Welcome to Lowpass! This week: Amazon is ditching Android, and SiriusXM is trying to rekindle growth with a new app.

Amazon has been working on a new operating system to replace Android on Fire TVs, smart displays and other connected devices, I have learned from talking to multiple sources with knowledge of these plans, as well as job listings and other materials referencing these efforts.

Development of the new operating system, which is internally known as Vega, appears fairly advanced. The system has already been tested on Fire TV streaming adapters, and Amazon has told select partners about its plans to transition to a new application framework in the near future. A source with knowledge of the company’s plans suggested that it could start shipping Vega on select Fire TV devices as early as next year.

Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amazon has been working on an alternative OS for years. I first heard about the company exploring this idea in 2019, and someone told me at the time that Amazon folks had brought it up in conversations with chip makers as early as 2017.

  • These efforts seem to have picked up steam more recently. An Amazon employee wrote on the anonymous tech worker forum Blind in September of last year that Amazon was building an “iOS / Android competitor for all devices and IoT.”

  • The employee also mentioned the Vega code name, and said that “most of the OS development is already done,” adding that the company was “now focusing on SDK and value adds to go convince developers to actually use it.”

  • I’ve been told that hundreds of people have been working on the development of the new OS as part of Amazon’s Device OS group.

  • One of them appears to be former Mozilla engineer and Javascript expert Zibi Braniecki, who joined Amazon in early 2022 to work on Alexa. Braniecki transitioned the Device OS group at the beginning of 2023, and at the time announced on LinkedIn that he was “working on a next generation Operating System for Smart Home, Automotive, and other Amazon Devices product lines.”

Vega is a web-forward operating system for smart home devices – and more. Amazon devices like its Fire TV sticks and television sets, Echo Show smart displays as well as Fire tablets all have been using a forked version of Android known as Fire OS. 

  • Using Android as the foundation of Fire OS has allowed third-party developers to bring apps running on Android phones, tablets and TVs to Amazon devices without having to rebuild them from scratch.

  • However, Android also comes with downsides. Amazon has been relying on the Android Open Source Project to build Fire OS, which has resulted in development of the OS regularly trailing Google’s efforts by multiple years.

  • Current-gen Fire TVs run Fire OS 7, which is based on Android 9. Google released Android 14 this fall; the company’s own streaming hardware currently runs Android 12; developers began testing Android 13 on Google’s Android TV developer devices close to a year ago.

  • As an operating system first developed for mobile phones, Android also comes with significant technical debt. Essentially, a lot of its code is unnecessary for running many modern smart home devices.

  • That’s one reason Google never used Android for its own smart displays, instead relying on a Linux-based solution at first, and more recently switching to Fuchsia.

  • Amazon’s new operating system is also based on a flavor of Linux, and is using a more web-forward application model. App developers are being told to use React Native as an application framework, which allows them to build native apps with Javascript-powered interfaces.

  • React Native also allows developers to build apps across a much wider range of devices and operating systems, including iOS and Android hardware as well as a range of smart TVs. It will likely enable them to build the same apps for newer Vega-powered devices and legacy Fire TV hardware still running Android.

  • I’ve been told that Amazon plans to eventually move away from Android completely across all of its new devices. Vega is meant to run not only on Fire TVs and smart displays, but also in-car entertainment systems and other future hardware products.

  • Amazon has published multiple job listings that suggest that Vega will be key to its automotive efforts; the company brought Fire TV to select in-car entertainment systems in 2021.

With Vega, Amazon also avoids further conflicts with Google. The two companies long fought over Amazon’s use of Android, with Google for some time pressuring hardware makers not to build Amazon-powered smart TVs. The companies subsequently came to an agreement that allowed Amazon to partner with TV makers like Hisense and TCL, but Amazon ditching Android should give it more control over its own destiny.

However, industry insiders I spoke to argued that these competitive pressures likely weren’t the main reason for Amazon to switch to Vega. What Amazon really cares about is reaching hundreds of millions of eyeballs on a wide range of inexpensive devices, and then monetizing those eyeballs with ads and services – and a custom OS built-in house may just be the best way to do that.

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SiriusXM invited media and industry folks to a press event in New York Wednesday to preview what was branded as the next generation of its service. The event, which I followed via a live stream from afar, featured a mix of celebrity cameos, product previews and announcements for new content coming to SiriusXM. 

There was Conan, playing the ever-eager ex-TV-star. Kelly Clarkson played a few songs live on stage, and praised Mucinex. (“It’s a party drug! Who knew.”) Kevin Hart revealed that he recently injured his genitals (“Don’t write about that!”). There was a car on stage to show off changes coming to the in-car experience. For some reason, Shaggy got a cameo. And, of course, plenty of Howard Stern, who reminisced about first discovering satellite radio, saying: “SiriusXM was an oasis in a desert of censorship.”

Underlying all this friendly banter was a sense of urgency. SiriusXM is a giant in the audio space, generating close to $7 billion in 2022 alone. But it’s also a company that has seen its growth stall while music subscription services like Spotify and Apple Music continue to add millions of subscribers, and make further inroads with non-music content.

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