In the last week, many tech-savvy westerners have gotten more familiar than they probably would have ever liked to with a Chinese company by the name of Alibaba. Most of those people still probably aren't aware just quite how huge the Hangzhou-based firm is.
In short, Alibaba is to China what Amazon (including cloud computing and mobile OS aspirations) and eBay (plus PayPal) are to the United States. Alibaba also controls China Yahoo!, which remains one of the country's most popular web portals. In the style of many Asian tech companies, it is attempting to become the center of consumers' digital lives, though Alibaba takes a clear focus on the consumption aspect.
Its Tmall (Amazon-like) and Taobao (eBay) online marketplaces are thriving, and the company's flagship product, Alibaba, is popular the world over. If you're unfamiliar with it, Alibaba is a business-to-business marketplace and ratings service, where manufacturers can sell products ranging from iPad covers to heavy farming equipment in quantity directly to buyers all over the world. Think of it like Angie's List meets Amazon for businesses.
Given Alibaba's dominance of this particular segment of ecommerce, rest assured: it's not going away.
So when the company's Android-based mobile operating system, Aliyun, became an object of controversy last week, many were quick to react and start placing blame.
The brief story is this: Acer, a Taiwanese electronics firm, was planning on producing a phone running the Aliyun operating system, and selling it in China. Google then apparently got in touch with Acer and said that if it produced the phone, Google would sever its Android partnership with Acer, under the terms Acer agreed to when it became part of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA).
Before we get too far with this story, though: what in the heck is Aliyun? That's a more complicated question that we don't really have a great answer to. It is a mobile operating system, and it's already being sold on handsets - the number of Aliyun smartphones in China actually broke one million earlier this year. Google claims Aliyun is a "fork" of Android (built on Android, but radically changed and largely incompatible). If you want an explanation of what Google claims Aliyun is, and why it's "incompatible" with Android, even though it's based upon it, check out this article.
Alibaba claims Aliyun is based on "open source Linux," but refuses to name Android specifically. Of course, they're also the ones that, according to Andy Rubin, run an app store littered with pirated Android apps. Our own Liam Spradlin investigated Aliyun's mobile app marketplace, and found this allegation to be true: Aliyun is ripping off all sorts of Android apps - even Google's. For the sake of this piece, we're siding with Mr. Rubin - it's pretty obvious that, even without the Dalvik virtual machine, Aliyun has cherry-picked pieces of Android and used them for its own benefit.
The real question everyone's asking now is: "Isn't that really what Android is about, though - open access for everyone?"
The Cold, Hard Truth We've Always Known
In an article I linked to earlier in this piece, Forbes writer Roger Kay opines on the very un-Googleness of what Google has done (really, threatened to do) to Acer. There is some truth to this. Blackballing is not a weapon we often hear about Google waving around in the face of its Android allies. But there's so much more to it than that.
Mr. Kay's claim is that this is Google "trying to have it both ways" now that its operating system has reached maturity. His version of history seems to be that Google developed this open OS, unleashed it to the world, and told everyone to go nuts. But now, Google is saying that if you want to go off the deep end - like Amazon or Alibaba - it's going to take the Google Services / early access ball away and kick you out of the OHA private clubhouse. No Gmail for you!
If you know anything about Android, you know that Mr. Kay has set himself up with an incredibly naïve view of what Android really is, and the strings that come attached to it (and have since day one) if you want to make a competitive Android product. In fact, it seems painfully obvious to me that he's only making that statement so he can tear it down for the remaining five-hundred or-so-odd words of his article - meandering off on some tangent about Android's vulnerability to litigation, the rise of Windows Phone 8, and forks like Aliyun being Google's real reasons for strong-arming Acer.
The fact is, Android isn't just an operating system - it's an ecosystem. Why do you think Andy Rubin loves that word so much? It's because the Android OS, Google's app suite and services, and the hardware manufacturers all come together to make one big, happy mobile platform. Android dramatically loses its inherent value once you strip out Google's services and support, or the manufacturers building the phones. And that's why Android being open source isn't necessarily a big threat to Google. Android may be the powertrain behind the platform, but Google's added extras are clearly the brains.
Google's stance on tweaking that engine is "go for it - just don't expect us to support you." Android is like a set of schematics - you can build a motor, but no one's going help you start a car company. But, if you agree to make Android to certain specifications and guidelines, and let Google examine it and give it the OK, you too can start releasing OHA-compliant devices. And if you pass that test, for (presumably) a fee, you can get access to the real good stuff: Google apps, and the Play Store content ecosystem.
Can you imagine using an Android smartphone without Google apps or the Play Store? It would suck. I certainly wouldn't want to. I'd probably switch platforms.
Google has taken what I would call an eminently reasonable position in all this, by saying to Android partners "you're either playing with us on Android as an OHA member, or you're competing against us with it, and in that case, you can make your own platform." Open source or not, more than anything, Google is protecting Android's reputation by refusing to allow OHA partners to work with forked builds. This doesn't have anything to do with pirated apps or some anti-China campaign: it's Google enforcing the rules that make Android a cohesive ecosystem (not a perfectly cohesive one, of course).
If Alibaba wants Aliyun to be an "Android competitor," it needs to find its own partners, not cannibalize them from the very company whose good will made their operating system a possibility.
Imagine the number of compatibility issues we'd see if Google just let handset makers go willy-nilly with Android and open sourced all those Google Apps. We'd probably never see actual OS updates. The very thought of such a world terrifies me.
In a sense, the critics are right: Android is something of a walled garden for manufacturers, at least much more so than it is for consumers and developers. But as we all know, that's one wide-open pasture if you can have everything from bone-stock Android to TouchWiz out there. Google doesn't even care if you pre-install your own proprietary app store alongside theirs, or switch the default search engine.
If you want to start building Android products that don't play by Google's decidedly lenient rules, though, you can't have one foot in, one foot out. You can make a go of it, like Amazon, and Google won't fight you. But it's a harsh, competitive smartphone and tablet world out there. And I think there's nothing wrong with Google making sure its partners don't forget who's really making them relevant in it.