Blog Post

Yo Amazon: Please don’t hijack the web on Kindle Fire

Amazon’s(s amzn) Kindle Fire, arguably considered a successful 7-inch tablet, is locked down more than people might think. When trying to browse the Google(s goog) 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(s vz)(s vod) 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.

43 Responses to “Yo Amazon: Please don’t hijack the web on Kindle Fire”

  1. bigloser99

    I have been side loading apps since the first week the fire came out. I did not like the Silk browser, so I have been using opera mobile. I side loaded ucweb and dolphin hd, lookout, friendcaster pro, quick office pro.
    Also, I did not buy the Fire to dogfight with the Ipad and Nook. Every purchase is not a dogfight. That is the problem today. One last thing buy a stylus.

  2. You are way too soft on Amazon for such an evil practice. People don’t have time to read all the specs, all the articles and understand all the implications when they buy stuff. They have to rely on the company behind the product and on what other people know about it. People like them, people that don’t spend their life on reading geeky stuff. Therefore, it’s our duty to voice them out.

    There are just a few rich companies out there that can battle on the devices market. And it’s not because this is some rocket science, it’s because of the monopoly on these markets, the stupid patent war and other evil market practices. Smaller companies have no chance to grow and build innovative products.

    If we allow for small, some would say insignificant, stuff to be stolen from us, soon they will steal more. Especially because there is not much competition. The bug guys are not afraid that some other company will offer a fair product. They simply won’t allow it on the market.

    Like another commenter said, under no circumstance one would accept it’s phone to redirect some numbers just because the service provider says so.

    On this particular issue, I thing there is no problem in Amazon not allowing apps from Google’s Android Market. Android is open source, everybody can modify it as she/he wishes. But blocking or redirecting a website is censoring content. Maybe I’m a happy Amazon/Fire customer who just wants to check how much better the Fire store is compared to Google’s. Android Market is a WEBSITE, it has content in it! Does your photo camera refuse to take a picture because the maker doesn’t agree with the scene? Does your eBook refuse to display some books because the content conflicts with the contract you have with the reader provider?

  3. I appreciate the concern about freedom on the web, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Amazon would do such a thing. First of all, the Kindle is all about consumption of Amazon content. Everyone knows that before they purchase it. No one would expect to be able to buy music from Itunes or books from the Nook store on their Kindle. The Kindle is an Amazon centric device from the start. It is always best to buy the device you want instead of buying the device you don’t want and being upset when it doesn’t meet your expectations. Don’t buy a Chevy if you want a Ford. There are lots of android tablets out there that aren’t Amazon centric and work with the android market. If Amazon’s control over the Kindle upsets anyone, they should buy something else. There are LOTS of choices.