There’s a lot of weirdness about the fight between Google and Alibaba over the latter’s new mobile operating system in China. Although there have been several reports on the spat, all have ultimately raised more questions than they’ve answered.

“Google Objects To Acer-Alibaba Phone,” said the Wall Street Journal. “Alibaba: Google Just Plain Wrong About Our OS,” added Cnet. “Is Aliyun OS really Linux?” asked ZD Net, without getting to the bottom of the question.

The public squabble, which has played out over the last few days, broke out when Acer cancelled a planned press conference that would have announced the launch of the CloudMobile A800 smartphone, which would have run Alibaba’s new cloud-based operating system, Aliyun. The reason? Google had threatened to kick Acer out of the Open Handset Alliance if it went ahead with the phone, because, it charged, Aliyun was a rip-off of Android and was incompatible with the OS – a point that it is a long way from proving.

Google has received a lot of support for defending the veracity of the Open Handset Alliance and acting in the interests of the wider ecosystem. But I can’t shake the feeling that it was also acting mainly in its own interests. Its hard line against Alibaba is vague and internally incoherent. Yesterday, I put in a request to Google for response relating to this story, but haven’t heard back. In the meantime, I have some big questions.

Why not Haier?

Acer could be forgiven for assuming that it was in the clear with Aliyun, because in June, handset manufacturer Haier released its own smartphone that runs Alibaba’s OS. The budget Zing phone retails in China for RMB999 (US$157). Like Acer, Haier is Open Handset Alliance member.

In a blog post, Rubin stressed the importance of compatibility and a consistent ecosystem. By pressuring Acer to abandon the launch of the A800 under fear of eviction from the alliance, Google showed how serious it is about that commitment. However, by letting Haier get away with it, Google appears to be applying its standards unevenly, which compromises its “for the good of the ecosystem” argument.

What’s with the vague accusations?

Aside from his blog post, Rubin published two public statements about the kerfuffle on Google+. The first read:

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.

That Rubin used the words “apparently derived from Android” suggests he’s not sure, although he could be just trying to cover his ass legally. I will get to the apps later.

When Rubin posted again a day later in a message directed at Alibaba’s vice president of communications, he used more affirmative language:

However, the fact is, Aliyun uses the Android runtime, framework and tools. And your app store contains Android apps (including pirated Google apps). So there’s really no disputing that Aliyun is based on the Android platform and takes advantage of all the hard work that’s gone into that platform by the OHA.

Naturally, Alibaba disputes all this.  It responded that Aliyun was never supposed to be compatible with Android, because it was a totally separate system that its own engineers built. The OS incorporates its own virtual machine that is different to Android’s Dalvik, Alibaba says, and its runtime consists of both its own Java virtual machine and its own cloud app engine, which supports HTML5 web apps. While it uses some of Android’s (open source) app framework and tools, they’re merely a patch to allow Aliyun users to access third-party apps as well as the cloud-based apps in its own ecosystem.

Now, that might be clever PR speak as a way to wriggle out of an uncomfortable accusation, but it also meshes with Alibaba’s claims from day one that Aliyun is all about the cloud. In its press release announcing Aliyun way back in July 2011, Alibaba said a distinguishing feature of its OS was that it supports Web-based apps:

These offer users an Internet-like experience and do not require the user to download or install application software on their mobile devices. Cloud OS users can seamlessly synchronize, store and back-up data such as contact information, call logs, text messages, notes and photos to AliCloud’s remote data center, and can also access and update this data across all their PC and mobile devices.

It also said the OS was the result of three years of development and “uses AliCloud’s self-developed distributed file system and virtual machine”. What Google might be able to hang it on, however, is what it claimed next: “the cloud OS is also fully compatible with Android-based applications.” Alibaba has some explaining to do on that front.

Are the pirated apps a distraction?

One thing for sure is that Aliyun’s app marketplace is rotten with pirated apps. But you’ll find these naughty apps on any other Android marketplace in China. So while it’s fair to attack Aliyun on that front, it’s hardly a convincing reason to attempt to force a handset maker to abandon its plans to launch a new phone.

The other thing is that many in the West are well aware of China’s reputation for intellectual property breaches, so a lot of people would have been primed to yell “j’accuse!” at Alibaba without being armed with all the facts. That’s just a distraction from the central tenet of Google’s argument, which is that Aliyun derived its OS from Android – something Alibaba strenuously denies. Again, Google is right to call out Aliyun for the abundant pirated apps, but that’s not the issue here.

Is this a fight for China?

Google in general isn’t doing very well in China. It famously pulled its search operations out of the country in 2010, leaving only its advertising business, Maps, and a handful of other services in the country to represent its China interests. But since then, Android has taken off just as China is establishing itself as the world’s largest smartphone market – and one poised for incredible growth at that. Android is doing very well in China, anchoring the handsets of almost every phone other than the iPhone. As of the end of last year, it had 68.4 percent of the smartphone OS market, according to Analysys International.

So far, however, it hasn’t been able to translate that dominance into serious dollars. Because of the political complications resulting from its 2010 withdrawal from the country, Google can only offer free apps through its Play store, which most users don’t bother with anyway given that there are dozens of domestic alternatives. Google is hoping that it will be able to offer paid apps through the store in the future.

What really seems to have stirred Rubin into action is that Alibaba’s chief strategy officer Zeng Ming said last week that Alibaba wants to be the “Android of China”. Rubin might fairly have scratched his head and asked, “Hang on, aren’t we the Android of China?”. That sensitivity would explain why he opened his first Google+ post with “We were surprised to read Alibaba Group’s chief strategy officer Zeng Ming’s quote ‘We want to be the Android of China’…”

In the wake of that comment, Google might have seen fit to make an example of Alibaba in order to nip a potential future problem in the bud. Robin Chan, a prominent angel investor who splits his time between Beijing and Silicon Valley, puts it this way:

If Android can get all [Open Handset Alliance members] to stay harmonized with the global Android framework, the Android of China will remain Android. If so, China’s mobile market will be no different from the rest of the world, which re-sets the China opportunity for local and global players, including Google.

Two interpretations

We don’t have enough information to call this one either way just yet, but the whole affair can be boiled down to two possible scenarios.

1. Alibaba is lying to Google and the public and did rely on Android to build Aliyun. In that case, it is not only misleading us all, but it also trying to have its cake and eat it – that is, it is pretending to be independent of Android while also offering all the benefits of Android, including an app marketplace stuffed with pirated apps.

Or:

2. Provoked by Ming’s assertion that Alibaba wants Aliyun to be the “Android of China,” Google rashly pressured Acer to withdraw the A800 based on its suspicious that Aliyun was a mere Android rip-off. Even though Rubin wasn’t fully armed with specific facts that proved Alibaba’s alleged violation, he then had to dig in to justify Google’s hardline action, especially as some commentators suggested it could be anti-competitive behavior.

This fascinating and convoluted tale of cross-cultural competition is only the latest in Google’s twisted China adventure. We’ll be staying tuned for more – and you should too.

[Image from Shutterstock.com]