Alibaba is quickly becoming the Google of southeast Asia. Far from just being an ecommerce platform, Alibaba has expanded into cloud hosting, the Chinese movie industry, email, creating a PayPal competitor, and even internet-enabled cars.

Like Google, Alibaba has also created its own open source operating system, YunOS. As of May 2016 YunOS is estimated to be installed on 70 million smartphones in China, giving it 14% of the total smartphone market. While it still trails Android, YunOS has officially pulled ahead of iOS in China, making it the second most popular mobile OS in the most populated country on earth.

Isn’t it just Android?

Much like Android, YunOS is built on an open source Linux kernel. Alibaba and Google have tangled over YunOS due to similarities as well: Google claims YunOS is a forked, incompatible version of Android while Alibaba maintains it’s an independent project.

In 2012 smartphone manufacturer Acer was considering installing YunOS on phones for the Chinese market–something Google put a stop to. YunOS, it said, was incompatible with the Android ecosystem and thus not allowed on phones made by a company that is part of the Open Handset Alliance.

Alibaba shot back by saying YunOS was not a forked Android distribution but was a fully open source OS that prioritized cloud-based applications hosted by Alibaba.

SEE: 10 things you should know about Alibaba (TechRepublic)

That’s not quite the whole of it according to YunOS developer and promoter Weixiao Fan. “YunOS has two main versions [and the one for mobile phones] is currently based on Android.” He went on to say that the user experience is exactly the same because YunOS is essentially a re-tuned version of Android. (The second version is designed for tablets and IoT devices and is built on a lightweight Linux distro with a Nokia QT framework on top.)

YunOS, he said, definitely broke the Open Handset Alliance’s Android Open Source Project rules of not modifying the base of the operating system, which has led to it being restricted to low-end devices costing around $50-$100.

What–if anything–is different about YunOS?

Yun, which means cloud in Chinese, is a perfect descriptor of this open source Linux-based platform. Everything on YunOS is based in the cloud, which makes it very independent of its hardware–that means cheap phones can run it with ease.

YunOS devices use a single sign-on to gain access to cloud storage, email, web search, apps, and other services–just like Android and iOS devices. The major difference is that all of a user’s data is streamed directly from the cloud, including apps.

SEE: Getting an Android phone this holiday season? Here’s how to migrate from iOS to the Google world (TechRepublic)

JavaScript webapps are the basis on which YunOS functions. The YunOS SDK allows development of JavaScript apps tuned to run on YunOS by taking full advantage of streaming and low-end hardware requirements.

If the cloud is the future does YunOS have a place?

With more and more computing resources being offloaded to the cloud YunOS’ cloud-centric approach makes sense. It looks, feels, and acts like Android without the hardware requirements, meaning it could drastically reduce device costs without having an impact on performance.

YunOS may still be trailing Android in China, but that’s not stopping it from considering new markets. Weixiao Fan said an English language version was recently released to device manufacturers, which could hint at Alibaba finally taking on the western market as was predicted in 2011.

If you’re hoping to try YunOS for yourself you’re out of luck if you aren’t living in China. That said, you don’t need to go far to get a feel for how it operates–just grab an Android phone.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. YunOS, owned by Alibaba, recently overtook iOS in Chinese marketshare.
  2. YunOS is an Android derivative that looks and feels the same but is far more dependent on the cloud.
  3. YunOS violated the OHA’s AOSP, which led to it being restricted from major manufacturers. This is a big reason for it being designed with the cloud in mind: It can only operate on low-end devices.

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