Does Google’s smackdown on Aliyun mean it’s becoming like the mafia?

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So, you’ve heard about the Google smackdown on Acer’s planned partnership with China’s Alibaba to make its latest flagship Aliyun OS phone. Where does that leave the cloud-oriented, Linux-based Aliyun mobile OS now?

In further comments on this saga, the SVP of mobile at Google, posted on his G+ yesterday (via AllThingsD):

Hey John Spelich [Alibaba VP on global communications] — We agree that the Aliyun OS is not part of the Android ecosystem and you’re under no requirement to be compatible.

However, the fact is, Aliyun uses the Android runtime, framework and tools. And your app store contains Android apps (including pirated Google apps). So there’s really no disputing that Aliyun is based on the Android platform and takes advantage of all the hard work that’s gone into that platform by the OHA [Open Handset Alliance].

So if you want to benefit from the Android ecosystem, then make the choice to be compatible. Its 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.

Trouble is, it can be disputed that, in Rubin’s words, “Aliyun is based on the Android platform.” For starters, it’s not clear if the Android head honcho is referring to source code (which would be a legal issue, a bit like the Oracle vs Google trial that concluded in July), or merely to the convenience of Aliyun non-natively running some Android apps, and having a whole app store full of them. Of course, it’s good that Google called out Alibaba on the pirated Android apps found in its Aliyun store. These guys should play by the rules. But to what extent is Aliyun truly and technically infringing on Android, or is Google merely taking offense?

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

If it’s the latter case of Google taking umbrage, then it’s a grim turn of events for anyone working on Android-based or Android-associated platforms. This is where the afore-mentioned Open Handset Alliance (OHA) comes in. This Android-focused agreement covers dozens of telcos, phone makers, chip makers, and more. But if the OHA is being used as a carrot-and-stick by Google — in the absence of a legal framework for preventing many forms of building on top of Android, even if it’s in a way that Google dislikes — then it’s effectively assembling an ad-hoc monopoly of hardware partners.

That can serve has a way to beat down OHA partners from other projects which are not close enough to Google’s vision for Android. We’d argue that that’s what we’ve just seen develop this weekend, with Acer (a OHA member) forced to postpone/cancel its launch of the Aliyun-powered Acer CloudMobile A800 phone.

I don’t think Google is in any way scared of Aliyun as a mobile platform — one million in sales in the space of nearly a year suggest that various other forms of Android (yes, there are many — I wonder which others Google disapproves of?) are massively outselling the two Aliyun OS phones launched so far.

In response to Rubin’s latest missive (above), Alibaba’s John Spelich says:

Aliyun OS incorporates its own virtual machine, which is different from Android’s Dalvik virtual machine. Aliyun OS’s runtime environment, which is the core of the OS, consists of both its own Java virtual machine, which is different from Android’s Dalvik virtual machine, and its own cloud app engine, which supports HTML5 web applications. Aliyun OS uses some of the Android application framework and tools (open source) merely as a patch to allow Aliyun OS users to enjoy third-party apps in addition to the cloud-based Aliyun apps in our ecosystem.

It’s not clear if Google has made attempts to analyze Aliyun to determine if those Alibaba claims are true.

Why does the OHA exist? Rubin’s longer post over the weekend on the “benefits and importance of compatibility” points out that, “We thought hard about what types of external factors could intervene to weaken the [Android] ecosystem as a whole. One important external factor we knew could do this was incompatibilities between implementations of Android.”

But Aliyun is not a fork of Android as such, and so it poses less of a fragmentation issue than the many other divergences in Android, such as apps or games that only appear on certain handsets, or with certain ROMs like HTC Sense, or run only on certain processors. Indeed, from the view of a user weighing up, say, an HTC Wildfire S in one hand, and a Haier Zing (Aliyun) phone in another, they’re totally different beasts. Indeed, with OHA members being so lousy at pushing out Android updates in a timely manner, one might even say that Aliyun represents a better ecosystem purchase, with a more direct update process straight from Alibaba.

But I digress. The core issue is that unless Google can show us some Darwin-esque drawings of an evolutionary line between Android and Aliyun — not including permissible virtualization of Android apps, the likes of which is also exercised by RIM in its BlackBerry Playbook — then this still looks more like a gripe than a legally justifiable move.

So, to completely clear the air, Google should either take Alibaba to court over Android source code, or just put up its hands and say: Aliyun annoys us and we’d rather no-one in the OHA ever build stuff for them. That would at least be honest. Because the US search giant has not yet put any evidence on the table that suggests weighty technical reasons for apparently pressuring Acer to pull out of this China launch.

No cool phones = Aliyun’s death?

The biggest loser in all of this might well be Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company. It has lost — perhaps cancelled permanently — its flagship Aliyun phone, leaving it sporting two less convincing Aliyun-powered smartphones. And, looking at the OHA list of members, it seems all of them are now out of bounds after Google’s recent judgement. So that means no Acer. No Asus. No HTC. No Lenovo, no NEC, no Sharp, no Sony, no Toshiba. Local phone-maker ZTE? Nope; an OHA member. Same goes for Huawei and Lenovo. Even the tiny Chinese brand Oppo, which has proved it can make some sexy devices this year, is off-limits. Is this an “alliance” or a mafia? You dishonored by family’s name, and now you’re gonna pay.

As we saw with the success of the startup phone-maker Xiaomi, well-known brands are not the main thing — an aggressively low price is one strategy that can win over consumers so long as the hardware looks strong and convincing enough, giving customers the sense of getting an awesome bargain. Superb design might help a lot too. But then how about a processor for a new Aliyun phone? The OHA monopolizes all the world’s maker chipmakers, even smaller regional firms like MediaTek. Will Google prevent them from powering Aliyun devices too?

So the Aliyun team is facing a tough task to put any new phone on the shelf, and to keep Aliyun itself alive as a mobile platform. I’d be surprised if it exists in a few years’ time — but that’s due to normal market forces (Android as a whole; iOS; Windows Phone — they’re all way more fun), not this Google move. Nonetheless, it’s being squeezed of life now, denied a proper fighting chance. Hit the comments with your thoughts on this issue going forward.

This article by Steven Millward originally appeared on Tech in Asia and was published with its permission.

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