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Google and Alibaba at loggerheads over a new version of Android

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September 16, 2012

Chinese search engine company Alibaba is fighting Google's allegation that its new Aliyun operating system is an illegal and incompatible version of Android and thus can't be used by mobile handset maker Acer.

Google's Andy Rubin says "the Aliyun operating system incorporates the Android runtime and was apparently derived from Android, therefore we see some mischief here." We asked Alibaba's John Spelich about Rubin's claims and about whether there are elements of Android in Aliyun, and here's what we got in response-- "They have no idea and are just speculating. Aliyun is very different."

To be sure, Google took some heat earlier this week for seemingly using its political clout to squash a burgeoning mobile operating system. Alibaba, mostly an e-commerce company more than a search engine per se is known as the Google of China, and wanted to follow Google's playbook and build its own operating system.

Acer was set to include the OS in a mobile handset, but those plans were apparently scuttled by Google, which said that while Alibaba built its own OS, it lifted elements of Android.

Nevertheless, Alibaba contends that Aliyun is not a fork and that it's built on open-source Linux, and not Android. And Alibaba added that Aliyun has its own applications, and that it's designed to run cloud apps designed in its own ecosystem. It can also run some but not all Android apps, Alibaba said.

Alibaba also noted that the Android ecosystem is being closed and restrictive: "Aliyun is an open-source based OS that is also an open ecosystem that allows others to host their mobile-enabled web sites in our cloud and we make those sites available to users who use Aliyun OS phones. So we are an ecosystem that includes other Internet companies, whereas Android does not because it provides apps through downloads."

Alibaba then added: "It's the crux of the whole cloud vs. app debate. Cloud is open, apps system is closed because it is controlled by the operator of the apps marketplace. So you see two competing ecosystems, one that's open through the cloud, the other is closed and restricts users to only the apps that they want you to see.

Alibaba accused Google on Thursday of forcing Acer to drop its support of Aliyun. Acer had originally scheduled a press conference that day to show off the first Aliyun-powered smartphone but was told by Google that the Android maker would cease providing its support if Acer followed through. As a result, the conference was halted.

After that, Alibaba was very angry. "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," Alibaba said in an email.

The accusation prompted Rubin to call out Aliyun as a forked version of Android that's modified to the extent that it's incompatible with other Android devices. As a member of the Open Handset Alliance, Acer is forbidden from using such an operating system, he said.

"Compatibility is at the heart of the Android ecosystem and ensures a consistent experience for developers, manufacturers, and consumers," Google fought back. "Noncompatible versions of Android, like Aliyun, weaken the ecosystem," it added.

We've contacted Google for a response to Alibaba's claim that Aliyun is not a forked version of Android, and we'll update this article when we hear back.

In other mobile news

With the recent launch of the Apple iPhone 5 this week, a whole slew of good Android handsets, and the rise of Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 operating system, choosing the right smartphone has never been more confusing for the average consumer.

But on a more positive note, all those options mean greater choice.

If you're armed with the knowledge necessary to make smart shopping decisions, you'll probably end up as a happy consumer once your choice is made.

Sit tight as we break down what you need to know to choose the right mobile platform and model to fit your needs. We haven't fully reviewed every phone listed below, but we have gotten our hands on every single one, and know quite a bit about each mobile handset.

Apple's iOS, the Android OS and Windows Phone 8 each have a lot to offer, and will appeal to people differently depending on what they want. If you aren't a fiercely loyal fan, a phone design could lure you to a new OS, but many people prefer to start with the platform itself instead.

iOS' strengths are its well-integrated ecosystem and fairly intuitive interface, but you're pretty much locked in to iTunes for the content itself.

Overall, Android is much more customizable, but each wireless carrier has its own benefits, which can make it less easy to just pick up and start using the device.

Windows Phone 8 is building in features that make for good high-end phones, and its fresh, simple interface is appealing, but real 'power users' may not find it flexible.

When choosing an Android phone, you have to think about the version of the OS. Android phones suffer from fragmentation, as wireless carriers and handset makers add their own software layers that sometimes get in the way of an update to the next generation.

As such, we'd avoid any new phone running Android 2.3 dubbed 'Gingerbread' or older, and stick with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Higher-end phones are typically the ones to receive OS updates first.

We'd also skip Windows Phone 7 devices in favor of Windows Phone 8 for most users. Windows 7 phones won't receive many meaningful software updates from now on, a long-standing tradition that is signed by Microsoft itself, in its PC devision.

iPhones have the advantage of receiving the same OS upgrade at the same time, and the newest OS is usually available on multiple devices. iOS 6, for instance, will work on the iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, and iPhone 4, but not on the iPhone 3GS or earlier.

Of the devices we've fully reviewed, the iPhone 4S is best, but we think that the forthcoming iPhone 5 is sure to beat it.

If you're happy with your wireless carrier, or if you're within an upgrade window, you'll probably pick from your carrier's choices. However, if you're off-contract or in between contract cycles, the world is your oyster.

Things you have to consider include: contract or no contract, a small data plan or a large one, and which carrier covers your area best.

National and regional wireless carriers sign you on for a two-year contract, have a strong retail presence, and offer phones at a subsidy, therefore at a lower cost.

They also typically have the widest coverage and the lowest up-front costs, and offer premium phones.

But every national carrier also has a prepaid option. Some, like T-Mobile and AT&T, offer a different, usually cheaper, range of phones. Verizon lets you buy nearly any phone at retail value and then pay month-to-month.

Sprint manages prepaid options through its Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile brands. Depending on how you use the services, prepaid service could work out to be cheaper over time. You also won't have to worry about breaking your contract and paying a fee.

And several prepaid wireless carriers operate on their own networks as well, like MetroPCS and Cricket Wireless. These carriers have regional footprints and are sometimes slower to adopt premium phones and improve on their technology. MetroPCS for example was first with LTE, but its network is much slower and its coverage area is a lot smaller, so you may want to look into that carefully.

Cricket doesn't have 4G, at least for now, but it does offer a unique music service. U.S. Cellular is a regional network with both prepaid and postpaid options.

There are many more wireless carrier services as well. Voice and data coverage are also key. There are carrier maps you can look at to see roughly if your area is taken care of, but asking neighbors is usually more reliable.

And all carriers are still rolling out 4G LTE networks, but Verizon is far ahead of the others. Sprint has the smallest number of markets, currently, and T-Mobile is using the pretty fast HSPA+ for 4G.

The carrier's pricing structure is also something to think about. Verizon and AT&T have pooled data plans that could be better or worse for you or your family, but AT&T's aren't mandatory for existing customers. Sprint continues to offer an unlimited data plan, and T-Mobile recently introduced its own version.

In other mobile news

At a high profile hearing in Washington yesterday, Chinese handset makers ZTE and Huawei failed to reassure the long standing national security concerns of Congressmen surrounding their access to the U.S. market. And the debate has been going on for over a year already. The U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Intelligence investigated claims that the two companies are linked to the Chinese military.

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Chairman Mike Rogers explained that the “on-going onslaught” of network intrusions originating in China are “almost certainly the work of, or done at the backing of, the Chinese government”, and that the PRC has the motive to tamper with the global telecoms supply chain. "We have heard reports about backdoors or unexplained beaconing from the equipment sold by both companies. And our sources overseas tell us that there is a reason to question whether the companies are tied to the Chinese government or whether their equipment is as it appears," he added.

“Huawei and ZTE provide a wealth of opportunities for Chinese intelligence agencies to insert malicious hardware or software implants into critical telecommunications components and systems. And under Chinese law, ZTE and Huawei would likely be required to cooperate with any request by the Chinese government to use their systems or access for malicious purposes.”

In response, both firms claimed that they were fully independent of any government or PLA interference, as was claimed in a recent Northrop Grumman report.

Huawei vice president Charles Ding offered the following "As a global company that earns a large part of its revenue from markets outside of China, we know that any improper behavior would affect our reputation, would have an adverse effect in the global market, and ultimately would strike a fatal blow to the company’s business operations. Our customers throughout the world trust Huawei. We will never do anything that undermines that trust. It would be foolish for Huawei to risk involvement in national security or economic espionage."

He added "Let me be very clear: Huawei has not and will not jeopardise our global commercial success nor the integrity of our customers’ networks for any third party, government or otherwise."

Huawei and ZTE also beefed up their security credentials, their adherence to advanced standards and the on-going efforts to improve the quality of their equipment. They also pointed out quite pertinently that most of their Western rivals in the telecom industry have their equipment made in China.

“We respectfully suggest that the Committee’s focus on ZTE, to the exclusion of the Western telecom vendors, addresses the overall issue of risk so narrowly that it omits from the Committee’s inquiry the suppliers of the vast majority of equipment used in the U.S. market,” said ZTE vice president Zhu Jinyun.

“ZTE should not be a focus of this investigation to the exclusion of the much larger Western vendors,” he added.

But the two handset makers were unwilling to budge on the most important matter-– allowing investigators deeper access into some business information to better explain their relationship with Chinese authorities, its corporate structure, various ownership operations and its general management.

“We were willing to work with both companies, to find a reasonable way to answer our document requests. But the 2 companies have refused, apparently because to turn over internal corporate documents would potentially violate China’s state-secret laws,” said Rogers.

“It's strange that the internal corporate documents of purportedly private sector firms are considered classified secrets in China. This fact alone gives us a reason to question their independence.”

Huawei’s Ding responded that “the requests also sought highly sensitive, proprietary business information, which, we respectfully submit, no responsible company, foreign or domestic, would voluntarily produce”.

Short of both companies doing a monumental 180 degree turn and allowing the U.S. Committee access to this secret information, there seems little hope of a breakthrough.

Rightly or wrongly, the continued intelligence linking persistent cyber attacks on U.S. organizations originating from China will likely keep U.S. politicians from softening their stance.

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Source: Google.

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