Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A major national bookseller decides that they want to make "The Reader’s Tablet." So they grab the Android source code, and they don’t bother to get their device approved by Google so that it can run their apps. Instead, they charge full speed ahead, with not just a custom UI layer but a complete reimagining of what an “Android” device should look like.
The app drawer? Gone. Pull-down notification area? Canned. Hardware keys have gone the way of the dustbin, except for a single iPad-style button. Even the concept of the home screen has been done away with, to be replaced with a bookshelf and a store. The device is still running Android under the hood, but you have to look really closely to tell -- there’s barely a mention of it on their site. It’s not until you get to the developers’ portal that you see official explanations of how the OS differs from stock Android.
Sound familiar? It’s the story of Barnes and Noble’s Nook Color.
In a way, it’s an Android success story. Android’s open-source programming code gave the struggling retailer a way to compete with Amazon’s online behemoth, plus Andy looks so cute reading on the Nook Developer site. But while the Nook Color is famous for its hackability, its stock firmware is more controlling than Apple’s circa 2007: A "walled garden" of apps that only work on it (and that you can’t even buy yet), and DRMed eBooks that in some cases are only readable on a Nook Color.
With the scope of Amazon’s ambitions, a "Kindle Pad" might not just shake up the Android world, but set the rest of the world a-Blaze as well. And in doing so, it might wall off even more of Android, this time into an Amazon-controlled garden.
Why would Amazon do this? They’ve got an Android app already.
Yes, and it lets people buy and read their DRMed Kindle books on Android devices. But Google has their own eBookstore, and their own mobile OS to feature it on. They aren’t partners just because Amazon has apps for their platform; they’re competitors. You know that Amazon wants to control their own destiny, and they know that black-and-white eReaders like today’s Kindle aren’t going to be around forever. The Android source code would give them a head start on designing its successor.
So does that mean they’re going to try to play nicely with their competitor, and jump through the hoops to get early access to code and to Google’s apps? Probably not. Google’s withholding the Honeycomb source makes it clear that they can hold Amazon back, if they choose to. Far from making a fork less likely, it only increases the chances that a company like Amazon would try to make a clean break, Barnes and Noble-style. Branching the Android code onto a new path, and carving out a new ecosystem.
What would it mean for customers?
Well, the Android tablet market is getting crowded... what better way to stand above it than by not selling an "Android" tablet?
Buyers wouldn't ask "Can this run my Android apps?" or "Does this lock me into Amazon’s platform?" To them, it wouldn’t be a crippled Android tablet, or a generic-brand iPad. It’d be a new and improved Kindle, with its own color touchscreen and app store. And the Kindle brand sells.
What would it mean for Android app developers?
It’d be both a headache or an opportunity. On the one hand, no one would make you write for it, any more than you have to write for today’s Appstore... it’s just a way to reach Amazon’s customers with your apps.
If anything, an Amazon Kindle Pad would be easier to target than "Android" would, since it would have one consistent form factor. That would get rid of a lot of the cost of developing Android apps... the optimizing for screen sizes and testing on different devices, that helps make Android apps look less polished than iOS ones and take up to 1.5x the resources to write and support.
On the other hand, future developers might start writing their apps for Amazon’s device first with Android ports as a secondary priority, sort of like how things are with iOS today. In essence, Android would end up competing with two closed platforms at once, although it’d probably be easier to get Amazon developers to defect than it is to get iPhone developers to do so.
Where will this forking madness end!?
First off, there’s no telling whether or not Amazon will actually do this. And second, they’re exceptional because of the cloud services and content stores they have, which compete with Google’s. Plus, a high-profile "defection" might strengthen Google’s commitment to work with their partners. After all, if making Android devices is good business, then there’s no reason to jump ship.
I personally think the Nook Color has been a net positive, and that even a walled-off Kindle Pad would be as well. If anyone’s going to make a new tablet, I’d rather it be based on Android than anything else. An underlying, open-source standard that no one company controls is good for everyone in the long run, even if it sometimes means tablets that aren't compatible with others and are locked into one store.