Amazon’s Fire tablets run Amazon’s own “Fire OS” operating system. Fire OS is based on 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.
For the average person, the big difference between a regular Android tablet and Amazon’s Fire tablet is that the Google Play Store isn’t present on the Fire tablet. Instead, you’re limited to Amazon’s Appstore and the apps available there. 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. Amazon even sells a Fire Tablet designed specifically for kids that bundles in a number of services and adds a nice, “kid-proof” case. 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 hopes to make more money off you in digital sales. The cheapest version of the tablet even ships with lock screen advertisements, and you have to pay a little extra if you want to remove them.
There are really two Androids. There’s the Google “Android” you see on devices from Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony, and other big device manufacturers. And this isn’t just the Android OS—it’s an Android device the manufacturers have had certified by Google. The device uses the Android OS, and 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 (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 have to install Google’s apps separately after you get the tablet.
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, you’re more likely to spend money on additional Amazon services and products.
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.
As we mentioned before, the biggest difference for the average Kindle tablet user 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 standard Android smartphones and tablets, and then download apps from there instead of Google Play. They’re Android apps, so they’ll run on both Android and Fire OS.
Because Fire OS is so close to Android, there are a number of steps you can take to make the Fire tablet more like stock Android (without rooting). These include installing the Google Play store, using a more traditional launcher, and turning off a number of Amazon-specific features.
None of this is officially supported by Google or Amazon, but it is possible, and 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. But as of Fire OS 8, at least, that hasn’t happened yet.
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.