Amazon’s Fire tablets run Amazon’s own “Fire OS” operating system. Fire OS is based on Google’s Android, but it doesn’t have any of Google’s apps or services. Here’s what that means, and how exactly they’re different.
It’s not really correct to say that Amazon’s Fire tablets run Android. But, in another sense, they do run a lot of Android code. All the apps you’ll run on a Fire tablet are Android apps, too.
The Quick Answer
For the average person, the big difference will be that the Google Play Store isn’t present. You’re limited to Amazon’s Appstore and the apps available there instead. You also won’t have access to Google’s apps or Google’s services. You’ll be using Amazon’s own apps — the SIlk Browser instead of Chrome, for example.
There are other differences, of course. Amazon doesn’t make it possible to change the launcher as you normally can on Android devices, so you’ll be using Amazon’s home screen experience. Amazon’s home screen experience can show a grid of apps, but it also shows you videos, music, and ebooks from Amazon. The home screen even contains Amazon’s shopping site, making it easy to buy more stuff — and give Amazon more money.
Fire OS does have a nice, kid-friendly “Kindle FreeTime” feature that can be combined with an “Unlimited” subscription for access to thousands of kid-friendly educational apps, books, movies, and TV shows. These kid-friendly parental-control features are one of Fire OS’s more unique features.
But what does the difference really mean? Well, if you just want an inexpensive tablet for browsing the web, going through emails, and watching videos, there isn’t that big a difference. If you want the entire ecosystem of Android apps without jumping through hoops, you might want to get a more typical Android tablet.
That’s Amazon’s value proposition, after all. You can get an inexpensive, $50 Kindle Fire tablet — but you’ll have to use Amazon’s appstore and services instead of Google’s. Amazon will hopefully make more money off you in digital sales. The cheapest version of the tablet even ships with lock screen advertisements you have to pay if you want to remove. If you know what you’re doing, you can put Google’s services on there — but Amazon doesn’t want you to do this, and it could become more difficult in the future. Whether Amazon’s offer is worthwhile is up to you and what you want to do with your tablet.
Android, Google Mobile Services, and AOSP
There are really two Androids. There’s the Google “Android” software you see on devices from Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony, and other big device manufacturers. This isn’t just Android — it’s an Android device the manufacturers have had certified by Google. It ships with “Google Mobile Services,” which includes the Google Play Store and other Google apps like Gmail and Google Maps.
But Android is also an open source project. The open source project is known, simply enough, as the “Android Open Source Project”, or AOSP. The AOSP code is licensed under a permissive open-source license, and any manufacturer or developer can take the code and use it for what they want.
Google Mobile Services is not part of the Android open source project, and lots of things that people think of as “Android” — including the Google Play Store and all of Google’s services — aren’t included in Android. They’re licensed separately.
The cheapest Android tablets — the kind you get for $30 straight from a factory in China — are just this AOSP code. If you want Google Play on them, you’ll have to install Google’s apps separately after you get the tablet.
Why Amazon Created Fire OS Instead of Using Google’s Android
Amazon wanted to create its own operating system for its tablets. Rather than starting from scratch, Amazon takes that Android AOSP code and modifies it to create “Fire OS.”
This saves Amazon time because they can piggy-back off Google’s efforts rather than starting from scratch. it also means all those existing Android apps can be easily “ported” to Fire OS, which is basically the same thing as Android anyway.
But why doesn’t Amazon just use Google’s Android? Well, Amazon wants to control the entire experience. Rather than handing you off to Google Play for app purchases, video rentals, music downloads, and eBooks, Amazon wants you to use the Amazon Appstore, Prime Instant Videos, Amazon Music, and Amazon Kindle apps. That’s the point of the Amazon Fire tablet line, anyway — it’s an inexpensive window into Amazon’s services. Once you have the hardware, Amazon can try to convince you to spend more money.
Google Play Services is Only for Google’s Android
Increasingly, more and more of what a typical person thinks of as “Android” is actually part of Google Play Services and Google’s own apps. Many of the typical Android apps in Google Play are written to use Google Play Services for access to GPS locations, payments, and many other things. These apps can’t just be put straight onto a Fire OS device, where Google Play Services isn’t present. Amazon has to provide alternative APIs for developers, and developers may have to do a bit of work to port their Android apps from the Google Play Store to Amazon’s Fire OS. That’s a big reason why not every Android app is present.
Amazon Appstore vs. Google Play
For the average Kindle tablet user, the biggest change will be the presence of Amazon’s Appstore instead of Google Play. Android app developers can choose to list their applications in the Amazon Appstore as well as Google Play. Not every developer does — but many do.
In practice, this means you don’t have access to all the Android apps you normally would with an Android tablet — but you do have access to quite a few. You can search the Amazon Appstore on the web to see if the apps you use are available in Amazon’s Appstore.
Amazon also makes its “Appstore” app available for download. You can install the Amazon Appstore on typical Android smartphones and tablets and download apps from there instead of Google Play — they’re Android apps, so they’ll run on both Android and Fire OS.
But You Can Turn a Fire Tablet Into a “Google Android” Device
Because Fire OS is so close to Android, it’s possible to easily sideload the Google Play Store and Google Play Services onto a Fire Tablet. They’ll function just like they would on a typical Android tablet, giving you access to the entire GOogle Play Store and Google services.
This isn’t officially supported by Google or Amazon, but it’s certainly possible. It doesn’t even require rooting your device. The big difference here is that you have to do a bit of work to make it happen. And, of course, it’s possible Amazon may crack down on this in future versions of Fire OS and make it more difficult.
For an inexpensive tablet for watching videos, reading books, listening to music, browsing the web, checking email, and using Facebook, Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets are a fine deal.
Android users who want access to the entire Play Store and all of Google’s apps — without hacking about — may want a standard Android tablet.