May 13 AT 8:00 AM Taylor Wimberly 37 Comments

Rumor: Amazon has an “entire family” of Android devices coming this holiday

Amazon’s Android tablet is both the best and worst kept secret in the mobile industry. Everyone knows that Amazon is working on an Android device, but few know any of the specific details about its hardware or software. I recently took a break from blogging, but I had to come out of retirement for this post because it’s the most interesting Android topic that still remains a mystery. Read on after the jump to see what details I have dug up.

The Rumor

Amazon has an “entire family” of Android devices that will launch this holiday shopping season.

The Source

This tip came from an industry insider with direct knowledge of the project. The information was shared with me in a recent face-to-face meeting and I believe the source to be trustworthy. It was also confirmed by a separate source who has provided reliable information in the past. As with most of my tipsters, they wish to remain anonymous.

One Android Insider’s take on the rumor

I love writing these types of reports because there is always some truth behind the original rumor and additional details normally leak out after a post like this. People send a million rumors my way every week, so I only bust out the keyboard when I have information that I think deserves to be shared.

Rumors of Amazon expanding their hardware lineup beyond the Kindle e-reader go way back to last year. The New York Times first reported that Amazon’s research and development group, Lab126, had posted a flurry of job listings related to electronics hardware. That hiring spree has continued, as there are now around 180 job openings.

Then last September, MG Siegler of TechCrunch posted an interesting tip that Amazon was working on an iPad competitor. I agreed that it was obvious Amazon was working on an Android device when their app store was confirmed, but no new hardware details appeared for the next several months.

Things finally picked up again three weeks ago when Peter Rojas of gdgt said he was 99% sure that Samsung was building Amazon’s tablet. That rumor was quickly challenged when Digitimes said that several component makers reported Amazon has chosen Quanta Computers (the largest manufacturer of notebook computers in the world) to produce their Android tablet.

Now most recently, I was told with a smile that there is not one tablet, but an entire family of devices in the pipeline. This surprised me at first, but Amazon is placing a huge bet on Android so it makes sense for them to launch several types of devices and see what gets the best reception.

So what kind of devices are we talking about?

I couldn’t get any details out of my source about which specific devices will launch first, but I’m speculating there will be several sizes of tablets and at least one smartphone.

Most of the Android apps in Amazon’s app store are designed for the normal smartphone screen size, so it makes sense they would bring to market a device with a 4 inch display. Their Kindle e-reader currently ships in 6 and 9.7 inch versions and I believe that would be the target size for any tablets.

There hasn’t been much talk about it, but I also believe Amazon might explore a set top box running Google TV.

How much will these things cost?

Current prices of the Kindle are $114 for a 6 inch with WiFi (some sponsored ads), $189 for a 6 inch with 3G, and $379 for a 9.7 inch with 3G.

Barnes & Noble has proven with their Nook Color that the sweet spot for a color tablet is around $249. Amazon could definitely match that $249 price point with a 6 inch color tablet, depending on what hardware components they choose. I would hope to see a 9.7 inch color tablet at $399 and a 4 inch phone for under $199.

Amazon truly has the power to hit whatever price point they want. They could subsidize part of the cost with advertising like the recent Kindle offer or just decide to take a loss on the devices. History has shown that the component prices will come down when the production ramps up and Amazon can afford to take a loss in the short term when they know they can make their money back by selling apps, books, movies, music, and more.

Who will supply the mobile data?

Just like the Amazon Kindle, I suspect we will see some Android devices with only WiFi and others with 3G/4G connectivity. Amazon has a history of working with both AT&T and Verizon, so either of those carriers could be potential partners.

The mobile data model you are most likely to see is a limited amount of free 3G/4G data, with the option to purchase additional data each month. Verizon worked a similar deal with Google to allow 100 MB of free data each month on their CR-48 Chromebook, so hopefully Amazon can do something similar.

What kind of display can we expect?

Digitimes reported that Amazon would use a Fringe Field Switching LCD display and touch panel from E Ink Holdings, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently told Consumer Reports that color e-ink “is not ready for prime time…the colors are very pale.” He went on to say, “it makes a lot of sense for there to be a low-power, reflective color display. I think that’s something you could build a fantastic product around.”

When I checked around with my inside sources, I was told that Amazon would be using a Pixel Qi display like we saw in the Notion Ink Adam. It is possible that Amazon is evaluating multiple display technologies and has not decided on a final winner yet.

My gut tells me that Qualcomm’s Mirasol displays could be at the top of the list. These reflective displays do not require a backlight and offer a significant reduction in power consumption. I did not think they would be ready in time for Amazon’s tablet launch, but Qualcomm has been demoing their new front-light technology and claims they will be ready in the fall.

Whatever display type they go with, I expect Amazon will choose something ultra low power to differentiate their devices from the competition. The LCD displays of smartphones and tablets are normally the biggest source of power drain and one of these newer displays could greatly enhance the battery life.

Who will supply the CPU?

I know I’m a processor nerd, but I don’t really think it matters which CPU Amazon chooses to go with at this point. It will likely be an ARM-based dual-core CPU, which means it could be supplied by anyone.

My head tells me that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon might be the best fit since they could offer Amazon a sweetheart deal and price out the competition. NVIDIA could also be in the running with their quad-core Kal-El processor, which is expected to be available around Q3.

However, going back to my gut feeling I think Texas Instruments could be the big winner here. There OMAP3 powered the Nook Color and their new dual-core 1.5 GHz OMAP4 will be ready in the second half of 2011.

What will the software experience be like?

My sources tell me that Amazon has outsourced their software services to an embedded systems company that has experience with Android devices. Some had speculated that Amazon might use Android 2.3 Gingerbread so they could heavily customize the user interface, but I was told that Amazon will certainly use the latest version of Android.

Google has chosen not to release the source code for Android 3.0 Honeycomb until sometime in Q4 when Ice Cream Sandwich becomes available. I was given the impression that Google is actually working with Amazon on these devices, so it is possible that Amazon could ship their products in Q4 with Ice Cream Sandwich.

Andy Rubin told the press doing a Google I/O Q&A session that Android was meant to be customized and Google would not lock down the UI, so expect a heavily modified user experience on Amazon’s devices.

But would you actually buy one?

I’ve been a long-time Amazon Prime member, so I would definitely be interested in any Android device that Amazon might release. My phone of choice will likely remain a Google-designed Nexus product, but when it comes to tablets I would hand my money over to Amazon if they provided the best overall experience.

We tossed this idea around amongst the other staffers and here is what some had to say:

  • Edgar Cervantes: “I would not be very inclined to buy an Amazon phone… It seems like Amazon’s plan would be to separate itself from Google [and] Google’s services are very important to me. On the other hand, I think an Amazon tablet would be a better idea. Amazon is pretty much my favorite e-Reader provider, so if said tablet was optimized for Kindle, I would be more likely to consider it.”
  • Keivan Askari: “I think it would be an interesting device, and if they did a pilot program like the Google CR-48, it would be a great way to test the waters as well as build hype about the phone. I’m confident they could offer free data up to 100mb like the CR-48.”
  • Sean Riley: “I doubt that I would consider any of the products from Amazon, but these are bound to be targeted at the general consumer rather than Android enthusiasts. As consumption devices Amazon can certainly put together an incredible competitor with the ecosystem they have strung together in the last few months. The pricing should be their biggest advantage and considering the projections that the Kindle may go completely free for Prime subscribers by this Fall I think a $150-200 7″ tablet isn’t out of the question with the 10″ model running more like $250-300. I find the phone harder to believe, although certainly possible, but I can certainly imagine their going with a 4″ iPod Touch competitor at $99.”

What would it take to convince you to buy an Amazon smartphone or tablet?

Taylor is the founder of Android and Me. He resides in Dallas and carries the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One as his daily devices. Ask him a question on Twitter or Google+ and he is likely to respond. | Ethics statement

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