Amazon didn’t hide the fact that Android powers the Kindle Fire — and allows it to access Amazon’s Appstore for Android — but the message is clear. This is not an Android device; this is an Amazon device.
When Amazon launched its Appstore for Android in March, some wondered why Amazon would bother creating an alternative to the Android Market. Now the reason is clear: it allowed Amazon to provide access to apps on its own devices.
Amazon will vet app submissions, just like Apple, and ensure that Kindle Fire users have access only to the apps that work on their device. And while we’re sure that Android hackers will be busy rooting the Kindle Fire, a la the Nook Color, we’re equally sure that Amazon will take as many precautions as it can to keep the device untouched.
The Appstore experience on the Kindle Fire is completely customized, as opposed to the free-for-all Appstore APK for Android devices. And, unlike regular Android — which can exist without the Android Market — Amazon’s approach is much more akin to the way the App Store is built into iOS.
In short, the Amazon Appstore is a fundamental part of the operating system.
A Fork or a New Skin?
Amazon is not the first company to use Android for its devices, only to customize the UI and add its own App Store. Practically every major phone manufacturer has some variation of its own Android UI skin and Barnes & Noble has taken the liberty of hiding most of the Android elements from the Nook Color.
Still, Amazon’s customization of Android goes above and beyond re-theming the interface. Amazon has created its own apps for email, video playback (using Amazon Instant Video), music and books. The Kindle app, while similar in appearance to Kindle for Android [Android Market link], is slightly tweaked and looks distinct in its own right.
Amazon is using Android 2.3 as its base, not the tablet-specific Honeycomb, and we expect that the company has taken the opportunity to optimize 2.3 specifically for the Kindle Fire’s hardware.
Likewise, instead of applying tweaks to the basic Android web browser, Amazon chose to build its own: Amazon Silk. Silk operates both server-side and on the device itself, and is tuned to deliver content quickly and efficiently.
On nearly every Android device I have used, even those which are disguised not to look like Android (like the Nook Color), Android elements still creep into the system anyway. That’s not the case with the Kindle Fire, as it looks like Amazon has taken every step possible to fully customize the interface.
For this reason, I consider what Amazon is doing a fork — that is, taking the software in such a different direction that it no longer conforms to its original guidelines. It is, perhaps, the first true fork of Android. Because much of Android is covered by the Apache license and not the GPL, Amazon won’t even have to commit most of its changes back to the main Android branch. It also means that Amazon can choose to deviate from the official release cycle, focusing on customizing or adding functions to Android 2.3, rather than adopting Ice Cream Sandwich.
We expect Amazon to start courting Android developers to make customized Kindle Fire-specific versions of their apps.
Stock Android Tablets Beware
If the Kindle Fire takes off the way Amazon hopes it will, the $200 tablet could take a big chunk out of the crowded Android tablet market. Despite the dozens of Android 3.x tablets on sale, none have managed to make an impact in terms of sales to actual customers. Furthermore, the number of tablet-specific applications remains very small.
If Amazon can push enough units this holiday season, it could convince some developers to forget tablet-specific apps for Android, and instead focus their efforts on the Kindle Fire. If that happens, Amazon’s fork of Android might just end up encroaching on the greater Android ecosystem.
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