Andy Rubin and the rest of the people who manage the Android OS at Google can’t be feeling the love these days. Such Android licensees as HTC, Motorola and even Samsung are being pounded with look and feel lawsuits from Apple, claiming patent violations. Indeed, Apple scored a major victory against HTC covering three patents, and effectively blocked the sale of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 in Europe, at least for now.
Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, once a member of Apple’s board of directors, has accused Apple of suing rather than innovating. Of course, anyone who has used any of Apple’s products realizes that this allegation is simply absurd. At the same time, Apple has the perfect right to seek to defend their intellectual property, even at the expense of killing a competitor’s product. It’s up to the courts to determine of those legal filings have merit.
One of Google’s key problems up till now involves the lack of a boatload patents to defend, and that they have to depend on other companies to build mobile devices incorporating their OS. In a loose sense, this is similar to Microsoft’s dilemma when the iPod arrived. They had a PlaysForSure software ecosystem that was available for license by digital music player makers. But it didn’t do any good. So, in turn, they modified and rebranded a Toshiba product and begat the Zune with a different ecosystem, double-crossing their hardware partners. In retrospect, that failed too.
Up till now, Google didn’t build anything. They, like Microsoft, licensed their technology to others. But that’s poised to change in a curious fashion, with the announced acquisition of Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billon in cash. Assuming the deal passes muster with the regulatory authorities — and it probably will — Motorola will become part of Google some time next year, but that company will be run independently, as if that means anything.
The acquisition will give Google thousands and thousands of patents to defend. But it will also deliver a large-scale development and manufacturing operation with which to build smartphones and tablets. This puts Google in a position somewhat similar to Microsoft, licensing a mobile ecosystem to other companies, while at the same time competing with those companies.
Yes, there have been the predictable statements from the likes of HTC and Samsung that they are totally in favor of the deal, even though they stand to suffer, which strike me as clumsy efforts at spin control. Nobody doubts they’ll be regarded as second best in having access to the latest and greatest Android technology, even though Google promises to continue to license the OS without cost.
Certainly Android has succeeded very much by dint of volume, not innovation. Few dispute the clear resemblances to the iOS. But being free, handset makers have embraced Android and built a number of models with different feature sets and price points. This is similar in a rough sense to the Windows PC market, where you also have loads of models from which to choose. But it’s far more confusing otherwise, because each Android licensee, not to mention the wireless carriers themselves, are free to alter the OS to provide a customized look and feel, and even a different selection of bundled software. Customers aren’t even assured of getting the latest and greatest OS updates, since that’s the province of the carrier.
Once the Motorola acquisition closes, you can bet that Google will lavish extra attention on their very own hardware maker in an attempt to play the Apple game. They will want to tightly integrate the hardware with Android. Those who buy Motorola smartphones and tablets will be assured of having the latest and greatest Android OS releases preloaded and configured precisely as released, without change. OS updates will be pushed as needed. That of course assumes Google can strike deals with the carriers to give them full control over the platform. But certainly Apple set the precedent.
The problem, however, is that Motorola Mobility has lost its mojo big time, although sales have been on the increase of late. In the old days of the StarTAC and other classic handsets, Motorola was king. They set the standard. These days, their mobile gadgets are very much the same as the mobile gadgets from other makers. The Motorola Xoom tablet, a showpiece of Android OS technology, failed miserably in the marketplace.
You have to wonder whether Google truly believes that acquiring a company whose glory days are in the distant past will allow them to somehow create magic. And even if Motorola mobile gear becomes flashier, more tightly integrated with Android, how will HTC and Samsung react? They are already confronting the Apple gauntlet. Will they just ditch Android and try to roll their own OS, which, by the way, is something Motorola claimed to be doing before Google made an offer? Will they embrace Windows Phone 7? No, wait a minute, hasn’t Microsoft already made their sweetheart deal with Nokia as the preferred licensee?
More to the point, Google hasn’t a lick of experience building hardware, or running a hardware maker. Sure, they might hope to rely on the executive team at Motorola Holdings to do the heavy lifting, but, as I said, there’s no evidence that this company can suddenly invent the magic potion to match Apple.
Or is this another of those acquisitions spawn of desperation? Can they really create that silk purse from Motorola’s sow’s ear? Only time will tell.
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