This week, Acer abruptly pulled out of a news conference about it produce a smartphone using the Aliyun mobile operating system. Alibaba, which makes Aliyun, said Google pressured Acer to drop out. Now Google is sharing its story. Acer pulled out because by being a member of the Open Handset Alliance, it had to.
Here’s the Google statement we were sent:
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.
The OHA & One True Android Platform
The Open Handset Alliance was created with Google’s backing in 2007, as part of the Android OS launch itself. The alliance included a wide-range of companies ranging from carriers like T-Mobile to handset-makers like Samsung.
Acer joined the OHA in 2009. In fact, there have been so few companies joining (or at least announced) recently that the news release of Acer becoming part of the OHA is still listed on the OHA’s home page:
As you can see from the home page, all OHA members are pledged to support the “Android Platform.” But when Android is open source, when Google itself is even proud to talk about how it doesn’t know all the Android products that are out there, how can Google say that Acer isn’t supporting Android?
That’s where the whole “compatible” part comes in. You see, there are two Androids in the world, those that are deemed compatible (and have access to the Google Play app and content store) and those that aren’t.
The Samsung Galaxy S III? That’s a compatible Android device (and these devices are counted in the activation totals that Google cites, such as 500 million that it says have been activated so far).
Amazon’s Kindle Fire? That’s not compatible Android (sometimes called “forked” Android). It doesn’t have access to Google Play (which is probably fine with Amazon, since it would rather people buy content for its devices through its own app store and Amazon itself).
Acer Goes Rogue
Apparently, given the statement above, OHA members are pledged to work only on compatible Android devices. That’s where Acer comes in. It was set to announce producing a phone using Aliyun, which is a non-compatible or forked version of Android backed by Alibaba. Then it dropped out yesterday.
Alibaba posted the news on its corporate blog, saying that Google threatened to cancel Acer’s Android “license” to use Android:
A Sept. 13 news conference announcing the China launch of a high-end Acer smartphone running a cloud operating system made by Alibaba Group was abruptly canceled after Google, owner of the Android OS, threatened to cancel Acer’s license to use Android for its other phones if the launch went ahead.
I found that statement confusing. Because Android is open source, no one is “licensed” to use it. Anyone can do anything with it just as both Amazon and Alibaba have. But only products that are deemed Android compatible are allowed to use the Android logo, as well as have access to the Google Play market.
Instead, it seems likely that Acer was set to work on this new device and got a reminder from Google that doing so meant it wouldn’t be an OHA member. In turn, OHA members are (to my knowledge) able to have faster access to new versions of Android code, along with likely other perks. Acer probably decided it wasn’t worth risking all that.
We’re working to see if we can get an Acer comment. So far, the company hasn’t seemed to say much. Here what the Wall Street Journal had yesterday:
”Acer will continue to communicate with Google and the company still wants to launch the new smartphone based on Alibaba’s software,” the Acer official said.
OHA Members Can Work With Android Competitors, Just Not Competitors Built On Android
Going back to the Google statement, an interesting twist was this part:
This does not however, keep OHA members from participating in competing ecosystems
By saying “competing ecosystems,” Google is talking about non-Android based mobile operating systems such as iOS or Windows Phone. It’s pretty ironic. You can participate in any competing operating system you want as an OHA member unless it’s a competing system to “compatible Android” that’s based on Android source code.
If that’s making your head hurt, consider this. Yesterday, when Google came under (false) accusations that it forced Android devices to use Google search, a Google spokesperson countered that this wasn’t true, with the primary example being the Kindle Fire, which uses Bing for search.
But the Kindle Fire isn’t part of the “one Android platform” that Google’s statement talks about. It’s “non-compatible” Android, so it doesn’t count (but other compatible Android devices have and do use Bing search).
Will The Real Android Please Stand Up?
I’ve written non-compatible devices like the Nook or the Kindle Fire shouldn’t even be called Android. That feels more important than ever before. Google uses “Android” interchangeably to mean compatible devices and non-compatible ones (or the “forked” or “ASOP Android,” for Android Open Source Project, because we need yet more confusion with names).
Android = Google
Ideally, I’d like to see Google simply call compatible Android either “Google Android” or “Google OS,” because it really is all about Google.
When the name of Android Market changed to Google Play earlier this year, that solidified compatible Android as effectively being a Google OS, not an open operating system. After all, what Google competitor really wants to have an application and content marketplace that’s all about Google’s branding, rather than its own?
Android Open Source Project Isn’t Android
As for the Android Open Source Project, it needs a new non-Android name. After all, if devices can be built off that code but can’t necessarily use the Android logo, why continue with this confusion of some (including those at Google) referring to them as Android? Pick a new name.
By the way, if you’re wondering what makes something “compatible,” Google says it’s all down to passing a test suite (which you’ll find here).
The company has also written some blog posts about the whole compatibility debate in the past (see here and here), a debate that happens in part because it’s seen by some as a way Google turns an “open” operating system into one that does what it wants.
Postscript: Android chief Andy Rubin, on his Google+ page, is now mentioning the Acer situation:
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. Check out this blog post that explains how we think about compatibility and how it relates to the ecosystem we worked hard to build.
He points to this Google blog post talking about the “importance of compatibility” in Android, which says nothing about Acer but obviously went up as a defense over questions the case will raise.
It remains unclear exactly how Google called Acer to task, but it seems pretty clear it did — and it marks the first time I know of that an OHA member has actually been called to account in this way.
Postscript 2: I’ve written a follow-up piece that takes a bigger picture look at the confusion about about having an “open” and not-so-open branches of Android. You’ll find it here: What Is The One True Android & How “Open” Is It?
- Google’s Android Arrives: Not Gphone But An Open Source Mobile Phone Platform
- Android Market Becomes “Google Play,” Reflects Google’s Multiplatform Content Aims
- The Kindle Fire Is A Kindle-Killer, Not An iPad Killer — That’s Why It Works
- For Consumers, Android Is More “Clopen” Than Open
- Google Doesn’t Require Google Search On Android, Despite What FairSearch & Microsoft Want You To Believe
- What Is The One True Android & How “Open” Is It?