Android or Google Android?

A decade ago, I wrote an (unsuccessful) grant application to study whether China would turn inward — spurning Western technology in favor of home-grown proprietary technologies — as its economy grew and grew, thus leveraging its massive market to foster indiginous technologies.

A decade later, it’s clear the Chinese are having their cake and eating it too. They’ve absorbed (and stolen) as much Western technology as they can get their hands on and then adapted it to make it their own.

Yesterday, we learned of the latest of many technology theft cases:

A former General Motors engineer and her husband were charged today in federal court with conspiring to sell stolen trade secrets about hybrid vehicles to Chinese automaker Chery Automobile.

Shanshan “Shannon” Du, 49, and her husband, Yu Qin, 51, both of Troy, stood mute before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark A. Randon on conspiracy and other charges. They had been under investigation for years and were charged in 2006 with destroying documents, but the case was dropped while a broader probe continued.

The indictment says Du, who was hired at GM in 2000 and worked in the company’s Advance Technology Vehicle Group, copied thousands of pages of GM trade secrets onto a portable computer hard drive five days after accepting a buyout offer in 2005. The indictment alleges the theft of secrets dates back to 2003.

GM estimates the value of the stolen documents at $40 million…

By the summer of 2003, Qin, who had been an engineer with Troy-based electrical systems and equipment maker Controlled Power Company, was telling people he had a deal to provide hybrid technology to Chery Automobile, the indictment says.

But not all Chinese firms are stealing technology. Chinese mobile device makers are legally using Android… but not Google Android:

Google uses its ownership of the Android Market as leverage to ensure interoperability between Android devices and to encourage a certain degree of consistency…

From the perspective of some carriers and handset makers, the downside [of using Google Android] is that it precludes certain kinds of deep customization and makes them beholden to Google and Google’s stewardship of the third-party application ecosystem. It’s possible, however, for handset makers and mobile carriers to replace the parts that are controlled exclusively by Google and integrate their own alternatives—thus allowing them to adopt Android without having to make any concessions to the American search giant.

That is exactly what the Chinese mobile industry is doing with OPhone. They are creating a completely distinct third-party Android software ecosystem that is independent from Google and they are building a heavily-customized userspace stack that integrates with completely different Web services and allows them to deliver the kind of user experience that they want.

In effect, they are using Android—but not Google’s Android. They don’t need Google’s Android Market and they aren’t necessarily integrating with Google’s search or other services.

China is clearly pursuing a home-grown technology path. But it’s hardly starting from scratch.

Posted by James on Friday, July 23, 2010