Acer, Skyhook And Google’s Android Self-Interest

smartphone-map-checkinDanny has written two articles about Android, openness and the degree of Google’s control over the ecosystem. These were sparked by the recent controversy surrounding computer-maker Acer’s attempt to use a non-authorized version of Android (the Alibaba-made Aliyun OS) on mobile handsets:

Aliyun OS “Incompatibility”

Acer was set to announce that it was going forward with the Aliyun OS on one or more handsets but abruptly cancelled the event and probably the plan in its entirety. Alibaba cried foul and claimed that Google had forced Acer to pull out of the deal.

Google provided the following statement late yesterday about the incident:

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. All members of the Open Handset Alliance have committed to building one Android platform and to not ship non-compatible Android devices.

This does not however, keep OHA members from participating in competing ecosystems.

Similar to Skyhook Case

Danny’s second piece (“One True Android”) references litigation between Skyhook Wireless and Google. Skyhook is a company based in Boston which, among other things, provides mobile location-positioning to developers and device makers. Skyhook was the original provider of WiFi and cell-tower triangulation to Google and Apple handsets until both companies decided to do it themselves.

GPS is a different, complementary technology but it doesn’t always work: there must be a direct line of sight to a satellite. That’s why you need both approaches.

Skyhook was set to be the provider of location to pre-Google-owned Motorola and Samsung Android phones. However both later canceled their deals with Skyhook and decided to use Google’s own system instead. Skyhook sued Google on several grounds, including patent infringement and tortious interference with contract.

Skyhook claimed in its complaint that Google induced Motorola and Samsung to break off their relationships with the company:

Google wielded its control over the Android operating system, as well as other Google mobile applications such as Google Maps, to force device manufacturers to use its technology rather than that of Skyhook, to terminate contractual obligations with Skyhook, and to otherwise force device manufacturers to sacrifice superior end user experience with Skyhook by threatening directly or indirectly to deny timely and equal access to evolving versions of the Android operating system and other Google mobile applications.

Multiple Versions of Android “Weaken the Ecosystem”

To someone who isn’t a lawyer the public facts make Skyhook the much more sympathetic party: David vs. Google’s Goliath. From the outside it looks like Google is bullying partners into doing what it wants. This is essentially the same claim that Alibaba made: Google got between Acer and its Aliyun OS.

In the statement above Google essentially admits compelling Acer to abandon Aliyun on the grounds that Acer has made a contractual commitment to working with the official (as opposed to forked) version of Android and that Android would become further diluted by the introduction of another version of the software:

Non-compatible versions of Android, like Aliyun, weaken the ecosystem. All members of the Open Handset Alliance have committed to building one Android platform and to not ship non-compatible Android devices.

Google is correct that yet another version of Android could weaken the ecosystem (Amazon’s version of Android is outside Google’s control). What we might infer here is that Google is worried that Aliyun could catch on and become a bona fide challenger in some markets to official Android, which would weaken Android’s overall market position over time vis-a-vis competitors such as Apple and Microsoft.

In a worst case scenario for Google there would be multiple non-official versions of Android being used by hardware OEMs. As with Kindle Fire, Google would have no control over them, potentially creating what amount to competitive operating systems based on Android. This is essentially what Kindle Fire is.

Google thus has a competitive interest in maintaining the “integrity” of the platform for itself and Android developers (to prevent additional fragmentation). It’s just that Google’s assertion of its competitive self-interest flies in the face of its Android openness rhetoric.

Google Tactics Legally Permissible

In court filings defending against the Skyhook case Google raised the same “compatibility” argument that it references in its official statement about Acer. Compatibility may well be something of a euphemism in this case for Google’s discretion over third party technologies. However Google apparently does have a contractual right to do the kinds of things that it has been doing with Skyhook and Acer.

The Skyhook court, in a ruling on an unsuccessful Google motion for summary judgment, found that Google has a contractual right to prevent manufacturers from distributing devices “under the Android trademark with any software installed that, in Google’s determination, would interfere with full functioning of Google’s applications, including retrieval of location data.”

As Danny points out Google controls the Android trademark and access to the Google Play content marketplace. Amazon doesn’t use either so Google has no ability to say anything about what Amazon can or can’t do with Android. However those companies that want to produce “official” Android devices (e.g., Acer, Samsung) must conform to certain rules and guidelines that are ultimately at Google’s discretion.

Skyhook argues that the “compatibility” argument was a smokescreen. But if software compatibility is a smokescreen, what does it conceal?

Compatibility = Google Discretion

The Google Wi-Spy scandal became public in May, 2010. Skyhook was chosen by Motorola and Samsung for location positioning around roughly the same time. Once Google discovered that Skyhook location was to be used instead of its own system concerns were expressed internally, as reflected in a Google memo (originally revealed in a Wall Street Journal article) that said the following:

“I cannot stress enough how important Google’s Wi-Fi location database is to our Android and mobile-product strategy,” wrote Steve Lee, the Google product manager, in an email that emerged in a suit filed against Google by Skyhook Wireless Inc. in a Massachusetts court.

Once Wi-Fi data collection became more challenging (because of Wi-Spy) Google perhaps needed to ensure that it was getting the same location data from the handsets themselves, either as a backup plan or as a new primary source of the information. My understanding is that would have been precluded if Skyhook were the provider of location information for those Motorola and Samsung handsets. Skyhook would have received the data and not Google.

Among other problems for Google, that would have wrecked havoc with the functioning of apps like Google Maps on those handsets. Google probably intervened to protect its own interests. But the company wasn’t “clean” about it. It used “compatibility” as a justification — although the company apparently had the legal right to simply block Skyhook on Android contractual grounds (as it has argued in court).

Hypocrisy and “Owning” the OS

This brings us back to Acer. I think it all boils down to this: Google perceived a threat to its self-interest in Acer’s potential use of Aliyun, so it acted to prevent it. Once again, Google is probably legally entitled to do so (putting aside claims of threats that are discussed in a Wall Street Journal article).

One of the central problems in the Acer and Skyhook incidents is that Google is acting in self-interest but still taking the position that Android is a democracy and an “open ecosystem.” The compatibility argument attempts to finesse that obvious tension.

As Danny writes there is a version of Android that is totally open and that Google does control. That’s the version that showed up in the Kindle Fire. But otherwise, if it says “Android” Google “owns” it. Google needs to be up front about that.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Features & Analysis | Google: Android | Google: Critics | Google: Legal | Google: Maps | Google: Mobile | Google: Privacy


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • AnthemionIrk64
  • denbo68

    Summary: Google is redefining what ‘open’ really means. It means ‘our way or the highway’. We must sacrifice being ‘open’ for our fragile ‘ecosystem’.

    Rubbish. Pure defecated rubbish.

  • Digital Iconoclast

    Uh, the article fails to recognize that this isn’t an Android-capable, or Android-labeled device. Google is probably in deep legal trouble here. Restraint of trade/antitrust. Multiple jurisdictions. Were Acer headquartered in China, Google’s Ministry of Truth could probably avoid legal issues, since China doesn’t really have a rule of law. But, many other jurisdictions do have a rule of law, and not a “rule by Google.”
    Contracts can be shredded if they aid or abet restraint of trade.

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