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Amazon and Baidu to Google: Fork You

Sorry to stick it to you.
Two new developments -- literally -- on the Google (GOOG) Android front: new variations on the basic code engineered by Amazon (AMZN) and Baidu (BIDU). Technically called forks (like in a road), the variations take Android in new directions. Directions that Google doesn't control.

Talk about a fair news, bad news scenario for the company. On the vaguely positive side, the variations offset Android's increasing dominance of a market that could, once again, make Google an antitrust target -- if it could pull far enough ahead of the Apple (AAPL) iPhone to account for two-thirds of the domestic market. Bad news? The legal protection comes at the price of Google losing control over its main opportunity to control its future.

Creationism versus evolution
The concept of forking is common in open source software development. One group wants to take a project in one direction and another one insists on something else. Differences may be over what functions to include or highly technical details of implementation. Suddenly, bang! There are two different software applications with a common past.

Call it a basic difference in philosophy: software creationism versus evolution. When forking happens in the open software world, there's the chance of one version pushing another out of existence because it gains that much more support. In traditional software design, the issue never happens. Microsoft (MSFT) or Oracle (ORCL) will generally only have a tight set of slight product variations, some of which offer additional functions for a higher price.

Cross the two models, and you can have problems, because suddenly the company that created a product for a specific strategic need is no longer in full control of where it goes. Ironically, this happened to Sun with Java when Google wanted its own version. (Double irony: at-the-time Google CEO Eric Schmidt oversaw development of Java when he was at Sun.)

Looks like java, smells like java, but it doesn't taste like Java
Sun was concerned at the time that suddenly Java might not be able to offer the main benefit of write code once, run it anywhere. That's exactly what's about to happen to Google.

The company wanted a ubiquitous operating system that could run on smartphones, tablets, set-top boxes, and any other big markets. Google could then have a business and user ecosystem potentially larger than Apple's and then find ways to make money off hundreds of millions of users (maybe through incorporating its own ad network into the operating system).

To that end, Google has pursued greater control over Android, "open" or not. Handset vendors have had to play ball to get advanced access to new releases. Google has been the only one who could authorize changes.

That was then, this is now
So much for control. Amazon's new Android tablet has a look and feel nothing like other Android devices, according to MG Siegler at TechCrunch, who says that he got a sneak look:

But the key for Amazon is just how deeply integrated all of their services are. Amazon's content store is always just one click away. The book reader is a Kindle app (which looks similar to how it does on Android and iOS now). The music player is Amazon's Cloud Player. The movie player is Amazon's Instant Video player. The app store is Amazon's Android Appstore.

Google's Android Market is nowhere to be found. In fact, no Google app is anywhere to be found.

Quite a hefty change. Similarly, Baidu's Android variant, Baidu Yi, has its own replacements for standard Google apps, such as Maps and Places.

Google has lost control to two major forces that could have a big sales impact in the key markets of the U.S. and China. And yet, what can it do? Suddenly say, "Sorry, folks, all the talk of open was just so much PR?" The antitrust and even patent lawsuit implications could be major.

But then, now that chairman Eric Schmidt said that Google wants to be in the hardware business, spooking the likes of HTC and Samsung, antitrust and patent lawsuits may actually be the least of their worries.


Image: morgueFile user clarita, CC 2.0.
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