How ‘free and open’ is Android? Why Google forced Acer to axe a Chinese lookalike

Acer CloudMobile A800

Last week Acer was planning to hold a smartphone launch event in Shanghai for the CloudMobile A800. It booked the venue and set the stage. Invitations were sent out to the Chinese technology press. Press releases were written, presentations rehearsed, and executive assistants were busily scheduling interviews. Everything was on track.

Except the CloudMobile A800 launch never happened. Just before the event’s scheduled time, Acer withdrew from the event, eventually releasing a statement saying “Acer expresses deep regret and sincerely apologizes for the inconvenience caused to our media friends.” The company has not rescheduled the event, and — five days days on — it’s starting to look like they never will.

Why? Because Google threatened to pull the rug out from under Acer’s Android business.

Aliyun

Aliyun homescreen

Acer’s CloudMobile 800 smartphone is based on Aliyun, a cloud-centric mobile operating system from China’s Alibaba. You can think of Alibaba as kind of a combination of Yahoo, eBay, and Amazon for the Chinese market. Baidu is the dominant search company there, but Alibaba has its hands in a lot of other pies like online marketplaces, online payment systems, and cloud computing services. If that business model sounds a little like a Chinese Amazon, you’re not far off target.

For Alibaba, an ideal mobile operating system integrates with the company’s cloud services and ropes together its already massive businesses in one spot. So Alibaba built its own to do exactly that: The company says it threw some 1,600 engineers in its AliCloud subsidiary at designing its own mobile operating system for three years — and the result is Aliyun.

The basic idea is that instead of relying on native apps stored on a device (like iOS and Android), most services and storage rely on cloud services. Users get 100GB of cloud storage from Alibaba for their data, music, videos, photos, and more — for free just for using Aliyun. Third-party developers can make their own apps and services for Aliyun, which will help expand the platform behind Alibaba’s core offerings. Alibaba can still profit from app developers by hosting hosting apps and cloud services, although developers are also free to do that themselves.

Although Aliyun is based on Linux, one of its top-drawer features is its ability to run a broad selection of Android applications. It does this by including some frameworks and tools from Android — frameworks and tools, it might be added, are available as open source.

Guess which part of Aliyun’s architecture rubbed Google the wrong way?

Alibaba lined up Chinese manufacturer Tianyu for its first Aliyun device, and recent reports more than a million Aliyun phones have been sold to date. But Alibaba has minced no words about its desire to add major worldwide electronics manufacturers to the list of companies making Aliyun devices (it’s even announced plans for an English-language version of Aliyun). So it’s not surprising that Acer — which so far has yet to make a real dent in the Western smartphone or tablet markets — was interested in making Aliyun devices. After all, China is the biggest Internet market on the planet, and no major smartphone players (like Apple, Samsung, Nokia, or RIM) have made insurmountable inroads there. Making Aliyun devices could be Acer’s gateway into the Chinese smartphone market. By all reports, the CloudMobile 800 was just the first of a line of Aliyun devices in development by Acer.

“Free” and “open” Android

Android version distribution Sept 4 2012

Google has spent years promoting Android as a “free and open” mobile operating system anyone can use. It’s available under an open-source license, and anyone can download the source code. Anyone using Android can change it to meet their needs, and even layer new functionality over the top — after all, that’s what Samsung has done with TouchWiz, HTC with Sense, and Motorola with Motoblur.

Nothing prevents folks from downloading the Android source code and using it as the basis for creating something related — or totally different. That’s what Amazon did with the Kindle Fire tablets. They run a customized version of Android, where Amazon has replaced the default Web browser with its own Silk browser, disposed of Google’s apps, and layered it over with a new interface and experience centered around the purchase (and consumption) of books, music, and video from Amazon. (The Kindle Fire HD tablets run a version of Android 4.0 modified for similar purposes.)

Amazon isn’t the only company to fork Android. Barnes & Noble did it too, for the Nook e-readers. More recently, Russia’s defense ministry recently announced it’s working on its own Android variant with all of Google’s apps (and data-gathering) capabilities stripped out. Less successfully, China Mobile tried to roll out its own Android-based operating system dubbed OPhone — it hasn’t been a rousing success, but it’s not dead yet, either.

What’s the Open Handset Alliance?

open handset alliance

If an Android fork were to gain serious traction in the marketplace — we’re looking at you, Amazon — Android could face a significant problem. Consider Unix. It started off as property of AT&T more than 40 years ago, but today exists as a menagerie of offshoots, some of which are closed-source commercial offerings and some of which are free and open source. It’s practically impossible to write consumer-friendly software that runs on even a subset of them. For better and worse, the Unix world is highly fragmented. The same thing could happen to Android if everyone interested in making mobile devices grabs the source code and starts making their own variants willy-nilly. That would be a bad for a platform that wants to dominate the mobile industry.

Google recognized this danger — and its answer was the Open Handset Alliance, announced the same day Google formally unveiled Android back in 2007. At its core, the Open Handset Alliance is a consortium — or club, if you prefer — of mobile device makers, chipmakers, software developers, and even a handful of mobile carriers who have all pledged not to produce mobile devices that run incompatible versions of Android. The Open Handset Alliance launched with 34 members (including Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Intel, Qualcomm, eBay, and even China Mobile). Today it’s up to nearly 90 members, including the likes of Sony, Sprint, Lenovo, and Dell. So while anyone can grab Android source code and fiddle with it, they can only call the results “Android” by joining the Open Handset Alliance and passing Google’s validation tests.

Acer joined the Open Handset Alliance in mid-2009. Notably, neither Amazon, Barnes & Noble, nor RIM are not members of the Open Handset Alliance.

What’s Google’s problem?

Google-earns-four-times-more-from-iOS-than-Android-sq

According to Google, Acer’s CloudPhone 800 represents exactly the type of incompatible device members of the Open Handset Alliance of pledged not to make. Andy Rubin, the head of Google’s Android efforts, has taken both to the official Android blog and his own Google+ profile to outline Google’s position.

Rubin asserts that the pieces of Android that allow Aliyun devices to run some Android apps make it an incompatible fork of Android. So by making Aliyun devices, Acer is violating terms of its membership in the Open Handset Alliance. And it’s not just under-the-hood components that Rubin argues make Aliyun based on the Android platform: He also notes that Aliyun’s app store explicitly offers Android apps to Aliyun users — including pirated versions of Google apps.

Addressing Alibaba’s international affairs VP John Spelich directly, Rubin wrote:

“If you want to benefit from the Android ecosystem, then make the choice to be compatible. It’s easy, free, and we’ll even help you out. But if you don’t want to be compatible, then don’t expect help from OHA members that are all working to support and build a unified Android ecosystem.”

Is Aliyun an Android fork?

Fork in the Road (Shutterstock rnl)

What makes a device an “Android” device? According to the Open Handset Alliance, it’s passing the Android compatibility test suite — and Aliyun does not. Android devices cannot operate in the Aliyun ecosystem. Nonetheless, Google (or at least Andy Rubin) is asserting that by using some of Android’s open source materials and supporting some Android apps, Aliyun has riding on the coattails of Android.

“Will someone please ask Google to define Android?” asked Alibiba VP John Spelich.

It’s easy to see both sides of the argument. On one hand, Aliyun’s architecture, technology, implementation, and service model are fundamentally different from Android.

On the other hand, one of Aliyun’s key points is that it can run a variety of Android apps, and Aliyun’s own online store prominently features Android applications — including apparently pirated versions of Android apps from Google and other Android developers. It’s hard to argue that Aliyun is not attempting to benefit — perhaps illegally, in some cases — from the official Android ecosystem to appeal to consumers.

Acer’s in the hole

google and alibaba spar over acers aliyun phone acer iconia tab review feature square

Piracy aside — Google’s main problem isn’t so much with Aliyun, but with Acer. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and RIM have all leveraged Android to build their own devices. RIM’s approach is actually a bit like Aliyun’s: it offers a separate runtime for Android apps.

But RIM isn’t a member of Google’s Open Handset Alliance. Neither are Amazon or Barnes & Noble. None of these companies pledged themselves to only make devices that are Android-compatible.

Acer did, and that’s why the CloudMobile 800 disappeared into thin air.

What’s going to happen?

There appear to only be a few possible outcomes:

  • Acer cuts its losses, gives up on the CloudPhone 800 and all the other Aliyun devices in development, and sticks with Android.
  • Acer leaves the Open Handset Alliance and Android (after all, Acer hasn’t had much success there yet) to focus exclusively on Aliyun and the lucrative Chinese market.
  • Aliyun decides to offer full Android compatibility, opening the gates for Acer (and other current Android device makers) to make Aliyun devices.

Aliyun won’t likely become a full-fledged member of the Android ecosystem. Thanks to Google’s limited presence in the Chinese markets, tools like YouTube, Google Maps, Google Now, and Gmail aren’t very useful to Chinese users — that’s a lot of the reason Alibaba was interested in forking Android in the first place. Going for full Android compatibility essentially means loading Aliyun devices with the equivalent of Google-branded bloatware.

Acer has previously chafed at Google’s Chrome OS and Android ecosystem, arguing that most development partners haven’t really benefited from Google’s “free and open” platforms. (Samsung seems to be the only exception.) And Acer was none-too-pleased with Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility, which essentially puts Google into direct competition with its Android hardware partners.

Acer hasn’t said a word about what it plans to do, but it could be the first defection from Google’s Open Handset Alliance.

[Fork in the road image via Shutterstock / rnl]

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