It started late Thursday night, when CNET and other tech media published quotes from a PR release from Alibaba, the Chinese software giant, claiming that Google had told its hardware partner to hold off on a smartphone release using Alibaba’s Aliyun OS.
“Our partner was notified by Google that if the product runs Aliyun OS, Google will terminate its Android-related cooperation and other technology licensing with our partner,” the Aliyun press statement read.
Within hours, major tech media re-published the quote, with some adding an interpretation that Google had gone back on its word on keeping Android an open platform.
After a day of silence, Google officially responded, first through an official blogpost explaining the discrepancy and differences between Aliyun and Android, and later through two Google+ postings from Android chief Andy Rubin, the latter of which was addressed to Alibaba’s international VP and said, “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)…”. Rubin further added that “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.”
So who was right, and who was wrong? Whatever the reasons for Google’s move to ask Acer to hold off on its Aliyun smartphone launch, it appears that Google has just prevented one of its smartphone partners from getting into a legal quagmire for aiding copyright violations.
Pirated Android Apps
Android Police, a blog that reports on Android news, did some research and found that pirated Android apps were indeed rampant on the Aliyun app store, stating that “Aliyun’s app store appeared to be distributing Android apps scraped from the Play Store, not only downloadable to Aliyun devices as .apk files, but also provided by third parties not involved with the apps’ or games’ development. What’s more, we’ve received independent confirmation from the original developers of some of these apps that they did not in fact give consent for their products to be distributed in Aliyun’s app store.”
The Epoch Times was able to independently confirm that Alibaba’s Aliyun “App Store” (in Chinese only) does appear to indeed contain Android apps taken directly from Google’s Play store, including the exceedingly popular “Angry Birds Space.” The application appears to have already been downloaded over 2,300 times from Alibaba’s app store at the time this article went to press. The apps contain the same descriptions as the original publisher’s app (translated into Chinese) and with the exact same screenshots as those posted on Google’s official Play store.
In addition, they are published under what appears to be a personal name, instead of the original publisher. For instance, Angry Birds Space has “leiguang888” listed as its publisher on Alibaba’s app store, while Google Play has the game’s true publisher, Rovio, listed. (The same “leiguang888” also appears to have published other app titles, a fact noted by Android Police as well.)
Further, Alibaba claims that Aliyun OS is “open source”. But a cursory browsing and search of the Aliyun OS website (Chinese) by two Epoch Times staff (one a fluent Chinese speaker) revealed no hint of any links to an open source version, or any indication of source being available for Aliyun OS. In contrast, Android’s main website has a link to the source code for the Android OS right on its home page.
History of the Disagreement
Google first launched its open-source Android operating system in September 2008, and the operating system has gone from strength to strength since its announcement, particularly after 2010. It is currently in version 4.1 (known informally as Jelly Bean). Last week, Google reported that over 500 million Android devices had been activated, and growing at 1.3 million per day.
Google has had a tumultous relationship with the Chinese Communist regime since 2010, when it formally closed shop in China and moved out of the country in response to what is believed to be a state-sponsored hacking attempt. Its services have been periodically reported to be inaccessible, and while free apps are supposedly available on Google’s Play store, Android smartphone owners have often been in shock when they find that Google Play is inaccessible in China and even blocked by China’s Internet Service Providers. China Unicom and China Telecom run their own app stores for Android.
The Epoch Times’ media partner, New Tang Dynasty TV (NTD), publishes apps for both Android (on Google Play), and Apple iPhone (on the app store). NTD, like The Epoch Times, publishes reports on the human rights and free speech situation in mainland China. Ironically enough, Apple informed NTD in July 2012 that it would block its app in China, claiming that iNTD’s content was “illegal in China.” Google so far has provided no indication that it has, or will, block NTD’s Android app in China.
However, the very fact that Google has refused to heed China’s censorship efforts means that Chinese leaders are nervous in two ways: first, they are unable to stop Google Android’s juggernaut growth, even in China. Second, the fact that Google has refused to toe the Chinese regime’s censorship policies means that the CCP will have to find other ways to block free-speech apps–like NTD–that the regime finds unpalatable for its censorship policies.
Enter Alibaba–and Aliyun OS. Alibaba announced Aliyun OS at the end of July 2011. This, ironically, just months after engineers at NTD had started working on its Android app (the app was eventually released on October 2011.)
Aliyun OS and the Chinese Market
Alibaba, which is still private, was reported to make US $2.8 billion in income for all of 2011 (the numbers were disclosed by Yahoo, which owns a stake in Alibaba.) As such, it is one of China’s largest software and web service companies.
Alibaba wasn’t the first to announce a custom version of Android in China. Baidu, the Chinese search engine, also announced Baidu Yi, which is also believed to be a forked version of Android. Both companies have partnerships with local Chinese smartphone makers and are believed to have their operating systems running. Wall Street Journal reported that as of May 2012, over 1 million Aliyun smartphones had been sold in China.
But the public spat with Android only started two days ago, when Alibaba released a PR statement about Google’s reportedly strong-arming Acer into not using the Aliyun OS.
Google, in turn, responded with a lengthy official post on its Android blog, stating that it was concerned over Android compatibility differences: “Imagine a hypothetical situation where the platform on each phone sold was just a little bit different. Different enough where Google Maps would run normally on one phone but run terribly slow on another.” They further explained that anyone claiming to make an “Android” smartphone or tablet has to go through a compatibility test to be able to call their products “Android compatible.”
When Alibaba announced Aliyun OS a year ago, it stated that the operating system was “fully compatible with Android-based applications.” However, in a statement e-mailed to the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, Alibaba stated, “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.”
Rubin further stated on his two Google+ posts that “Based on our analysis of the apps available at http://apps.aliyun.com, the platform tries to, but does not succeed in being compatible” and “your app store contains Android apps (including pirated Google apps)” (in a post directed at Alibaba’s VP.)
Ironically, it was Chinese users who came out most strongly in support of the Android operating system, responding in comments on Andy Rubin’s first post, stating things like “As a Chinese, I don’t support Aliyun OS”, “I will never buy that Ali-s***”, “aliyun is s***, as a chinese”.
Whatever the situation, it appears that this public spat may be drawn out over the long haul. And Google appears to have done the right thing in tipping off Acer on possible copyright violations. And irrespective of the results, its clear that this episode peels back an interesting insight into how business is done in China.
Expect further updates as researchers peer more into the innards of the Aliyun operating system and its Chinese app store–if they can, that is.