Baidu forks Android to introduce its own mobile OS for China

Baidu announced the plan at its annual Baidu World event in Beijing, according to a report by Penn Olson. The Chinese search company's services have already been used to replace Google's on Android phones sold in China, but the new initiative will spin a new OS off from the mainstream development of Android itself.

Baidu said it would deliver its own Maps, a service competing with Google Places, an ebook reader modeled after Apple's iBooks and a music player (depicted below from the Baidu website). The company will also fold in its apps that currently ship with Chinese Android phones, including a Chinese character input tool.

Baidu will target the new Yi OS in competition with Google's mainstream distribution of Android tied to its own apps, other Android variants already in use within China, and alternative mobile OS products like Alibaba, which is not based on Android but aims to run Android apps.

All of these products also compete with Apple's original iPhone, which has made an entry into China and will reportedly broaden its presence in a new partnership with the country's largest carrier China Mobile.

China's new fragment abandons Google

It's not clear what version of Android the new Baidu Yi will be based on. Android already suffers from an inconsistent, fragmented experience for users as individual phone makers and carriers add their own proprietary layers of apps and look and feel packages such as Motorola's Motoblur and Samsung's Touchwiz.

The new Baidu Yi OS, based on the open foundation code in Android, may run some Android apps but will face more technical barriers than the simple user experience overlays that complicate developers' ability to launch Android apps. Baidu's fragmentation barrier will be more like the OS version problems that split the Android ecosystem into incompatible API levels.

That issue is the result of hardware makers and carriers refusing to update earlier device models or taking several months to make updates available to users after Google issues a new build. Google's open model allows any partners to hold back updates, something Apple has eliminated with its policy of maintaining ownership of the iOS update system.

Of all Android devices to access Google's App Market over the past two weeks, half are still running last summer's Android 2.2 Froyo and only 30 percent are using Google's latest smartphone release, Android 2.3 Gingerbread. More than 16 percent are running a build older than Froyo, preventing them from being able to run modern apps.

Google's latest tablet-centric release, Android 3.0 Honeycomb, powers less than 2 percent of active devices, but it isn't used by a variety of tablet makers including Barnes & Noble Nook Color and Amazon's upcoming Android-based Kindle, both of which are based on customized versions of Android 2.2 Froyo. Those devices are not designed to work with Google's market however, and so would never show up in the company's analytics.

Lenovo's new IdeaPad and HTC's Flyer tablets use Android 2.3 Gingerbread, avoiding the requirements of Android 3.0 but also fragmenting the market for Android tablet apps across three API levels. Dell continued to use an outdated version of Android on its Streak 5 mini tablet until discontinuing it two weeks ago.

Tags: Android, Baidu, Google

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