The Other Side Of Open

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Open. Open. Open. Open. Open. Open. Open. Open. Open.

Every chance they get, someone from Google brings this up as a huge advantage of Android over rivals like iOS. Never mind the fact that a good percentage of the time it’s pure marketing bullshit — why exactly isn’t Google Wallet on Google’s own Galaxy Nexus device? — even when it’s true, there are some very real downsides. The user experience angle has been debated ad nauseam. More interesting is what we’re seeing now. A downside for Google.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire runs on Android, but nothing about it is Google’s Android. It doesn’t look like Android and it doesn’t feature Google’s own apps. That has to annoy Google, but something exposed the other day must truly piss them off: the Kindle Fire redirects all Android Market requests to Amazon’s Appstore. That includes all attempts to go to market.android.com even when the Fire’s accelerated browsing (routed through Amazon’s servers) is turned off.

Amazon has commandeered Android and is closing it down for their own purposes. The problem for Google is that those purposes are decidedly anti-Google purposes. Amazon wants to control the Android app ecosystem — the one created and nurtured by Google.

Despite what they may have you believe sometimes, Google is not a pro bono company. Their work with Android is an attempt to create another billion dollar-plus business. Apps are a part of this, but the bigger parts are things like payments and content, and of course, search and advertising. Amazon is taking over apps, content, and payments with the Fire. And you have to think that search might be in their sights as well. At the very least, they could cut a lucrative deal with someone like Microsoft to make Bing the default search engine on the Kindle Fire.

This would mean that Google would be making essentially nothing off of each Kindle Fire, even though they created the platform on which it runs. And this matters because the Kindle Fire is poised to be the most successful Android tablet — it may very well be already.

But that’s just tablets, you might say. Google Android still dominate phones. That’s true, Amazon isn’t in the smartphone game — at least not yet. But what happens if the rumors are true and Facebook releases a phone with an OS built on top of Android? And what if they do the exact same things that Amazon is doing? Say they create their own app store, bake in their own payment and content services, and eventually cut a deal with Microsoft to make Bing the default search engine. Remember, Microsoft has a search deal with Facebook already, and is a minority stakeholder in the social network.

And those are just the big guys in the U.S. Companies all around the world are also exploring (or already executing on) using Android as the basis for their own OSes. Some of these help Google, some do not. What if HTC builds they own flavor of Android? What if Samsung does? At least Google knows that Motorola won’t now…

With Android’s rise to smartphone market share domination (but not actual smartphone revenue/profit and/or developer mindshare domination), much has been made of the comparison to what Microsoft did in the 1980s and 1990s to blow past Apple towards PC domination. But one key difference that no one ever seems to bring up is the fact that Windows was anything but open. If you wanted to use it, you had to pay Microsoft. You would never have been able to build your own version of Windows without getting sued into oblivion.

Imagine if Microsoft had open sourced Windows back then. Would they still have become the dominant player? Possibly, maybe even likely at first, but eventually it’s feasible that a competitor would have used their work as the basis for a better version of Windows. That’s the real risk Google is now facing.

Back in May, I wondered what would happen when it’s Google/Android versus Amazon/Android? That was before Amazon’s hardware ambitions were fully revealed. But it seemed obvious this battle was coming. And now it’s here.

Update: With an update, Amazon has unblocked their web browser from accessing the Android Market website, Kevin Tofel reports for GigaOm. But it’s more of a PR move. You still cannot install Android Market apps without side-loading them.

[image: flickr/justin marty]