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Kindle Fire promises to burn Android to the ground

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.
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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.

17 comments

1 NebulaClash { 09.30.11 at 10:46 am }

I don’t know about burning Android to the ground (Google is determined and has resources), but I had similar reactions to the Fire:

1. It’s going to be very successful — it’s a Kindle!

2. App creators will flock to it — finally, they’ll think, an Android audience who will pay for apps!

3. This will split the audience of app devs because…

4. This ain’t your daddy’s Android. This is Android in name only — except for the geeks who will root it, but they are a tiny minority. The Fire has none of Android’s touted benefits of freedom and openness. Amazon will be like Apple, and we know how geeks hate them some Apple, but watch them fall over backwards to praise Amazon for doing the same thing.

2 lmasanti { 09.30.11 at 10:52 am }

Reading AppleInsider over “Amazon looking to buy webOS” adds a new twist to this history.

Personally, I think that after the “2000′s internet bubble” we’ll remember the “2010′s Android bubble.” In neither case, there will be anything left… just remembrances!

3 spuy767 { 09.30.11 at 1:57 pm }

I think that Dilger brings up a very solid point here. By opting to build their tablet on an older version of Android, Amazon has effectively hamstrung future attempts by Google to optimize their OS for tablets. Android devs will finally have a method to deploy apps that can actually make money, and Google will be left holding the ball after everyone has gone to play somewhere else.

4 John E { 09.30.11 at 4:13 pm }

yup, DED, you’re on the right track. Amazon could be a mortal threat to Google – like Apple never was.

suppose Amazon bought Yahoo? they could, and they could do a lot with it.

Google is now reaping what it sowed.

5 TS { 09.30.11 at 5:35 pm }

As usual, excellent insight.. In my humble opinion, I think it’s the reason why Apple has yet to release FaceTime as an open-source.. I think the state of WebKit may have made them a lot more cautious now.

6 The Mad Hatter { 09.30.11 at 6:49 pm }

Of course that assumes that it sells. AMD’s blog thinks it might not. Of course AMD might just want to sell more chips…

Wayne

7 Bernard SG { 09.30.11 at 7:58 pm }

There’s NO WAY Amazon can buy Yahoo. AMZN is financially on life support.

8 kdaeseok { 10.01.11 at 12:49 pm }

Kindle Fire looks good, but I’m more interested in the new Kindle, lighter and cheaper. Might need to ask someone in the US to buy me one.

9 gctwnl { 10.02.11 at 8:30 am }

Good points overall.

However, suppose Amazon creates a market for this. They might release a software update later to turn that market in a ‘New Android’ later. A bit like Apple moving from OS 9 to OS X. A lot of effort for the developers, but if they have already heavily invested, there will be momentum to migrate.

Amazon having gone for Android-fork also means one potential buyer less for WebOS. Who will buy that? Samsung? Intel? Sony?

10 StrictNon-Conformist { 10.02.11 at 11:10 am }

@Bernard SG:

Amazon on financial life support? That’s a funny statement with no basis in facts! Do they earn as much margin as Apple? No, but then again, very few companies are nearly that profitable. Are they losing money? No, they’re still making money. Are they still growing? Yes, they’re still growing, but let’s face it, they’re a margin business along the lines of grocery stores: they pinch the pennies out of a dollar, and have comparable profit margins after expenses. However, that does NOT mean they’re on “financial life support” and indeed, they’re self-sustaining. Amazon is in the process of expansion, and has been for awhile: they’re moving to larger digs in Seattle, because they need them. Now, I have no problem seeing their absurd P/E and wondering how people can assess that Amazon has such long-term growth in a reasonable amount of time: their stock price is over-valued, I think, unless they overtake Wal-Mart, but at some point, you start reaching the problem of Large Numbers because there’s only so much you can grow on a finite planet’s scale. That, and you can’t feasibly ship everything you could sell online through regular delivery means in individual quantities ;) (remember the dot com business selling pet foot online? Imagine shipping a large bag of dog food and trying to be profitable doing THAT!)

Perhaps Amazon will stop expanding their technical and non-warehouse personnel staff soon, and thus cut their moving expenses and ratio of rental expenses down related to their income: I can’t help but think that will improve their margins if they do that.

One thing Amazon needs to fear from their practices: taking shortcuts may very well cost them more than they can recover should they earn a bad enough reputation for screwing things up due to cheaping out on their testing and development practices. How they do things is very uneven, and they rely on humans as backup measures for when stuff hits the fan far more than they should need to: if anyone can somehow come along and convince investors they can do a tighter job and achieve scale and respect from merchants and would-be customers, Amazon could be in trouble. If Amazon has a serious breach of customer/merchant trust due to some major screwup that affects enough people and their livelihoods and it is sufficiently public, they may be in trouble.

How do I know how they do things? I worked a 9 month contract there and observed how they did things in one of their many moving parts that deals with processing merchant feeds, etc. and… I’m not convinced I’d want to work their long-term with how they do things. It was the best rate I’ve earned in terms of rate, but it was stupid needless stress that I’d not had other places, either, because other places I’ve worked did things in a more sane way. I’m also aware that there’s not consistency between groups in how they do things: Amazon is like a mall of small vertical stores, all doing things under the same larger roof, but doing things their way, with only a few commonalities in how they do things, but I’m guessing a lot of large companies have that situation…

11 StrictNon-Conformist { 10.02.11 at 11:13 am }

@Berenard SG:

I forgot one more thing: Amazon could theoretically buy Yahoo! (I’ve worked there in the past, too…) if they used their overpriced stock as payment, but I’m sincerely hoping those that decide such things at Yahoo! wouldn’t take such a payment in overvalued stock… but as to cash, Amazon doesn’t have that huge of a cash hoard like Apple does, and going into debt to buy Yahoo! would be a fool’s errand.

12 beanie { 10.03.11 at 12:01 am }

Others say Kindle Fire is using Gingerbread (Android 2.3) not Froyo (Android 2.2). Also, Daniel’s scenario seems unlikely. Why would Kindle Fire stick with an old version of Android when apps in Amazon App Store start to upgrade to “ice cream sandwich”?

13 duckie { 10.03.11 at 3:56 am }

Amazon don’t seem to have much of a clue what their approach will be for apps and what will or won’t work. From a PCWorld (I know I know) piece at http://www.pcworld.com/article/240801/amazon_kindle_fire_first_impressions_solid_but_limited.html :

“Apps for the device will come from the Amazon Appstore, but Amazon stocks a fraction of the total number of Android apps available now–just 10,000 of the 200,000 in the Android Market. Still another issue beyond the comparatively limited app selection: Amazon again gave mixed answers regarding compatibility between the Kindle Fire and the greater universe of Android apps. One spokesperson said that apps that called for features that aren’t on the tablet (such as a camera) wouldn’t work; another said outright that the company would be curating apps; and still another, when asked about app compatibility, mentioned that apps would have to be qualified to work, and that some might not work with the Kindle Fire. Furthermore, when asked about the coming Google Android Ice Cream Sandwich operating system, and how apps designed for it or Honeycomb will work on the Kindle Fire, the Amazon rep couldn’t field an answer beyond noting that if Ice Cream Sandwich requires Amazon to do something to maintain compatibility, “we’ll do our best” to do so.”

14 relativity { 10.05.11 at 3:04 pm }

I don’t think the scenario that Dan is playing out will ever happen with Android. Its the law of Conservation of Momentum, after all.

The Kindle Fire and Android will continue to be successful because:
1. It is a Kindle first and foremost – nary a mention of Andriod by Jeff Bezos during the introduction.
2. It is priced Just Right (and Amazon can trademark that!) at a mere fraction of the cheapest iPad!!!
3. It is a clone of the Playbook hardware – meaning quality is good but not iPad good. What do you expect at $199? Gold trims? Well…ummm…
4. Its “middleware” is replaced with Amazon-specific services not Google’s but this won’t bust Android’s momentum. This is what makes its price point possible.
5. Amazon’s middleware will not fork Android. Far from it. Who’s to prevent Amazon from coming out with next year’s Fire with Ice Cream Sandwich or, fingers crossed, webOS??? Amazon can easily tie in its “services” to any underlying platform unnoticed to a Kindle consumer.

So, I do not expect Dan’s vision of Android burning to come to fruition due to the Kindle Fire. In all due respect it might even push the Android platform even faster now that Apple announced an iPhone 4 “only” upgrade.

I can now expect to look seriously into the upcoming curved screen Nexus Prime with ICS preloaded instead of lining up for the phantom iPhone 5 with 4in screen.

15 Nine Yarder { 10.08.11 at 6:58 am }

Dan, look for the killer app. Amazon can develop a shopping app that is uniquely designed for their tablet and their tablet alone, which won’t run on other tablets. Perhaps it will incorporate specific features for product reviews or social aspects. If you want to have the ideal Amazon shopping experience, you would put down your iPad and pick up your Fire to do your shopping, and maybe eventually you would use the Fire in preference to the iPad for general web browsing and mail too.

[That's all fine and good but: why would Amazon promote its Fire over the iPad, given that it currently makes more selling the iPad than its loss-leader Fire?

Amazon could create a proprietary experience that leverages its attractive store to sell its other content, but as I point out above, this would be primarily at the detriment of Android as a platform, not iPad.

Amazon wants to kill Nook (which it does not profit from), far more than it wants to kill the iPad (which it does). Google didn't pull Maps and AdMob from iOS. Similarly, Amazon would be stupid to make its store, music and videos unavailable or any less attractive to iOS users.

Additionally, while some people might find the Fire acceptable for web browsing, nobody is going to prefer it to the far faster and more sophisticated IPad.

If Amazon wants to take on Apple, it might eventually be able to release an iPad competitor, but the Fire is not anywhere in the same league. It's like comparing a moped with an SUV. There are certainly customers for the former, but there really isn't any among SUV shoppers, so the market for SUVs doesn't say much about the demand for mopeds. -Dan]

16 gslusher { 10.15.11 at 11:46 am }

Daniel:

“That’s all fine and good but: why would Amazon promote its Fire over the iPad, given that it currently makes more selling the iPad than its loss-leader Fire?”

Well, it could be because Amazon, itself, does not sell the iPad. Check the iPad listings on Amazon: they are all from other sellers, using Amazon Marketplace. Apple apparently has never authorized Amazon to sell the iPad OR the iPhone, as all the iPhone listings I found are from other sellers.

17 chaitanyakhanna { 07.07.12 at 2:11 pm }

Great Post, but eventually Kindle Fire ended up turning things better for Android. And now we would see an even better tablet Google Nexus 7. What do u have to say about it?

[Kindle Fire didn't improve the situation for Google's Android in the slightest. It completely derailed Android 3.0, eroding all potential for anyone buying it and wasting all the effort Google put into 2011.

The Nexus 7 is a profitless (by design!!) product that seeks to do damage control by losing money to potentially spite Amazon and prevent it from further damage to the Android platform and the direction Google wants to take it. It has yet to prove it can even maintain parity with the Kindle Fire.

I'm not sure how one could describe either loss leader as "successful" unless one is viewing these multi-billion dollar corporations as small children in kindergarten who need to be awarded gold stars to feel good about the gold colored macaronis they glued onto a paper plate.

If Android is "winning," then everyone is a winner!- Dan]

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