Last week, Amazon and Microsoft signed a patent cross-licensing deal which raised the eyebrows of the Open Source community. Today, Amazon's Kindle reader uses the Open Source Linux OS, but could its future lie in Windows? (Concept design by Spidermonkey)
There was a great deal of hubbub in the Open Source and Free Software community last week caused by the recently sealed agreement between Amazon and Microsoft to cross-license patents related to Amazon's use of Linux in its Kindle device as well as the servers that run the Internet retailer's server and software infrastructure. The deal was for an undisclosed amount and the exact details of what it covers remains completely secret.
My Frugal Networker friend and colleague Ken Hess, who writes at Linux Magazine and DaniWeb, has come to an interesting conclusion -- that this "Linux" intellectual property licensing deal is in fact a smokescreen. According to Ken, the real deal behind the deal is in fact the beginning of Amazon's transition from Linux to Microsoft's OS in its devices and possibly even in its server infrastructure.
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Let us examine the pickle that Amazon is in today, and bring it to its logical conclusion.
Amazon is currently the US market leader in electronic books with its $259.00 dedicated and proprietary Kindle 2 and $389.00 Kindle DX ebook readers, which are the most recent iterations of the product that has been shipping for just over two years. To date, Amazon has not disclosed sales figures for the devices, but have claimed high volume shipments of the unit as well as ebook sales which were significant in contributing to Amazon's bottom line in book sales during 2009.All of this is about to be threatened by Apple's iPad, which is expected to be available for sale in major retail outlets and direct from Apple's web site during the 2nd quarter of 2010. Like $489.00 Kindle DX, which has a similar 9.7-inch screen form factor, the 10.1-inch $499.00 iPad in its basic configuration will also have its own instant gratification e-book store with titles from major publishing houses.
However, although the two devices are priced similarly, the iPad will have the distinction of having a color IPS LCD touchscreen (the Kindle uses Vizplex e-Ink, a grayscreen technology with slow refresh rates but very power efficient) a powerful general-purpose processor, multimedia capabilities, roughly 5x the amount of user storage, true PC-class web browsing, high speed Wireless-N networking and access to all of the 140,000+ iPhone applications residing on Apple's App Store, along with all the software developers to go with it.
Amazon has only recently began fielding initial developers for the Kindle, which uses a proprietary application architecture running on a underpowered embedded Linux OS using Java. The Kindle's design is more similar to that of a micro controller whereas the iPad is a full blown general-purpose computer with many times the horsepower, so the applications for it would only be very limited in capability by comparison.
What is Amazon to do in order to compete with the iPad? Well, there are several possible paths. One would be to create a much more powerful, next-generation Kindle device using available technologies such as transflective screens and more powerful embedded CPUs such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon or Texas Instruments OMAP 36xx series, the very same type of chips used in today's most powerful smartphones. However, it would still require a sophisticated OS at the core of such a device.
To compete with the rich applications and content on the iPad, Amazon's custom Linux and Java UI implementation won't cut it. Amazon is a wealthy company but it doesn't have the programming resources of a Google which can build something as sophisticated as Android, which runs on the Nexus One and Verizon Droid smartphones, as well as on Barnes & Noble's Nook ebook reader unit.
Amazon could indeed have pursued an Android-based iPad competitor such as with the upcoming Dell Mini 5. However, if the company really wanted to go the Open Source route with its products and open its kimono and use a system like Android, it would have already done so. Linux on the Kindle was simply a means to an end to launch an initial product, and not a long-term strategy.
Without Android and without the ability to build a compelling OS for developers to build applications for, there's very little else out there that can stave away the Cupertino giant. Oh sure, there's stuff out there like MeeGo for Netbooks and other devices that is trying to get off the ground in terms of market share, but there's no point in buying into something that when Android is already going to control the balance of the Linux device marketplace.
Amazon is not going to participate in the Open Source community and is the antithesis of Google. It wants something closed but with a rich application environment. It wants its cake and to be able to eat it. Just like Apple.
That application environment is the recently announced Windows 7 Phone Series, known previously as Windows CE and Windows Mobile. And it's already got the mobile world buzzing for its compelling UI and fresh take on mobile applications.
Imagine a Windows 7 Phone Series device scaled up to a 10.1 inch screen, with Wireless-N networking, Microsoft's Zune/Amazon MP3 music service, Kindle's e-book store and the Microsoft's developer base behind it. A synthesis of the world's largest Internet retailer, ebook reseller and the world's largest software company.
Back in May of 2009 I called this theoretical device the ZuneBook. I'm now going to call it the "Kindle TNG, powered by Windows 7 Mobile".
In addition to moving Kindle to Windows in a strategic partnership with Microsoft, there is also the issue of Amazon's cloud initiative. Right now, Amazon uses the Open Source Xen hypervisor on Linux to run its EC2 infrastructure.
Only recently has Amazon been able to provide support for Windows guests on that infrastructure. However, the ideal hypervisor and rapid provisioning required at the scale Amazon is going to deploy Windows on for their cloud hosting customers given any strategic relationship with Microsoft would have to be Hyper-V, using Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager or Citrix's Essentials for Hyper-V.
Are there clues afoot that Amazon is cozying up to Microsoft beyond just "Patent licensing?" Talk Back and Let Me Know.