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Amazon Maps API Shows that Android is Well And Truly Forked

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

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Juli Monroe September 17, 2012 um 12:19 pm

I’ve stopped calling it a "tablet" and started calling it an "Amazon media consumption device." That’s not a shot. Many of the people buying one are looking exactly for that, and they’ll be delighted. I personally need more from a "tablet-like" device, so I’m sticking with my iPad for now. I do purchase most of my media from Amazon, so a lack of KFHD doesn’t stop me from giving them lots of my money, especially books for my Kindle Touch.

Syn September 17, 2012 um 12:45 pm

Books, movies, borrowing books, audible and immersion reading is my main use for it. I am bummed over the VoIP thing, I rather use talkatone or Groove ip then Skype, but at least it has one dialing program.

I am a little pissed moon+ reader is gone from the App store. I had it but it doesn’t even show up as one of my cloud Apps. Amazon has to know most people have more then one device. Keeping other readers off the Fire won’t stop me from buying from some where else.

Amazon is starting to feel more closed then Apple. At least Apple has enough Apps to cover you.

Andrys September 18, 2012 um 2:37 am

Syn, get the app and then download Mantano and Aldiko. They both do a good job of reading DRM’d and non-DRM’d ePub books on the Kindle Fire.

flyingtoastr September 17, 2012 um 12:51 pm

I don’t know why anyone is surprised by this. Amazon has been using a proprietary format for their books since they started selling them, it’s only a logical extension that the rest of their ecosystem is proprietary as well.

Nate Hoffelder September 17, 2012 um 12:58 pm

It’s not the proprietary format that was a warning sign; Mobipocket already was proprietary before Amazon bought them. No, the warning sign was the fact that Amazon excluded all other retailers from selling the Kindle format. Mobipocket used to distribute ebooks to other ebookstores and that was something that went away when Amazon launched the Kindle.

In any case, I just wwnted to document the shift.

Peter September 17, 2012 um 1:49 pm

It’s surprising because updating and maintaining an ebook format is fairly cheap and easy, whereas maintaining an OS is highly labor intensive, expensive undertaking. It would make sense for Amazon to play it close to android so they don’t have to pay their engineers to reinvent the wheel every time some minor change is made.

Half the fork is on Google’s end, of course. When Googel updates android to include new features- like mobile payments, for example, there is no incentive for them to give Amazon access to the new code in time to develop a competing device. Thus, Amazon has to either fork the OS to write their own code, or be perpetually a year behind every other android tablet and two years behind Apple when Apple is the first to implement.

Lil October 11, 2012 um 5:52 am

I installed google maps by attaching the apk and emailing it to my email on the KF HD. I open the email on my KF HD and clicked on the attachment to download and then clicked again again to install it. An alternative is once attachment has downloaded, open ES explorer, scroll to download, find the apk of google maps you downloaded earlier, and click on it to install.

Google maps works just fine and navigation does, too. Camera ics can be installed this way also and it woeks perfectly.

Jim Henley October 14, 2012 um 3:49 pm

I got GMail, Currents, Chrome, Maps, YouTube, and the pre-Play Store version of Music working and syncing on my Fire HD without much trouble and without rooting it. GMail and Music were biggies for me and if those had failed to work it would have been a deal-breaker.

You just have to install the right apks in the right order. Check xda-developers for instructions and the apks.

Maps can even do turn-by-turn voice Navigation by triangulating WiFi signals. It took a few days to learn the route, however, so voice navigation to a new location might be iffy. At least it will give you the directions and show you the route, even if it can’t pinpoint your location along the way. And you can check for traffic jams if you have a MiFi.

Opera Mobile works as well, but not FireFox. Silk is the fastest browser, however.

Nate Hoffelder October 14, 2012 um 4:01 pm

Yes, but the point about installing apps in the right order is so that they can add back in the stuff Amazon took out.

I too followed the instructions to install Gmail, Google Reader, and more. The first step for the instructions I followed was a specific copy of the Youtube app which had been modified to work on the KFHD. Nothing else would install or work until after I installed that one app.

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