Amazon is set to go public with their tablet tomorrow, and unless they’ve somehow totally blown it the device will almost immediately become the only credible competitor to the iPad. The tablet is rumored to be using a heavily-modified version of Android 2.1 that Amazon forked from one of Google’s periodic code dumps. This was probably used merely as a foundation because those who have seen it in person claim that it looks nothing like Android.
Forking is an important concept in Open Source Software. The idea is that any developer can decide to take code in a completely different direction if they disagree with some of the architectural or design-related decisions that are being made by a project. Other forks happen because the development process itself has become cumbersome and unwieldy for outside contributors with new ideas.
Regardless of why Amazon has done what they’ve done it’s easy to argue that Android is in this position. In fact it’s pretty easy to argue that Android, unlike nearly every other project that is considered open source, does not allow outside contributions whatsoever. Android development happens entirely within the walls of Google itself, with access to the in-progress repository selectively granted only to certain hardware partners and Google’s internal development team. One community fork of Android, Cyanogenmod, contains a vast number of impressive features and bug fixes that have yet to become part of Android proper because there’s no pathway for its developers to submit them for inclusion. Android is not open source in the traditional meaning of the phrase, and in the case of its tablet iteration, Honeycomb, Android is not open source at all.
Let’s dream for a second. What if Jeff Bezos got on stage tomorrow, announced the Kindle Fire, and then closed with this bombshell:
“So that’s the next Kindle. We are pretty proud of it. But we have something else that we would like to announce. We mentioned earlier that the operating system that powers the Kindle Fire is loosely based on Android. But we have made tens of thousands of modifications to the Android core—so many in fact that we consider it to be a different OS entirely. We call it Awesome Codename. We believe that it’s the best tablet operating system available. And today we are making it open source. We aren’t holding anything back. The development of Awesome Codename will happen in the open and we invite interested individuals throughout the world to join us in making what you saw today even better. Every Kindle Fire is shipping with an unlocked boot loader and we are excited to see where we can take this when we work together.”
Is this likely? Probably not. But it sure would be fantastic. Fingers crossed.