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.

Its net worth is somewhere in the neighborhood of $30-$40 billion. It employs over 25,000 people. Its campus is a piece of architecture worth appreciating on its own merits.


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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • http://twitter.com/ToysSamurai Toys Samurai

    I think an easier to understand analogy is that Amazon did not upload Google's apps into its own app store. In fact, they won't run since the Google Framework isn't available, and the Google Framework isn't part of AOSP and isn't open sourced.

  • RedPandaAlex

    I really think Google could have saved themselves a lot of headache if they had a brand differentiation between the Google Android Ecosystem and the actual Android OS. After all, there are dozens of crappy Android tablets out there that aren't in the ecosystem that advertise themselves as being Android devices. They get customers by trading on the value of the Android name, but that value diminishes because they're actually selling pretty low-quality devices.

  • Paul_Werner

    I'm glad that a good part of this article was talking about the article that Forbes writer Roger Kay wrote up. That article had me confused as to how he can write up something so naïve and I stopped reading it after the first paragraph knowing it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stuart-Pollock/510494412 Stuart Pollock

    I think a lot f the time people also get confused with the whole open source thing. Android is Open Source yes, Google is not. They are two entirely separate entities, Android is the OS which is open....The Play Store, Google Maps, Gmail etc, are all GOOGLE apps, not Android Apps so Google is purely just a developer like all the others and can protect its proprietary apps and hold them from whomever they choose if they are not compatible.

    Just like in the way the developer for 'Farty McPoopy Pants Soundboard' can say his app is not compatible with device X for example.

    This is just a view of mine that I feel a lot of people get mixed up thinking Google and Android are the same thing.

  • Davy Jones

    I disagree with this article in that implies that the "ecosystem" argument is what actually provoked this action on Google's part. Certainly it provides a convenient excuse, but all we have to do is look back to that whole Skyhook incident to realize that this isn't the first time Google has thrown around their muscle when they believe their control of the OS is being threatened. The reason that Google was able to do this with Acer (and Motorola and Samsung with Skyhook) and not Amazon is simply because Acer makes and would like to continue to make Android devices with Google services attached and Amazon does not.

    What I don't understand is why anyone cares. Isn't it obvious that a corporation like Google would try to ensure its control over an OS it pays to develop? No one seems to be mad at Apple and Microsoft for monetizing and controlling their own OSs, and they don't even release the source code. Maybe its because people perceive a type of hypocrisy or something? That's really the best you can ever hope for from a corporation, self-serving constrained giving. Do we complain when companies sponsor charity events in their own, logo slapped on everything in-your-face kind of way?

  • Al McDowall

    "Can you imagine using an Android smartphone without Google apps or the Play Store?"

    I think this describes the experience of a lot of Android users in China. Even on well known devices, the Play Store is replaced with a local App store (non-pirate, although pirate stores are available) and there is no integration with a Google account.

    For me offering support to friends who have just blindly bought Android, it always comes as a surprise to find no real sign of Google on their phone. Even slapping a Play Store apk on one of these makes no difference - you cannot sign in due to the lack of Google account support.

  • cooldoods

    Good job consolidating everything related to this incident. I hope Alibaba releases more information or statements soon so we'll know more. It won't do for a big company to be associated with directly supporting piracy.

  • http://nurudin.jauhari.net/ Jauhari

    I still confused with it :|

  • http://www.facebook.com/idan.yael Idan Yael

    I know we are all android lovers here, but I have to disagree!
    We can say whatever we want about Android being an ecosystem and that you have to get Google service as part of the Android experience and so on ... but the truth is that Android is open sourced and should be used by anyone to build any version. What Google did is just wrong.If a company wants to start a new line of products based on a fork OS of Android it should be able to do so without getting threats from Google. Aliyun phones are a problem in the whole Play store ripping issue... but this is for Google lawyers to deal with and not Google's threats.

    • someone

      Acer is more than welcome to continue to develop this phone as long as they become an OHA licensee and not a primary partner.

      See wiki on oPhone.

      No preview access for them!

      • ari_free

        And stop the pirating.

  • gold21

    Roger Kay - Apple shill nuff said

  • Phoenix31756

    Can I get clarification on this please....Aren't we talking about "INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS" ?

    Didn't Android come about from human beings intellect, like Ideas ?

    Are we now going to see Lawsuits regarding WHOM came out with the idea first and WHOM patent it first ? Are we going to see legal battles over whose Knowledge is better then the next person ?

    I maybe wrong about this but aren't we seeing company's more and more today suing other company's over an idea ? If that's the case, then watch ROM Developers , your going to be next to get sued !

  • Tri Nguyen

    dunno what so hard for you guys to get but let me break it down for you:
    1. Acer is an OHA member, they agreed NOT to produce forked, incompatible android phones/tablet. If they do, they will lose some benefits being a member. They can support any OSes they want, but if they do with forked android, then say goodbye to the OHA-tag.

    2. Alibaba used Android code and bastardized it into Aliyun, comes along with a heavily pirated app store.

    3. In a sense, amazon and Alibaba are the same. However, amazon doesn't support pirated apps, they are not OHA member. And clearly, Google didn't sue these 2. (IMHO, Kindle fire sucks hard!).

    4. And hey, about google power plays, i think Stuart Pollock post explained it really well =)

  • heja2009

    First: excellent article, opinionated and cutting through the bullshit, this is why I love Android Police.

    However, Android - according to this article - is characterised as an eco system with lenient rules made and executed on by Google. Now, the source code is available, there are hardware multiple partners and multiple app-stores, but that makes it something like a fenced property with trespassing allowed and the occasional "don't step on the grass" sign, right?

    This is something I can very well live with, but certainly contradicts a lot of what I hear from other Android lovers...

  • lolobabes

    Acer is a member of OHA and all members agreed not use forked android, plane and simple. Therefore Acer was in the act of violating that agreement, thats why they were reminded by Google with their commitment. Its not really a question of Android being open source but being an OHA member which Amazon is not.

  • grellanl

    Google constantly gets killed about "fragmentation" and told they need to cast a tighter grip on the ecosystem at large... and now when they do, they get called "Evil."

    This was an entirely reasonable move, you nailed some of the reasons above - Acer is trying to have it both ways. And ultimately, you only have to look at projects like Cyanogenmod to realise that yes, the platform really is "open" in the ways that count to users.

  • ari_free

    "Can you imagine using an Android smartphone without Google apps or the Play Store? It would suck."

    There's Amazon Kindle but it is not a phone. There weren't that many tablet optimized apps for Android so not having Play for Kindle probably isn't such a big deal. But an Amazon phone with no Play would be a bad idea.
    And in China, it's a completely different story since nobody has Google services.