Amazon’s Kindle Fire, arguably considered a successful 7-inch tablet, is locked down more than people might think. When trying to browse the Google Android Market website in the Fire’s web browser, the device instead opens up Amazon’s Kindle Fire application store. Since the Fire doesn’t officially have access to the Android Market, I can understand the device highlighting its own app store. But to specifically hijack a browser URL and redirect it is disturbing and sets an ugly precedent.
This specific situation isn’t new; it was first reported on Reddit back on Nov. 22, not long after the Kindle Fire began shipping. I only just heard about it this weekend via TheVerge and I tested our Kindle Fire to verify the reports. The browser does redirect any Android Market requests to the Kindle app store; even if you turn off the accelerated browsing feature that routes traffic through Amazon’s servers. That means this hijacking isn’t done via the cloud, but instead is hard-coded into every Kindle Fire. TheVerge reports that a file called MarketIntentProxy.apk is the culprit here.
Who owns “your” mobile device?
I have several concerns here. First is the idea of limiting what a consumer can or can’t do on a device that they’ve purchased. I’ve seen this situation before with smartphones and tablets sold through carriers. Some examples include the blocking or removal of tethering applications and more recently, Verizon’s insistence not to have Google Wallet installed on its Galaxy Nexus model.
To some this is a grey area because the operator has an asset to protect — its network — and also because of the hardware subsidy model. If there’s a mobile application that is pinging servers too much, carriers should have recourse and processes to let the offending app maker know, fix the problem or be pulled from an app store. This exact scenario recently happened with YouMail and T-Mobile, for example. In terms of subsidized hardware, when does a consumer actually “own” their device? Carriers can pay for some of the costs, so do they “own” the device as well over the life of a network contract and does that allow them to have control?
Regardless of where your opinion lies on these two particular angles, these arguments shouldn’t apply to the Kindle Fire. Why? Because even though Amazon is reportedly selling the Fire at a small loss, consumers are paying the full price for the hardware. There’s no subsidy for Amazon to pay in order to get people to buy or use a Kindle Fire. And with no subsidy, there’s no contract for network service.
In fact, the Kindle Fire can’t even use a mobile broadband network because it only has a Wi-Fi radio. So consumers are buying the device outright and supplying or finding their own network connection. I’d say the owner should have full control over their device in this situation, with the understanding that technical support is limited or not provided when using the device outside of its intended use.
Redirecting specific web requests is bad karma
My second concern is: where does it end? By routing a specific web request away from the intended site on the Internet, Amazon has set a dangerous precedent here. We collectively debate open vs. closed ecosystems, net neutrality and other related themes, but if I had to pick one app to consider “sacred” in these discussions it would be the browser. That’s not the case for this particular web request on a Kindle Fire and once millions of these are in consumer hands, who or what could stop Amazon from adding other URLs to a list of redirects?
You’d think a Kindle Fire owner could simply install a third-party browser — Dolphin Browser HD on a Fire can access Google’s web-based Market, for example — but guess what: There are no third-party browsers in the Kindle AppStore save for Maxthon. But the point here is that the browser is our window to the web and that window should not have smears or streaks obscuring our view because a company says so.
I understand that Amazon sells the Fire in order to sell apps, movies, TV shows, magazines, books and physical goods. And the company built its tablet upon Google’s open source Android platform. I think that was a smart strategy.
But Amazon’s tablet relies heavily on Google’s platform; it’s not like the Fire is a standalone platform of its own because standard Android apps can and do run on the device. You simply have to know how to access them and install them. Most people don’t, so I don’t think Amazon should worry. And blocking one of the easiest ways to get standard Amazon apps on the Fire — via the Android Market website — isn’t a long term answer because the company could suffer through the tag of “web censorship.”
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Amazon here, since many apps require hardware such as a GPS or microphone, which the Kindle Fire doesn’t have. But when I think about this situation in a different light, it doesn’t sound like I am. For instance, if you decided to purchase a new car and after you bought it, the dealership told you that it can only be driven on certain roadways, how would you feel? Maybe that’s too extreme of an example, but all I know is this: I want to ride in whatever lane of the information superhighway in my browser that I see fit.