Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Google’s Android in China’s sights

Google is once again running into problems in China, this time with its Android operating system which is fast becoming the main software on mobile phones around the world.

Android dependency

According to a paper published by the China Academy of Telecommunication Research the Android operating system has become too deeply embedded within China and stifling the competition.

"Our country's mobile operating system research and development is too dependent on Android," the paper, posted online on Friday and carried by local media, said. "While the Android system is open source, the core technology and technology roadmap is strictly controlled by Google."

The paper says Google had discriminated against some Chinese companies developing their operating systems by delaying the sharing of codes. Google had also used commercial agreements to restrain the business development of mobile devices of these companies, it claimed.

The Chinese think-tank said that while Android was an open system, "its core technology and technology roadmap are strictly controlled by Google and our [operating systems] development companies often face commercial discrimination, delays in sharing codes and restrictions on device makers through commercial agreements". [FT / WSJ / WSJ / Yahoo / YouTube]

Protecting IP

However other observers believe that Google is only protecting its intellectual property. Several Chinese companies including e-commerce group Alibaba, online search firm Baidu and device maker Xiaomi, have launched their own mobile operating systems. However they are little more than customised versions of Android and seen by some as blatant copies.

Last year a planned joint venture between Alibaba and Acer, the Taiwanese PC vendor, to launch a smartphone was called off. Alibaba executives claimed Google had put pressure on Acer, though analysts said Google may have been concerned that Alibaba was trying to use basic Android technology to create a competitor system [WSJ].

There is a further problem for China however. While it might be argued that the likes of Google and Apple have created a duopoly, China maybe suffering from a lack of homegrown talent. Even the think-tank's white paper lamented that Chinese developers were starting from a technology level that was too low, too late, and existed within a small and weak ecosystem which struggled to gain support or interest for their own operating systems from device makers.

Sledgehammer approach

One reason might be the all pervasive controls placed upon the Internet which often uses a sledgehammer approach to curtail the spread of content deemed by authorities to be subversive or harmful.

The so-called Great Firewall of China is employed primarily to weed out pornography and subversive content. However any website seen as a potential risk can come under the spotlight. Particularly at risk are websites which can be used to share material between groups of individuals. Social networks in the west have been singled out, such as the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google+. But it is not just social media popular amongst the young that have been blocked by Chinese authorities.

For a short period, LinkedIn, a site aimed at linking business professionals together, was blocked. In 2009 the site for the computer programming site Python found itself blocked in mainland China [tvnewswatch: Expats in China atwitter over Internet blocks].

Former head of Google's China division Kai-Fu Lee found himself in hot water and banned from local microblogging sites after airing his grievances about China's strict censorship controls. In a February 16th post Kai-Fu Lee summarized a Wall Street Journal article about how slow speeds and instability were deterring overseas businesses from locating critical functions in China [SCMP / CNET / Bloomberg / Telegraph / TechCrunch].

"Unjustified" blocks

He had also posted comments and links to articles taking issue with the apparent blocking of computer-code sharing sites like Github which became inaccessible in mid-January [].

In a post made the the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo, Lee said, "GitHub is the tool of choice for programmers to learn and with the world. GitHub has no ideology, no reactionary content."

The blocking of GitHub was, said Lee "unjustified" and would only lead to problems for domestic programmers who might lose any competitive edge over foreign competition. In an article posted on LinkedIn he noted the site was eventually restored, though did not take credit for his protestations

Uneven ground

Lee has commented too about US and other foreign Internet companies that have failed in China, saying that many companies are too impatient or have a misunderstanding of the fierce Chinese market [LinkedIn].

However the failure of many US tech companies in China is as much to do with legal or censorship hurdles. While there might be some favouritism by both government and consumers in China for locally developed brands such as Taobao and Alipay over foreign competitors Ebay and PayPal, this is not always the case. Twitter, Facebook and Google+ would likely sweep away any homegrown competition should the authorities relax the Internet blocks.

But the opposite is also true. Baidu, China's largest search engine, has effectively secured the Chinese search market following Google's shift to Hong Kong in 2010 and the constant interference by censors on its service. However Baidu has failed to gain any traction outside of China. Neither have any of China's other social websites which are virtually unknown in the west.


While some developers, programmers and web designers will use circumvention software to see beyond the firewall and develop plans for a more global approach, most will be hemmed in by China's Internet restrictions. Not having a clear picture concerning the competition will leave China's tech innovators less able to compete in the future.

For China's new tech generation, they are disadvantaged by not having access to the whole picture, somewhat like a baby who has had a number of letters removed from his alphabet building block set for fear he might spell some naughty words. Without the letter 'F' there is no future. Similarly, without an understanding and access to the whole of the Internet, there is no real chance to make tools which might work or appeal to everyone.

The game may already be lost since the like of Google, Facebook and other western tech companies have established themselves so completely every else other than China, and a few tin pot dictatorships such as North Korea, Iran and Cuba.

Tech firms such as Huawei might be beginning to make inroads with smartphones said to be the fastest on the planet [BBC], but they still face other obstacles, such as trying to convince the US that the companies supposed military ties are benign [Washington Times].

China's door may have opened but for businesses on both sides of the wall that door is still only half a jar.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

1 comment:

AAREN said...
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