Acer, Alibaba, Android, and Andy

By Zigurd Mednieks
September 16, 2012 | Comments: 1

Recently, Alibaba cancelled a product announcement with Acer for a phone running Alibaba's operating system called Aliyun. You can read about Aliyun (using Google Translate, if you can't read Chinese) here: http://os.aliyun.com/

Alibaba is an e-commerce giant in China, operating B2B and B2C commerce portals that eclipse eBay and Amazon in transaction volume. Like Amazon, Alibaba also sells cloud computing services, under the brand Aliyun. Outside the China market, little is known about the Aliyun mobile device OS, or about devices running that OS, but it looks like a variant of Android. Assuming that's correct, Alibaba has heavily customized Android, as did Amazon in their Android-deriviative Kindle Fire OS. Like Kindle Fire, Aliyun has an extensive suite of software specific to Alibaba's Aliyun cloud services.

It is notable that Amazon has tested Google's willingness to keep Android open, and, so far, Google has shown exemplary restraint. There isn't anything Google has done that has been directed at thwarting Amazon from using the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). Nor has Google taken withdrawn, or failed to update any parts of AOSP. To the contrary, AOSP is more vital than ever, and key to enabling lots of OEMs to ship Android based products. All this despite Amazon competing against Google in several mobile commerce markets.

However, Alibaba alleges that Google put the arm on Acer, and caused the Alibaba/Acer product announcement to be withdrawn by threatening Acer that their relationship with Google would not be as close if Acer went forward with an Aliyun product. Neither Google nor Acer are talking openly or directly about the allegation, so there is a possibility that Alibaba is simply wrong about why Acer withdrew from the announcement. After all, Acer is a Taiwan company and Alibaba is a PRC company. There are many reasons a deal that rests heavily on consumer-facing cloud services could go bad when the partners are on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait.

There is, however, evidence that Acer was brought to heel: In a blog post (http://officialandroid.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-benefits-importance-of-compatibility.html), without naming Acer or Alibaba, and without mentioning a contract that's been referred to as the "Anti-fragmentation Agreement" (AFA) that many OEMs have signed, Andy Rubin, the creator and jeffe of Android, lays out the proposition that you can base your own product on Android, or you can be in the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), but not both.

The obliqueness of this blog post is reminiscent of the kind of "kremilinology" it used to take to read Microsoft's announcements about their partner relationships. Why not be direct? Why not say "Acer violated the AFA and we reminded them of their obligations?" Why couch an oblique explanation in fluff about compatibility when, in the same post, you point out that Aliyun (like Kindle Fire) runs Android apps just fine? What about Haier and other OEMs who have announced Aliyun handsets and also sell Android products with Google's certification? Why pretend that OHA, which has a completely opaque membership and governance process, has an open door for Alibaba?

Google is faced with a set of overlapping and sometimes contradictory goals: Retain Android's credibility as an open system that's attractive to developers, prevent crapware-laden OEM products that slow down updates and confuse consumers, catch up to Apple's lead in tablets by harnessing the power of a legion of OEMs, among other goals. And when Android was struggling to break in to the market, negotiating tactics that one could call "robust" were absolutely neccessary to break down carriers' and OEMs' reluctance to try Android products. So it is no surprise that Google, often personified by Andy Rubin, doesn't shrink from tough positions as they guide Android forward.

But, in part due to the contradictions inherent in Google's goals and motivations, it's easy for Google to shoot themselves in the foot if they are not careful. For starters, all the key parts of AOSP are licensed with the Apache license, which is a very liberal open source license: is Google retrofitting restrictions on AOSP? A liberal open source enables Google's partners to keep their customizations of Android closed, so why is Alibaba any worse than an OEM with closed-source Android extensions? A more significant question is if Alibaba can't get OEMs to use an Android-derived OS, what about Amazon? If the AFA restricts products and relationships, is it anti-competitive, and to the extent it is, does it comply with competition laws in all the markets Google does business?

Google has good reason to keep their OEM and carrier partners from cluttering Android with crapware and confusing redundant service offerings. Google has earned kudos for treating Amazon's Kindle Fire as a way of spreading the Android application platform, rather than as a rogue use of Android. But the Alibaba/Aliyun situation is half-baked, and it rubs some sore points about the Android ecosystem and licensing framework. Google needs to provide OEMs with a transparent and unambiguous position regarding how they can use the Apache-licensed AOSP software, so that others who want to use and contribute to that project are confident it isn't going to get more complicated after they commit to using it.


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1 Comment

You are so cool! I don,t suppose Ive read anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. really thank you for starting this up.
iPhone application development

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