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HTC has made no secret of its plans to develop its presence in the booming Chinese market. Facing dire challenges in the mature Western markets, the Taiwanese company looks towards China as an untapped reservoir of growth.

In this context, it’s not surprising to learn that HTC is putting resources into the development of a new mobile operating system specifically designed for Chinese consumers. Citing “people familiar with the project”, the Wall Street Journal reports that HTC chairwoman Cher Wang is personally supervising the development of the new OS, with the input of local government officials.

Devices running the new OS have already been handed to Chinese officials for testing

To differentiate the new operating system, HTC will be offering “deep integration” with Chinese web services such as Weibo, a hugely popular microblogging service that is similar to Twitter. The project is reportedly quite advanced: devices running early versions of the new operating system have already been handed to Chinese officials for testing. The new software may launch by the end of the year, reports the WSJ.

Android-based or completely new?

The big question is whether the new OS will be completely new or just a modified version of Android. Apparently, HTC changed its mind on the matter as recently as this year, but it is currently unclear what course of action the company adopted.

It’s unlikely though that HTC would choose to fork Android and thus break its Open Handset Alliance (OSHA) commitments. OSHA members committed to keep the integrity of Android and refrain themselves from developing forks, which are operating systems based on Android that depart significantly from the version developed by Google and are generally incompatible with Google’s services.

The best known example of a company that forked Android is Amazon, which uses a modified version of the OS to power its Kindle tablets. However, Jeff Bezos’ company is not a member of OHSA so it doesn’t have any obligations towards Google. A case of an OHSA member involved in forking Android occurred last year, when Acer dropped its support for the Android-based Aliyun OS, developed by the Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, following Google’s objections.

HTC is much too invested in Android to risk jeopardizing its relationship with Google, so the only options left are that it’s developing a skinned version of Android or a completely proprietary OS. Going the latter path would require substantial resources, which cash strapped HTC may not be able to secure. So it’s probable that HTC is simply changing the appearance and non-core functionality of Android to make it more appealing to Chinese users.

Official support

What’s the role of the Chinese government in the project? It’s difficult to say without more details, but Chinese officials have expressed concerns about the country’s dependency on software produced in the West. China has recently partnered with open source firm Canonical to develop a standardized Ubuntu Linux version to be used on government-owned computers.

The Chinese government may be interested in a similar project for mobile operating systems, though it’s not clear why it would partner with a Taiwanese company instead of homegrown giants like Huawei, ZTE, or Lenovo.

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