Open-Source Android: An opportunity for Amazon

Mobile Apr 27, 2011 No Comments

If you read our 2-part series on Google and Android’s relationship with open source, you’re well aware that while Google has open-sourced the code of each version of Android through Gingerbread, major obstacles exist for any company to take that code and use it in a big way that doesn’t still leave them beholden to Google in major ways.  The disadvantages of building an Android product without Google apps and early access to new versions of the platform are too great for any single manufacturer to overcome in the fast-moving and competitive mobile landscape.  For this reason, Google has never been afraid of the consequences of releasing Android to the wild.  Making it “open” and free has allowed them to get it on as many devices as possible.  The most influential, proprietary chess piece that Google holds is the Android Market and the main access point to delivering mainstream Android apps.  It’s on this front that Google must feel threatened by the first company with the size and clout to make Android something of their own.  It’s no secret that Amazon is working on an Android tablet, but what could be most interesting will be the departure from a reliance on Google and an ownership of their own version of Android.

To be precise, Amazon will not be the first company to try and build a compelling tablet ecosystem of their own.  They will, however, be the first to make a major impact.  Barnes & Noble intrigued everyone last year when they released the Nook Color, an evolution of their Nook E-Reader.  Marketing it as an e-reader with an LCD screen and some additional capabilities didn’t stop everyone from viewing it as a shockingly capable and affordable Android tablet.  At a time when there were no 10-inch Android tablets, the 7-inch Nook Color immediately became a hacker’s dream as it was easily rooted and joined the staple of devices supported by Cyanogen and other modders.  For a $250 tablet, priced to be almost a loss-leader and gateway to Barnes & Noble’s e-bookstore, the Nook Color ran stock Android 2.2 Froyo surprisingly well.  This interest couldn’t have escaped B&N’s notice and likely added to their existing motivation to evolve the Nook Color into a full development platform, complete with a Nook-specific app store.  This week’s announcement of the expansion of the Nook’s capabilities is interesting, but ultimately B&N doesn’t have the complete media presence that Amazon has.  The company is still clearly limiting the number of apps it will host and expanding cautiously as if to stress that this is still an e-reader first and foremost.

While B&N works to expand its media offerings to accomodate the potential of its tablet already on the market, Amazon appears to be building towards the release of a tablet that will accomodate the breadth of its media offerings.  Almost overnight, Amazon seems to have built a media empire that is in virtually every area important to consumers.  They have a proven system for delivering e-books.  They sell and stream music.  They sell and stream video.  They make buying physical goods simple and painless.  This type of media and sales presence puts Amazon on a competitive level with Apple that nobody else has attained.  That alone would make Amazon a prime candidate to release a tablet that could be a credible alternative to the iPad.

Amazon, however, is already one step ahead of that position.  If the Android Market is the essential app that enslaves manufactures to Google, then the Amazon App Store is Moses to lead them out of Egypt.  Amazon launched their App Store in a very intelligent manner, allowing it on existing Android phones and drawing in developers who have failed to make much money on the Android Market.  The response to the Amazon App Store has been very positive to the point of phones launching with it pre-installed already (see. Cellular South’s HTC Merge).  The main obstacle for Amazon on phones today is that the App Store is not integrated as tightly as the Android Market usually is.  The key will be Amazon using its app store as the focal point for downloading apps on their own devices.

With a credible app store on their own tablet, the only remaining disadvantage for Amazon would be the lack of early access to new builds of Android.  Gmail, while useful, can easily give way to a native email client that supports all types of email with a minimum of blowback for Amazon.  Would Amazon be harmed by a lack of early access to Honeycomb or its successors?  That’s unlikely, since Amazon doesn’t need Honeycomb.  Truth be told, Gingerbread is far more stable at this point, and well suited to a small tablet experience.  While Honeycomb struggles with a confusing UI and a lack of a useful SDK, Gingerbread fully supports the existing app ecosystem and can serve as a launching point for a new fork of Android.  The foundation of Android is all Amazon needs at this point.  They’ve no doubt been working hard to build their own layer on top to better suit promoting their content over anything else.

If an Amazon tablet based on Gingerbread and built by Samsung hit the market with the Amazon App Store and tie-ins to Amazon Mp3, Cloud Player, Cloud Drive, Kindle and all of Amazon’s retail offerings, how compelling would it be?  Would it need further support from Google to be successful?  Would it need any more development beyond what Amazon itself chooses to put in?  Probably not, since Amazon is the only company with the ability to deliver a media experience on par or possibly beyond what Apple offers.  This isn’t a challenge that any other company could take on, which is why Google can still maintain control over its supposedly open platform.   Contrary to what Google would have you believe, not just anyone can take Android and use it effectively.  Amazon may be the only player out there big enough to realize the potential of Android’s open source existence.

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