43 Comments

Summary:

Amazon’s successful 7-inch tablet, the Kindle Fire, is locked down more than people might think: browser requests to Google’s Android Market are redirected to the Amazon AppStore. Imagine buying a new car and then being told you that it can only be driven on certain roadways.

kindle-fire

Amazon’s Kindle Fire, arguably considered a successful 7-inch tablet, is locked down more than people might think. When trying to browse the Google Android Market website in the Fire’s web browser, the device instead opens up Amazon’s Kindle Fire application store. Since the Fire doesn’t officially have access to the Android Market, I can understand the device highlighting its own app store. But to specifically hijack a browser URL and redirect it is disturbing and sets an ugly precedent.

This specific situation isn’t new; it was first reported on Reddit back on Nov. 22, not long after the Kindle Fire began shipping. I only just heard about it this weekend via TheVerge and I tested our Kindle Fire to verify the reports. The browser does redirect any Android Market requests to the Kindle app store; even if you turn off the accelerated browsing feature that routes traffic through Amazon’s servers. That means this hijacking isn’t done via the cloud, but instead is hard-coded into every Kindle Fire. TheVerge reports a file called MarketIntentProxy.apk is the culprit.

Who owns “your” mobile device?

I have several concerns. First is the idea of limiting what a consumer can or can’t do on a device he or she has purchased. I’ve seen this situation before with smartphones and tablets sold through carriers. Some examples include the blocking or removal of tethering applications and more recently, Verizon’s insistence not to have Google Wallet installed on its Galaxy Nexus model.

To some, this is a grey area because the operator has an asset to protect — its network — and also because of the hardware subsidy model. If there’s a mobile application pinging servers too much, carriers should have recourse and processes to let the offending app maker know, fix the problem or be pulled from an app store. This exact scenario recently happened with YouMail and T-Mobile, for example. In terms of subsidized hardware, when does a consumer actually “own” their device? Carriers can pay for some of the costs, so do they “own” the device as well over the life of a network contract and does that allow them to have control?

Regardless of where your opinion lies on these two particular angles, these arguments shouldn’t apply to the Kindle Fire. Why? Because even though Amazon is reportedly selling the Fire at a small loss, consumers are paying the full price for the hardware. There’s no subsidy for Amazon to pay in order to get people to buy or use a Kindle Fire. And with no subsidy, there’s no contract for network service.

In fact, the Kindle Fire can’t even use a mobile broadband network because it only has a Wi-Fi radio. So consumers are buying the device outright and supplying or finding their own network connection. I’d say the owner should have full control over their device in this situation, with the understanding that technical support is limited or not provided when using the device outside of its intended use.

Redirecting specific web requests is bad karma

My second concern is: where does it end? By routing a specific web request away from the intended site on the Internet, Amazon has set a dangerous precedent here. We collectively debate open vs closed ecosystems, net neutrality and other related themes, but if I had to pick one app to consider “sacred” in these discussions it would be the browser. That’s not the case for this particular web request on a Kindle Fire and once millions of these are in consumer hands, who or what could stop Amazon from adding other URLs to a list of redirects?

You’d think a Kindle Fire owner could simply install a third-party browser — Dolphin Browser HD on a Fire can access Google’s web-based Market, for example — but guess what? There are no third-party browsers in the Kindle AppStore save for Maxthon. But that the browser is our window to the web and that window should not have smears or streaks obscuring our view because a company says so.

I understand Amazon sells the Fire in order to sell apps, movies, TV shows, magazines, books and physical goods. And the company built its tablet upon Google’s open-source Android platform. I think that was a smart strategy.

But Amazon’s tablet relies heavily on Google’s platform; it’s not like the Fire is a standalone platform of its own because standard Android apps can and do run on the device. You simply have to know how to access them and install them. Most people don’t, so I don’t think Amazon should worry. And blocking one of the easiest ways to get standard Amazon apps on the Fire — via the Android Market website — isn’t a long-term answer because the company could suffer through the tag of “web censorship.”

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Amazon here, since many apps require hardware such as a GPS or microphone, which the Kindle Fire doesn’t have. But when I think about this situation in a different light, it doesn’t sound like I am. For instance, if you decided to purchase a new car and after you bought it, the dealership told you it could only be driven on certain roadways, how would you feel? Maybe that’s too extreme of an example, but all I know is this: I want to ride in whatever lane of the information superhighway with my browser that I see fit.

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  1. Stephen Shepherd Monday, December 19, 2011

    I have very similar feelings about this.

  2. No, you’re not being too hard on Amazon, this is absurd. They’re selling the Fire with the claim that it has a web browser, but it doesn’t, for any web browser, even Safari or IE, still lets you access Google’s site. I expect this behavior from wireless carriers, telcos, and cable companies, because they actually believe they own the internet, but seeing Amazon act this way is a huge disappointment.

    If they want to lock out certain (competitive) websites, that’s their prerogative, but they need to disclose this (and not in fine print) to potential customers before they buy the crippled device.

  3. I can’t say I disagree with amazon redirecting android marketplace requests to their app store. They want to maximize revenue and minimize support costs. They’re probably testing apps in their app store against kindle fires to make sure they work well. There are plenty of less specialized android tablets out there if you don’t want this restriction. And it’s a pretty small one (considering how many websites exist….)

    I guess I’m not buying the moral argument against their restrictions on the kindle fire’s browser.

    1. uh huh. and if apple was blocking some google offering you’d feel the same way? riiiight.

  4. I can’t say I disagree with amazon redirecting android marketplace requests to their app store. They want to maximize revenue and minimize support costs. They’re probably testing apps in their app store against kindle fires to make sure they work well. There are plenty of less specialized android tablets out there if you don’t want this restriction. And it’s a pretty small one (considering how many websites exist….)

    I guess I’m not buying the moral argument against their restrictions on the kindle fire’s browser.

    1. No browser maker should redirect what you want to see on the web. Period.

      I swear, these days it’s like people WANT liberties being taken away from them.

    2. So if Microsoft redirected all queries from google.com on Windows to bing.com that would be fine?

  5. This is just evil!

  6. You can sideload apps. You can root the Fire.

    And further the terms of what one ‘owns’ are dependent on the licence agreement and T&C, which everyone reads – yes? And if unhappy one can return the device no questions asked within 30 days (or right now over the holiday period until Jan 31).

    I regard the actions here as somewhat in the line of ‘curating’ the device for lesser skilled users, of which there are many and for many of those the Fire seems to be their (a) first tablet (b) first Android device. It does cut down on their support overhead (fewer inexperienced users pounding on Amazon’s door for support for non-Amazon supplied apps – this is always an issue for Amazon eg people use Amazon’s forums to vent & complain all the time about other non Amazon websites which refer to Amazon). Advanced users already know how to sideload their own apps. Maybe they need to spell out the boundaries or licenses a bit more clearly but their clarity on their product pages is improving.

    I have no desire to stand up for Amazon, not being a fangirl, but I appreciate the delicate balance they need to strike.

  7. Jason Kichline Monday, December 19, 2011

    I’m not saying I agree with what Amazon has done with the Fire, but I also don’t think it’s evil. Here’s why. If you go to ftp://ftp.address.com within your browser, your computer may do different things. Your browser may support it, or it may direct that scheme to open a different program. The same goes for something like itunes://. The scheme of the URL is intended to be opened by an application that supports the protocol.

    One protocol we are very used to is mailto:youremail@domain.com or tel:5551234567 . On an Android device, this is handled differently depending on what apps are installed on the device. For instance, a tablet that does not support telephony may just ignore the phone number link. It may give you a choice to open one of many email browsers, or it may open up the default email app on the device. Again, there’s nothing wrong there.

    Amazon doesn’t have the ability to run the Google Market on their devices because it is such a custom build of Android. Because of this, the Fire routes calls to market:// to it’s own market and handles it appropriately. I don’t see anything wrong with that. The other option would be to tell the user that the protocol is not supported and leave them hanging. It is better to handle the protocol request if you can.

    1. I think that this would be akin to your dialing 5551234567 on your phone and the phone deciding you would be better off calling 8887654321

    2. This doesn’t have anything to do with the protocol. It’s a user typing market.android.com into their browser, which typically uses the https:// protocol – not market://

  8. we can moan all day long. But the only way we really communicate with our providers is by order/cancel requests. Think about it.

  9. Seem like you’re on of the people who still doesn’t really “get” the fire.

    You’ve completely made a mountain out of a molehill here. An advanced user, those that care about the issues you raise, are going to be able to install another browser and move on their way. The basic simple “grandparent” user isn’t going to understand why a link is taking them to a market where they can’t purchase anything. It makes infinitely more sense for amazon to put this redirect in than to confuse an alienate the market they’re going after.

    Frankly you’re targeting the wrong company in your little rant. Sure amazon wants people using their market but all of this talk about them “blocking” it is actually in Google’s hands. Just like the net10 or any other nongoogle approved device it doesn’t get access to the market or other key android apps. Short is even if amazon wanted that, google isn’t going to give it to them so amazon came up with a simple work around, no harm no foul.

  10. I can understand the frustration, yet comparing Amazon, as the develop of its hardware, to the purchase of a new car and not having the ability to use certain roads is a bit far fetched. I’m sure that’s why you used the qualifier, “maybe.”

    If you want to ride in whatever lane of the superhighway you want, perhaps you can buy something that will let you do so, rather than complaining because the Fire does not.

    Millions of consumers have already voted for the Fire and even factoring in the returns, it’s wildly popular.

    Don’t like it, then don’t buy.

    1. I understand a lot of people still do not get that even though kindle fire is based on android, it is not Google’s platform. If Google and its fanboys are not able to take the fact that another company took the open-source version of Google’s crappy OS, and with a midas touch turned it into a gem of a tablet, they better look at themselves in the mirror. Amazon has done nothing wrong by creating what was required, using a crappy OS, from a clueless company, without violating any of its licenses, and turning it into something that makes sense. Android, btw isn’t Google’s in-house developed OS, it was acquired, uses linux kernel underneath. Google and its fanboys === low IQ.

      1. “Google and its fanboys === low IQ.” Sorry about that. No offense was intended. Gigaom wouldn’t let me delete my comment.

      2. Uhm, who said Amazon was wrong to create Kindle Fire? The problem is that Amazon dictates what users can and cannot access on the WEB. And here I thought Amazon was a strong supporter for web neutrality?

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