Amazon's Kindle Fire success does not equate to Android's continued survival

Amazon's Kindle Fire success does not equate to Android's continued survival
Kindle-Fire-HD-600
Photo: Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD

A few weeks ago, I engaged in a Great Debate with my colleague Ed Burnette about whether or not Google’s “Jelly Bean”, the latest and greatest version of the Android OS, and Google’s Nexus 7 tablet (which it produced under partnership with Asus) would have any meaningful impact on improving Android’s market share of tablet computers.

I picked the antagonistic side, whereas Ed chose to be the defender.

Although he had gained the popular vote, Ed lost. I won by virtue of having made a more convincing argument.

This coming week, I will again engage in debate, but this time with ZDNet Mobile News columnist James Kendrick, over the issue of Android’s survival itself. Kendrick will defend, and yet again I will be the antagonist.

What can I say, I’m a very combative sort of guy, and being the valiant type is a far less entertaining proposition for someone like me. I’m a professional gladiator.

One of the questions Burnette and I were asked by ZDNet Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan in our previous Android debate was this:

“Assuming a new Kindle Fire emerges—and it will—which device is more credible assuming roughly the same hardware specs as the Nexus 7?”

And here is how I answered it: 

“I think Amazon needs to do much better than have the same hardware specs as the Nexus 7, but let’s assume they match it feature for feature. to make the Kindle Fire 2 more attractive the company is going to have to add a couple of really big carrots, and I think that the main way they can do that is increasing the perks for being a Prime subscriber and giving customers access to more free content, in the form of a larger Amazon Video library as well as a larger Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, with more lends per month allowed.

But I would go one step further and say that Amazon needs to have a better display than Nexus 7 so that it is more of a reader’s device, and they might even want to consider an ad-supported version like they do with the regular Kindle, in order to bring the price down.”

You’ll notice my emphasis here. Be it as it may Amazon has not stated yet whether or not Primes will receive increased benefits in the following calendar year, but I’m willing to bet that come the holiday season, they’re very likely to do so in order to make Prime a more attractive carrot to go along with Kindle Fire sales.

But this week, Amazon did do exactly as I predicted in the second half of that response. The Kindle Fire HD 8.7″ does in fact sport a superior display than the the Nexus 7, every single model of Kindle Fire is now ad-supported, and the price of the lowest-end device, an updated version of the original Kindle Fire, is now $165, which is cheaper than any of its 7″ rivals with similar specifications.

Dignan asked us another interesting question in that debate, and it related to the ecosystems of Apple, Google and Amazon.

“Does Google have the parts to deliver a seamless content and commerce experience like Amazon and Apple can?”

And I answered thusly:

“Amazon itself has had problems competing with Apple only because while they have a very strong content ecosystem for books and magazines, and their music and movies library is excellent, the experience isn’t as seamless as Apple on iTunes and the App Store. 

However, I would argue that Amazon does a much better job at seamless content integration than Google does right now with the Play Store. In terms of being able to use an Android tablet as a durable goods purchasing device I think Amazon has everyone outclassed, because their e-commerce application runs on everybody’s platform — their own, Google’s and Apple’s.”

It didn’t occur to me to expound on it at the time, since we were about two weeks away from the jury’s verdict in the Apple v. Samsung trial, but there’s another thing Amazon does substantially better than Google or any of the Android tablet OEMs.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire user interface and industrial design is distinct and unmistakably different than what Apple uses on their iOS devices.

Not a single consumer would ever confuse a Kindle Fire for an iPad or an Apple product. Ever.

And if you have been observing what has been happening in the courts as it relates to the validity of Apple’s patents concerning industrial design and trade dress, this is extremely important as to how it may affect the future sales of Android-based smartphones and tablets made by various OEMs that use Google’s mobile operating system in their products. 

Amazon has claimed that the Kindle Fire currently represents about 22 percent of the entire tablet market in the United States.

One independent industry analyst, Horace Dediu, has estimated that since the product’s introduction during the 2011 holiday season, the company sold approximately 5 million of the devices, although Amazon has never disclosed exactly how many units were sold, as such lack of disclosure is par for the course for the company.

However, it’s probably a good estimate that the company will sell probably double or triple the amount of devices in CY 2013, and that will utterly dwarf the efforts of all the other Android device manufacturers combined, including that of Google’s Nexus-branded tablet itself.

Amazon in many respects is immune to many of the issues that Google is experiencing with Android: Unlike Google, it has a superior content and ecommerce ecosystem and it has a distinct trade dress for its devices and software (which its customers appear to prefer to Google’s by virtue of actual number tablet devices sold) which does not infringe upon Apple’s.

Oh and one more thing. By virtue of being the largest Internet retailer in the world, Amazon represents a critical sales channel for Apple that the Cupertino electronics giant would be utterly mad to disrupt by virtue of frivolous patent litigation.

Jobs said he wanted to go thermonuclear on Android, Samsung and Google, not poison his own well. And I believe Tim Cook is a smart enough businessman to know who is a necessary ‘frenemy’ and who represents an actual threat. Attacking Amazon for infringement would be a zero sum game.

It’s true that Kindle Fire devices run on Android, and Amazon uses Android apps to populate their Appstore for Android. So to some extent Amazon does have some exposure in the sense that they are reliant on Google to continue to develop the Open Source version of the Android OS to form the basis of their content delivery platform on the Kindle Fire. 

But the types of changes Google might have to make in order to help keep their OEMs out of legal trouble or defend their own branded products (particularly as it relates to Motorola’s ongoing litigation with Apple or anything new that crops up in the future sporting a Nexus logo) will have very little bearing on the Kindle Fire going forward.

Let me put it in these terms. In a worst-case scenario, Android could cease to exist as a Google product offering and the company could end all software development, and Amazon could still continue to develop their own version based on the Open Source AOSP code and the Dalvik engine itself and remove any infringing features for use in their own products.

In essence, Kindle Fire OS would become a true fork.

We already know that you don’t need “real” Android to run Android apps. Research in Motion already proved this from a purely technical standpoint with their PlayBook by porting the Dalvik VM to their QNX (BlackBerry 10) platform so they could offer Android-based apps in their BlackBerry App World.

Whatever is to become of Android given the final outcome of the current industry litigation and judgments is uncertain. However, what is certain is that Amazon would be very well equipped to sustain a thriving tablet and content consumption business even if Android as a Google-sponsored project were to end, or if OEMs such as Samsung were to give up on producing their own branded Android devices altogether.

Is Amazon immune from the problems that other Android device OEMs such as Samsung are facing? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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