as a customized version of the Android 2.2 Froyo release (which Google specifically warned hardware makers not to use in tablets back at the end of 2010), it does nothing to contribute toward the platform strength of Android.
Instead, it will suck all the oxygen out of the already stagnant ecosystem of Android 3.0 Honeycomb and help freeze the embryonic Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich before it can ever gestate a worthy heir to the Android tablet throne, currently occupied by enfeebled, impotent placeholders.
Google had hoped its imminent Android 4.0 ICS release would finally merge the smartphone side of Android (currently running last year’s 2.2 Froyo or 2.3 Gingerbread) with all the work it had put into this year’s 3.0 Honeycomb in trying to make a tablet-optimized platform. The Kindle Fire threatens to reduce the last year of Google’s Android efforts into ashes, in multiple respects.
The Technical Threat
At a technical level, the Kindle Fire will deliver a customized user experience and outdated “Froyo+” APIs for developers, rather than the new APIs and user interface concepts Google invented for Honeycomb tablets.
This will not only splinter Android tablets between the Old World Android (including the 2010 Galaxy Tab, Nook Color and Kindle Fire, each of which is its own fragmented, custom platform) and the New World Android (including the Motorola Xoom and Samsung’s new Galaxy Tabs), but will also drive a wedge between Mainstream Android Products That Sell Without Much Profit (Nook, Kindle Fire, and smartphones) and the Android Ideal (Honeycomb tablets and high end smartphones using the same New World Android APIs that will be included in 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich).
Assuming that the Kindle Fire does find an audience, the market for apps it generates for Amazon will have no reason to take any advantage of the modern 3.0 and 4.0 versions of Android. The Kindle Fire won’t breathe life into Android tablets; it will incinerate them and set itself in their place.
Being able to “fork the code” is a key feature of open source software, but it’s only something that benefits the popular ends of the fork. Just ask KHTML about how popular Apple’s WebKit and Safari made the original open source browser or its code base.
Google’s Android is largely a fork of Linux and a spork (if you will) of Java, and look what Android has done to the popularity of either pure Linux or Java on mobile devices. Oracle wants the courts to look at that.
Sharing your code with competitors not always a tremendous strategy
Amazon is essentially forking Android to create its own closed platform, very similar to what Fusion Garage attempted to do with its own “Android customized beyond recognition” Grid tablet. The difference is that Amazon’s marketing power and business interests as a retailer put it in a strong position to actually release a viable contender.
So in addition to the technical threat to the future direction of Android that the Kindle Fire poses, it also burns down Google’s vision for a business model supporting the development of Android.
And the stronger the Kindle Fire is as a product, the more damage it will do to Google’s vision of Android. Google talks about openness and freedom but the real reason it began work on Android was to create a platform it could use to deliver its ads and services (in the context of Microsoft’s once-credible threat to take over mobile devices and potentially bar Google access to the important mobile market).
But Amazon doesn’t care about Google’s needs to display ads. In fact, Amazon has its own competing ad platform it hopes to use to muscle into Google’s aspiring mobile ads business. Amazon cares as much about Google as China’s Baidu cares about Google, which is to say, a value in the negative.
It’s therefore no surprise to see both Baidu and Amazon doing things with Android that not only do not help Google to establish Android as the search giant wishes to, but actually undermine its efforts by introducing fractures and erecting proprietary barriers within the platform while erasing Google’s own middleware from the software.
Who’s Zuning whom?
Amazon’s Kindle Fire is therefore similar to Microsoft’s Zune among PlaysForSure players, except that instead of being guaranteed to kill the open end of the platform (as the Zune did, being released by the platform’s owner), it only threatens to do a lot of damage if it is successful enough to inhale all the mindshare and sales of Android tablets (of which there is precious little).
Unfortunately for Google, the Amazon Kindle Fire already appears to be doing just that. Even if Amazon begins selling the new tablet in moderate volumes of around 2-5 million per quarter, it will dilute the Android 3.0/4.0 tablet market into complete irrelevance, giving developers zero incentive to do anything optimized for Google’s vision of Android’s future.
Instead, as described above, Android developers will be motivated only to make tablet apps specific to Amazon’s tablet, which means Froyo+ apps with all the tablet-optimization of a Galaxy Tab or Nook Color. Which is another way of saying that Android tablet apps will remain forced into the position they currently already are: slightly oversized versions of smartphone apps, and tied to a platform now over a year old.
If you want to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the Nook Color, and apparently even RIM’s non-Android PlayBook will offer ways to create and deploy Froyo+ apps via B&N, RIM, and Amazon, apps that also work (with minor modifications) on today’s Android smartphones.
But if you want to run sophisticated tablet apps, or if you want to develop them for tablet users, Amazon’s Kindle Fire will ensure that there’s only one way to do that: Apple’s iOS iPad. That’s because the Kindle Fire will destroy Google’s ability to enhance, extend and improve Android on tablet hardware, effectively substituting Google’s ambitious plans with Amazon’s rather pedestrian goals of delivering a movie playing, basic app running ebook reader that technically “runs” Android while it figuratively runs it into the ground.