Will Amazon's Kindle Fire fan the flames of Android tablet app development?

Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

Smartphones running Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system are selling like hotcakes. More than half of all U.S. mobile subscribers who purchased a smartphone within the past three months selected an Android device, according to data issued earlier this week by Nielsen. Tablets running Android are a different story. Recent data released by IDC states that Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad and iPad 2 now make up 68.3 percent of the global tabloid market, up from 65.7 percent in the first quarter--Android's share of the worldwide tablet market concurrently slipped from 34.0 percent in the first quarter to 26.8 percent a quarter ago.

Those mediocre sales numbers go far in explaining why so few developers are building applications optimized for Android tablets. True, they don't tell the whole story: Android platform fragmentation deserves at least some of the blame as well, although Google has promised the forthcoming Ice Cream Sandwich update will introduce a unified operating system that runs across both smartphones and tablets alike. But even with Google smartphone sales booming, few developers are getting rich selling applications via Android Market--creating apps for Android tablets with anemic sales just doesn't make financial sense. 

Amazon.com's new Kindle Fire could change all that. The online retailer formally unveiled the long-awaited Android tablet Wednesday, and the most compelling thing about it is the price: A mere $199--more than half off the price of Apple's cheapest iPad, and also less than rival Barnes & Noble's seven-inch Nook Color and Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry Playbook. (The Kindle Fire is also significantly cheaper than existing Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and HTC Flyer.) In addition to Amazon's Appstore for Android, the Kindle Fire offers consumers access to the Kindle e-book catalog and the Amazon Instant Video and Amazon MP3 digital storefronts--it also touts a customized browser, Amazon Silk, that interfaces with Amazon's EC2 cloud server to accelerate the data consumption experience and also supports Adobe Flash.

Analysts are expecting big things from the seven-inch Kindle Fire. Forrester Research anticipates Amazon will sell approximately 3 million units by the end of 2011, even though the Kindle Fire doesn't start shipping until Nov. 15, considered late in the context of the holiday shopping season. "Amazon will sell millions of tablets, and the rapid-fire adoption of the Kindle Fire will give app developers a reason--finally--to develop Android tablet apps," Forrester senior analyst Sarah Rotman Epps writes. "Apple's place as market leader is secure, but Amazon will be a strong number two, and we expect no other serious tablet competitors until Windows 8 tablets launch."

The prospect of millions of new Android tablet owners will no doubt stoke new developer interest in the platform. But the Kindle Fire also suffers from some serious technological limitations that will hamper future app development efforts. For starters, it's Wi-Fi-only--a knockout blow to the anytime/anywhere promise of the mobile revolution. Based on the available specifications, the Kindle Fire is also missing an accelerometer, a gyroscope and most of the other innovations that have made the iPad the gaming tablet par excellence. And because the Kindle Fire exists largely to serve Amazon's ambitions of challenging Apple's supremacy in the digital media space, enterprise adoption looks like a non-starter as well. Rumors suggest Amazon is already at work on an enhanced, feature-packed version of the Kindle Fire scheduled for sometime in 2012--developers may wish to wait for that model in hopes that it's a tablet that doesn't only serve Amazon's interests but supports their own creative and commercial aspirations as well. -Jason