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China Gives Android a Pass, as Long as It Keeps Its Nose Clean

The Chinese government won’t block the use of Google’s Android operating system on mobile phones in the country as long as the operating system abides by Chinese laws, a key government official said on Wednesday.

“As long as it complies with Chinese laws and regulations, and as long as it has good cooperation with operators … their use of the system won’t be limited,” Ministry of Industry and Information Technology spokesperson Zhu Hongren said at a news briefing in Beijing, according to reports.

Zhu’s comments represent the Chinese government’s first statement about Android since the current standoff between Google and the nation’s leadership began roughly two weeks ago.

Microsoft Speaks Out

Google announced earlier this month that it is rethinking its presence in China following a series of cyberattacks it said originated there.

Not long afterwards, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton referred to the incident in a speech on the topic of Internet freedom, calling on Chinese authorities to investigate the attacks and asserting that “censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere.”

Chinese government officials lashed out in response over the weekend, accusing the United States of maintaining a double standard on the issue. Since then, both Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates have spoken out to downplay China’s Internet restrictions.

In the meantime, however, Google delayed the launch of two Android phones that were originally planned to be released in China last week, causing widespread speculation that the effects of its stand against China could extend past its search engine to harm the Android platform.

‘Just Like PCs’

The devices from Motorola and Samsung would likely have relied heavily upon Google services, Chris Hazelton, research director for mobile and wireless with the 451 Group, told TechNewsWorld.

“Those services are obviously very similar to those Google offers in traditional browsing, so they face the same issues,” Hazelton explained.

In other words, because the smartphones function “just like PCs,” they will need to be censored just like PCs in China, he noted.

‘Limited Participation by Google’

Motorola, in fact, announced last week that it still plans to offer an Android device in China, but that it will use the Chinese Baidu engine rather than Google, Hazelton pointed out.

“The key is, where is the data and where are the services hosted?” he explained. “Any Baidu service on an Android device will be managed and run by a Chinese company, whereas any Google service will be based in California, outside Chinese purview.”

What that could mean, then, is that “Android will be on devices in China with only limited participation by Google,” he noted — a state of affairs that would presumably not be Google’s first choice.

“China is a huge market, and a large portion of that population will initially gain access to the Web on a smartphone rather than a PC,” Hazelton said. “That’s why it’s important that Google have a presence on smartphones in China if it wants to enjoy the rapid growth that China is experiencing right now.”

‘Not the End of the World’

While the market is clearly a major one for mobile devices, it probably won’t make or break Android, Neil Strother, practice director for mobile marketing strategies at ABI Research, told TechNewsWorld.

There are many other lucrative markets, and even companies that succeed in China sometimes faces lower margins as well as government restrictions, he pointed out.

So, “if Android as a platform either falters or fails in China, it’s not the end of the world for them,” Strother concluded.

As for device vendors like Samsung and Motorola, which have already put significant resources into leveraging Android, “they will move on with or without Google,” Hazelton predicted. If Android proves too big a problem, “there are alternatives,” he said.

‘Not Backing Down’

For China’s part, meanwhile, “I think they’re not backing down in any way,” Hazelton said. “They’re being very strategic and coy saying, yes, Android can come in, but Google will still face difficulties and will need to abide by Chinese law.”

The Chinese government plans to continue censoring the Web, and it “doesn’t make sense to censor the traditional Web but ignore the mobile Web,” he noted.

“I don’t think the Chinese will change their stance on this much, even if they appear to try to mollify it a bit,” Strother agreed.

In the meantime, the gray market for devices will continue, and “you’ll see Google services in China regardless of what the government does,” Hazelton predicted. Finding and blocking such instances, he added, will be the government’s next challenge.

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