When Is an Android Device Not an Android Device?

Two older tablets or slates

When the Grid 10 was announced by the ever-reliable Chandra Rathakrishnan last month, it was said to run Android apps but not be an Android device. This was later clarified to mean that it is actually an Android kernel running the show, but thoroughly skinned and possibly even forked to a version of Android incompatible with future Google-backed updates. We’ll see someday, maybe.

Now TechCrunch is reporting that Amazon’s long-rumored tablet will be hitting the market in a couple months, running a completely forked Android kernel. This one is apparently pre-2.2 (how far pre is undefined) and has been so modified that it in no way resembles Android at all, and will have nothing Google-branded on it. Of course, since it will run apps from Amazon’s Android Appstore, it must be binary-compatible with Google’s official offering.

Is this going to be a thing now? As engineers say, the great thing about standards is there are so many of them.

In order for tablets to succeed, they either need to be so cheap as to be considered disposable, or they need to be part of a greater ecosystem. We can see this in the history of previous generations of mobile systems. The PalmOS ecosystem was seemingly insurmountable not that long ago. WindowsCE had a very hard time getting any traction in the market, and even today it is not uncommon to hear someone refer to a generic small device as a Palm Pilot (ignoring the Pilot pen lawsuit that changed the name but whatever). If you were in the market for a PDA in 1999, you were almost certainly going to go Palm; that was the only way to ensure you could get the programs you wanted (app is a useless renaming of an existing word). When Nokia tried to make a new type of device, they came up with the Maemo operating environment based on a Linux kernel. Nobody else made Maemo devices and each generation debuted at near the $400 mark. They were doomed.

Now we have the examples of Apple’s iOS, Google Android and HP WebOS as three different methods to the tablet madness. Apple has a great ecosystem, from docks to apps to cases. If you want to be confident that your new tablet will run whatever cool programs your friend told you about, it’s probably going to be an iPad you’ll want. Google and its partners have been throwing everything at the wall, and the open source nature of Android 1.x and 2.x means there is no shortage of random cheap tablets out there as well. The good tablets are priced at near-Apple prices, and have been collecting a lot of dust because of the vast difference in the ecosystems so far. Finally, HP’s TouchPads are selling like crazy, now that they are selling for half or one-third of their cost to manufacture. That’s no business model at all, but it does show that people are willing to buy cheap tablets of decent quality.

As a slightly different example, the Nook Color is an Android tablet that doesn’t play up the Android connection, and is very underpowered but does cost only $250. It sells millions of units, so obviously Amazon is going to try to copy that model, with the addition of Amazon’s larger media empire backing the move.

But, if Amazon actually does fork Android so far that nobody can be sure if they can run any non-Amazon programs on it, is it fair to even consider it an Android device, or is it better to pretend it has nothing to do with Google. I’m sure Jeff Bezos would be happy with that, if the reports of stripping all the Google branding from the Kindle Tablet are accurate.

For those young’uns, the image on this post has a Sony Clie NX60 (one of the most advanced PalmOS devices ever) and a Nokia N770 Internet Tablet. I have strange things lying around the house.

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10 Comments on "When Is an Android Device Not an Android Device?"

  1. “(app is a useless renaming of an existing word)”

    Thank you. I feel the same.

  2. I had loads of interest in what Amazon was doing … but much less so now.  I mean, I have a 8GB Acer Iconia Tab 7″ running Honeycomb 3.2, full Google stuff and even the Amazon Kindle and Market.  All for just over $300.  Obviously this is meant as a ‘hey, we can make a color nook …er … Kindle too!’ device, but I guess I expected a bit more.

  3. We’ll see how their market integration works out. If the free Prime rumor is true, that gives a great one-two punch of digital and physical goods benefits. Free two-day shipping, and free video streams, plus it’s a Kindle and can play Angry Birds?  Maybe it has a chance. The lack of a camera and the lack of the Google Experience may chase away geeks, but there are a lot of those other people out there who don’t have any interest in rooting and don’t know what a Cyanogen is…those people might just like something that works and is tied to the store they already use.

  4. It’s taken me several years to get used to “blog” as a word; I’m sure I’ll adapt in time.

  5. Prime would be a decent motivator; heck, I might be tempted. =)

  6. Mitchell Oke | September 3, 2011 at 6:46 am |

    “Finally, HP’s TouchPads are selling like crazy, now that they are selling for half or one-third of their cost to manufacture. That’s no business model at all, but it does show that people are willing to buy cheap tablets of decent quality.”

    I’m not sure I completely agree with this. Going up against an incredibly established and wildly popular ecosystem like iOS needs some brave moves to make inroads and make people think twice about purchasing. I’ve never used a TouchPad, but by all accounts it’s not the worst tablet out there, and have OS design that has been praised considerably by the tech media. 

    By pushing it at a bargain price, bundling it with their laptops and desktops, etc. HP had the chance to make some inroads into the tablet market. Sure it may have cost them initially, but it had a good chance of making a dent in the Apple dominated world of tablets. 

    People don’t want tablets, they want iPads, but if the iPad is three times the price of a competitor that is nearly as good, and has a solid (well, it was until recently…) brand like HP on it, then it could have set them on a road to profitability. Short term pain for long term gain.

  7. I would agree, if HP gave any indication that they were intentionally selling TouchPads at a loss in order to gain market share. All evidence points to their selling off existing inventory and inventory that was in the manufacturing pipeline, just to burn off a discontinued product. That’s not a business model. And HP seems incredibly confused right now anyway; will PSG spin off or gain USAF contracts, etc.

    Amazon can sell their tablet at a loss as part of their business model, gaining customers for their other services. 

  8. Mitchell Oke | September 3, 2011 at 1:43 pm |

    Hence why I said “could”. It isn’t what they did, but it is what they could have done. 

    It’s been done by console manufacturers for years, sell the devices at a loss to begin with, get an established base going, and as the build cost comes down, and the installed base goes up, they turn a profit. Of course many of them make their money off the software too, but it’s a similar principle. 

  9. robbie mcgregor | September 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm |

    Yeah, tend to agree.  The ‘firesale’ is in no way a sustainable business model, however, it’s the only other time we’ve seen lines around the block.  Even if HP had cut margins and placed this in the market as a losing leader, there’s no way the price would have been at the $100 point – which is what it needed to be to create the hype.  

    The move we just saw was a knee-jerk market exit, not a long-term strategy…. 

  10. I disagree completely; I think it’s an excellent neologism.  Yes, it’s a debasement of “application”, but so what?  If the choice is between “program”, “software”, “application”, and “app”, I’m going for “app.”  And I’m a professional tech writer, so there!  Neener neener!

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