When Amazon launched the original Kindle Fire last year there was a lot of talk about whether Amazon would take their version of Android in their own direction. There were fears, some of which were allayed by the Kindle Fire, that Amazon would make enough changes to the Android OS running on the Kindle Fire to render it incompatible with the rest of the Android ecosystem.
This kind of split is called forking, and in some operating systems like Linux it is not unusual for the OS to fork into several decent and usable versions or distributions as they are called. There are now several dozen different Linux distributions, including different ones running inside the Kindle, Kobo, and some other ereaders. In fact, Android started as a Linux fork, and technically still is a Linux distribution, though few call it that.
Now, Amazon was running a custom Android firmware on the original Kindle Fire, but it wasn't that different from the core release of Android. Few if any apps wouldn't run on it, and so far as I could tell it had no more compatibility issues than most any other Android tablet. I'm qualifying that statement because even the officially approved Android tablets sometimes have issues with some apps.
But the Kindle Fire HD, on the other hand, is going to raise questions about whether it runs Android. Amazon has made far too many changes to the OS before installing it on the tablet, and signs of the changes are showing up in the apps which won't run on this tablet.
The Maps API is merely the most obvious sign of the fork, but app compatibility is an even more telling sign. I've heard from several different KFHD owners who have each told me about a different type of app which won't run on the Kindle Fire HD.
One reader has tried to install a couple different VOIP apps on this tablet. The success rate ranged from simply not running to crashing the tablet and requiring a reset. A friend told me in an email that he had tried to install one of the voices sold by Ivona, a specialist in TTS and related tech. The sample played but the KFHD wouldn't accept the voice as an option for the spoken word responses in apps. Had this been a regular Android tablet, these issues could be written off as quirks introduced by the device maker. But in this case I'm not so sure.
And then there's my experience. Yesterday I decided to try to turn the KFHD into a work tablet. Yes, I know that's not what it was made for, but I wanted to see if I could add value to the tablet by expanding it beyond the media abilities Amazon promised. Unfortunately I was unable to get either Gmail or Google Reader to run. I did trick them into installing and I got them set up, but when I tried to run the apps they crashed. Repeatedly. And they took Twitter down with them. From what i can tell they try to run as a background operation and the KFHD either won't let them or doesn't support the features they need.
While all of these issues appear to be relatively minor, think for a moment about the Maps API. It's a direct competitor to Google Maps API which will work on Kindle Fire hardware. Add it to the problems mentioned above, and the apps Amazon has blocked since the first Kindle Fire launched, and I think it gives a pretty good idea where Amazon is headed.
My guess is that the next Kindle Fire won't have to worry about competitor's reading apps at all; even if you download them and try to install them I think they simply will not run.
Amazon wants their own walled garden and if they have to wreck Android to do it they will. But can Android support 2 distributions? To be honest I'm not sure it will matter. it does not look like Amazon will ever want to share their distribution with anyone, so when the break finally happens I'm not sure anything will be lost beyond Amazon's own devices. That's a few million devices here and there, but given that Amazon has turned the Kindle Fire into a sales platform it had already split from other Android tablets in spirit if not in fact.
When the fork finally happens on the technical level I suspect it will feel more like an addendum to the split than an event itself.
image by jo-h