Amazon and Android

The rumor mill was flying on Friday of developers being contacted by regarding Android applications. The theory was that Amazon would be setting up their own independent market, perhaps for some future Android-powered Kindle.

From the standpoint of device users, this should be a net win. At minimum, an Android-powered Kindle would be an interesting player in the tablet/e-reader space, particularly if Amazon can keep the cost down to levels akin to their current Kindles. If Amazon makes their market available more broadly, then users benefit more, as Amazon is likely a big enough name to pressure Google into accelerating their own improvements in the usability of the Android Market. It is also possible that Amazon might create a curated market, akin to the iPhone App Store, which would give them a long-term differentiator from Google.

However, from the standpoint of application publishers, the situation may not be quite so rosy.

First, if the Amazon market is only for Android-powered Kindles, that limits the potential reach. While the Kindle itself has sold fairly well by all estimates, I don’t get the sense that it is selling tons better than a very popular single model of Android phone (e.g., the Motorola DROID almost one year ago). Now, an Android-powered Kindle might do substantially better, but it is still a single device.

Second, Amazon has as much, if not more, history in using their size and power to get better business terms. Initially, books published on the Kindle earned their publishers only 35% royalty, compared to 70% for apps sold through the Android Market. Amazon also forced some small print publishers to use Amazon’s own book-printing subsidiary, forcing a lawsuit to try to prevent this behavior in the future.

Third, an Amazon market may have terms and conditions that make things challenging for developers. For example, it seems unlikely that Amazon would be willing to allow competing e-reader software to run on Android-powered Kindles, since Amazon’s control point is centered around the Kindle proprietary file format. The legal terms that allow Amazon to enforce that restriction may have other impacts as well, beyond just EPUB viewers.

Finally, Amazon’s interest in control may well extend to where they specifically decline the Android Market. After all, via apps on the Android Market, users could get to EPUB viewers. If they pass on the Market, Google’s main lever to enforce compatibility is broken. As such, Amazon may wind up making a device that has more compatibility issues than average — not because the engineers are bad, but because they do not have the threat of losing the Market to force compatibility fixes.

Despite these reservations, I look forward to Amazon’s possible entry into this space. I just urge developers — particularly those already being contacted by Amazon — to be sure to go into this with eyes wide open.

UPDATE: Apparently, some of my guesses are matching up with the rumors hitting TechCrunch. Mandatory DRM is disappointing but not remotely surprising, since it’s pretty much required for publishing Kindle books. They’re also taking some of their mandatory pricing/distribution rules from Kindle to this market, which is also disappointing. On the plus side, there are signs that they might make the market available for general Android devices, albeit perhaps US-only at the outset.