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This week, a report hit the web claiming that Google has strong-armed Acer into cancelling the launch of the CloudMobile A800, a smartphone running Aliyun, the Android-based operating system developed by Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba.

Apparently, the press event where the A800 was supposed to be unveiled was cancelled at the last moment, after Google warned Acer that working with Alibaba would jeopardize their Android partnership.

Aliyun OS is a forked version of Android, one that is not compatible with Google’s services, and has little to do with Google, besides its underlying code. Aliyun’s software is similar in this respect to the Android-based operating system that powers Amazon’s Kindle Fire family.

Some were quick to criticize Google for throwing its weight around to prevent its partners from working with competing operating systems. The most vocal critics were, of course, the executives of Alibaba, who claimed that the Mountain View-based giant has “threatened to cancel Acer’s license to use Android”.

But Android is open-source, meaning that you don’t need a license to use it (Amazon’s example comes to mind again). So, what happened here?

Did Acer forget about their OHA commitments?

The key to understanding this debacle is the fact that Acer is a member of the Open Handset Alliance, the group of companies that pledged support for the open source Android project. As it turns out, as a member of OHA, Acer can utilize competing operating systems (such as Windows Phone 8), but not non-compatible versions of Android. In other words, members of OHA cannot fork Android or use forked versions of Android. This is why Google took the extraordinary step to “remind” Acer about their commitment to the Alliance.

Acer wouldn’t be the first OHA member to make incursions into Android-fork land. In fact, the Chinese handset maker Haier (an OHA member) has launched its own Aliyun-based phone, which we reported on back in June. But Haier is a small player, and perhaps Google didn’t perceive its transgression as a threat. Acer on the other hand, is a major international player in consumer electronics, albeit with a small mobile footprint. Google felt the need to keep them in line, and to show other OHA members that they are serious about maintaining control over the Android ecosystem.

If Acer would have been successful with the Aliyun-running CloudMobile A800, others might have followed their lead. Google doesn’t afford that right now, with Amazon making good inroads into the tablet business. That’s especially true in China, where Android has a huge market share, but Google makes little revenue, because many of the Android-based smartphones sold there do not run Google’s apps.

Google’s response

Feeling the need to counter Alibaba’s claims, Andy Rubin took to Google Plus to express his surprise over the Chinese’ ambitions to replace Android with their own Android-based OS:

“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.”

Moreover, Google put up a post on their official blog, that, without mentioning Acer or Alibaba, reiterates  the “benefits and importance of compatibility.”

In the following years, we will likely see this type of situations more often. Already, there’s chatter about manufacturers looking to fork Android in order to evade Google’s tight control. We cannot exclude bigger players trying to follow Amazon’s example, and sooner or later, Google will have to step in to protect its interests.

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