Google Weighs in on Acer China Phone Debacle, But is Google Being Anti-Competitive?

After a couple of days of silence from Google (NASDAQ:GOOG - News), which looked to have been implicated in the cancelled launch of an Acer phone in China, the search engine has finally released a statement. The phone was to be the Acer CloudMobileA800 running the Aliyun OS, a year-old mobile platform created by Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company.

[ UPDATE: Scroll to bottom for remarks direct from Android man Andy Rubin].

Referencing its phone-maker partner, Google told the WSJ (paywall) earlier:

[Acer has] committed to building one Android platform and to not ship non-compatible Android devices. […] Compatibility is at the heart of the Android ecosystem and ensures a consistent experience for developers, manufacturers and consumers. Non-compatible versions of Android, like Aliyun, weaken the ecosystem.

So the assertion here is that Aliyun is a “non-compatible” version of Android; but Alibaba insists that it’s built from the ground up, based on Linux, and can run Android apps only by running them virtually and non-natively (a bit like in BlackBerry’s Playbook). Aliyun’s focus is on web apps. In reaction to Google’s words, Alibaba’s VP of international corporate affairs, John Spelich, said:

Aliyun OS is not part of the Android ecosystem so of course Aliyun OS is not and does not have to be compatible with Android. It is ironic that a company that talks freely about openness is espousing a closed ecosystem.

Talking to TiA, John expanded on the ecosystem theme:

This is like saying that because they own the Googleplex in Mountain View, therefore anyone who builds in Mountain View is part of the Googleplex. Will someone please ask Google to define Android.

Previously, Google had told us that it couldn’t comment, while Acer emitted only a very vague apology a day after the last-minute cancellation of the dual Acer-Aliyun launch event in Shanghai. The Acer A800 was to have been the flagship phone for the Aliyun OS, and the first from a big-name hardware brand. Its two other phones are built by local partners K-Touch and Haier.

Anti-competitive?

So, what’s going on here? Google’s words sound even more odd when you think of phone-makers who do actually make what seem to be “non-compatible” Android devices and also regular Android phones - such as we’ve seen with Lenovo’s OPhone, which was a closed-source fork of Android made for China Mobile (but which never really took off as a separate platform). But Lenovo still gets free reign to do that. Perhaps Acer has a different kind of agreement/relationship with Google.

From Google’s words, which seem to have been buried late night Friday in the US (and behind the WSJ's paywall), we might extrapolate that Google did put pressure on Acer [1] to pull out of the launch. Also, the US giant’s compatibility assertion doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, since Aliyun OS being Linux-based does not make it part of the Android ecosystem. Or perhaps the fact that Aliyun can run some Android apps is the actual - but unstated - core of the objection. But software virtualization isn’t illegal. Either way, Google’s argument looks weak.

[ UPDATE: Adding Andy Rubin quote]: Android head honcho Andy Rubin has weighed in directly on his G+ page (via The Verge) and apparently takes a dim view (as I suggested above) of the way Aliyun runs Android apps:

We were surprised to read Alibaba Group's chief strategy officer Zeng Ming's quote "We want to be the Android of China" when in fact the Aliyun OS incorporates the Android runtime and was apparently derived from Android. Based on our analysis of the apps available at http://apps.aliyun.com, the platform tries to, but does not succeed in being compatible. It's easy to be Android compatible, the OHA supplies all the tools and details on how to do it.

  1. Allegedly.  ↩

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