Google just dropped an Android-shaped bomb in China [Updated]

Sep 15

Google has dropped an Android-shaped bomb on China’s mobile market, after comments from the company potentially affected some of the country’s most powerful Internet firms and their strategy of modifying its Android operating system to develop platforms of their own.

The company spoke out in response to allegations that it pressured Acer into cancelling the planned launch of a smartphone with Alibaba this week, claiming that the e-commerce giant’s Linux-based Aliyun system powering the CloudMobile A800 ”weakens the [Android] ecosystem”.

Updated below with comment from Andy Rubin, who calls Aliyun an incomplete version of Android, and Alibaba’s VP of international corporate affairs.

The comment, combined with Acer’s admission that Google had “expressed concerns” over the device, gives validation to Alibaba’s claims on Thursday, which Google had initially declined to respond to.

In a statement released this evening (US time), Google said the following of Aliyun, which powers two devices already on sale in China:

Compatibility is at the heart of the Android ecosystem and ensures a consistent experience for developers, manufacturers and consumers. Non-compatible versions of Android, like Aliyun, weaken the ecosystem. All members of the Open Handset Alliance have committed to building one Android platform and to not ship non-compatible Android devices. This does not however, keep OHA members from participating in competing ecosystems.

There are a few interesting points to be taken from the Google statement, primarily that Google is adopting its strongest stance yet addressing the limits of Android’s ‘openness’. Fragmentation is a significant issue for the platform and it seems Google will do whatever it can to control the issue.

As we wrote earlier this week, the CloudMobile A800 is not the first Aliyun-powered device — two phones from local Chinese manufacturers are already available — but Acer represents the first international partner, and thus the first time Google felt compelled to act on a potential ‘forked’ Android phone launch.

The phone’s unveiling was cancelled hours before it was due to kick off, with a number of journalists already on route, but, more than just upsetting media, the events and Google’s statement cast a huge question mark over the future of Android-based OSes in the country.

That this matter concerns a Chinese firm, and a very powerful one at that (Alibaba is tipped to out-gross eBay and Amazon this year), is hugely significant, since the Chinese government sought a number of reassurances around the future openness of Android when it agreed to ratify Google’s $12.5 billion Motorola Mobility acquisition in May.

Alibaba says it has invested three years, and 1,600 engineers, to develop Aliyun and it is therefore likely that Chinese authorities will do what they can to help the company protect its investment. Although exactly what that might mean is unclear at this stage.

In addition to escalating the likelihood of a feud with Alibaba — which last weekend denounced Android as unable to provide a “good user experience” in China — Google’s approach will concern a number of other Chinese companies that have developed ‘forked’ Android platforms of their own.

Baidu, for one, is in negotiation with a number of companies to develop smartphones using Baidu Cloud, a system that sits on top of Android and strips out Google’s services, replacing them with its own, Chinese versions. Given Google’s statement and the fact that it directly rivals Baidu, the Chinese search giant would be justified to feel Google may have scared existing Open Handset Alliance partners away from working with Baidu Cloud.

It’s worth noting though that Baidu has steered clear of calling Baidu Cloud an OS, likely in order to position its offering as one that supplements Android rather than supplanting it.

Google’s comment will also resonate outside of China but it is not likely to affect Amazon, the highest profile modifier of Android. The retail giant is not an OHA member and, though Kindle manufacturer Foxconn is, Amazon’s huge global profile and existing tablet footprint makes any intervention unlikely – or perhaps too late.

Things are further complicated by the fact that China’s three telecom operators are members of the OHA; that could make things interesting for future handset releases and support.

Android itself is the top smartphone OS in China, accounting for 68 percent of smartphone sales, but Google faces competition from local vendors that are looking to push their own mobile products, many of which are based on Google’s platform.

So, while Aliyun remains available in China through devices by Haier (interestingly an OHA member which was never pressured) and Tianyu, Google’s denouncement of “non-compatible Android devices” could stunt any potential international growth and discourage international manufacturers from working with the modified Android platforms.

From a Google perspective, though this stance is likely to win it no friends in China (where it isn’t exactly flavor of the month), the company has little to lose in China since it generates no  revenue from its Google Play app store there, while it relocated its search services to Hong Kong two years ago. The company is perhaps within its rights to draw a line on its Android system, but, having professed Android to be a truly open platform, there’s more than a little irony in its approach to the Acer-Aliyun device.

We’ve reached out to Alibaba, Acer and Baidu for comment, and have requested further clarification from Google.

Update 1: Google’s Andy Rubin explains the company thinking in a little more detail on Google+, while Google published a blog post which, though not mentioning Aliyun, Alibaba or Acer specifically, explains “the importance of compatibility” in Android.

Rubin does directly address Aliyun, calling it is an incomplete version of Android. It seems, from his comments, that Alibaba’s battle cry was heard all the way over at Google’s Mountain View headquarters:

We were surprised to read Alibaba Group’s chief strategy officer Zeng Ming’s quote “We want to be the Android of China” when in fact the Aliyun OS incorporates the Android runtime and was apparently derived from Android.

Based on our analysis of the apps available at http://apps.aliyun.com, the platform tries to, but does not succeed in being compatible.

It’s easy to be Android compatible, the OHA supplies all the tools and details on how to do it.

Update 2: Alibaba’s VP of international corporate affairs, John Spelich, told Tech In Asia that the firm begs to differ with Google. Questioning Android’s open approach, he said:

Aliyun OS is not part of the Android ecosystem so of course Aliyun OS is not and does not have to be compatible with Android. It is ironic that a company that talks freely about openness is espousing a closed ecosystem.

This is like saying that because they own the Googleplex in Mountain View, therefore anyone who builds in Mountain View is part of the Googleplex. Will someone please ask Google to define Android.

Image via Flickr / keith.bellvay, hat tip Marketing Land

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