By Michael Fisher | May 29, 2012 4:01 PM
By now, you’ve heard the news: Google has purchased mobile hardware manufacturer Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. The move is significant in a number of ways, but the real headline-grabber is that it marks software giant Google’s first real step into mobile hardware.
It’s widely accepted that a big reason Google was interested in purchasing Motorola was the latter’s treasure trove of patents- between 17,000 and 24,500 of them, depending on who you believe. In the increasingly litigious world of the mobile technology business, a well-stocked defensive patent portfolio can mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy.
But although Motorola has seen better times financially -it lost $86 million in the first quarter of 2012- it’s not a hollowed-out shell of a company, good only for its patents. Motorola’s smartphone business, while troubled, still shows encouraging signs of life; the company sold over 5 million smartphones in the quarter, and its devices make up a full 10% of the U.S. smartphone market. Furthermore, the hardware lineup isn’t made up of generic, unremarkable devices: Motorola handsets offer an array of distinctive and innovative features, packaged more often than not in striking, aggressively-styled and nigh-indestructible casings. It’s these attributes which give me hope for the future of the Google-Motorola partnership, and serve as one of the high points in what I hope will be a bright future for stock-Android devices.
When I first heard the news, I wasn’t quite as buoyed with hope. Motorola is one of the old-guard veterans of the American technology sector, tracing its roots all the way back to 1930, when brand names ending in “-ola” were considered futuristic and new-wave. Before its split into separate halves in 2011, it boasted of countless product lines, including everything from wireless infrastructure equipment to televisions to handheld radios. It even has an entire wireless network and air-interface standard to its name. It’s been a household name for much longer than I’ve been alive, one of the few American OEMs to survive -and periodically thrive- in an era of dominance by the Nokias, Samsungs, and HTCs of the world. Though I’m not often terribly nationalistic, I must admit that as a U.S. citizen, there’s a real sense of pride in that kind of long legacy.
So it was with some trepidation that I greeted the news last year that Google intended to buy the company. Sure, the suitor was an American company, and one I admired, but buyouts are seldom a happy story for the purchased. At the very least, venerable brand names tend to get lost in the conquering, and it’s always sad to see that element of a proud tradition fade into obscurity.
It’s worth mentioning that only the “mobility” half of the company was acquired by Google; Motorola Solutions continues to soldier on in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois, making two-way radios and other enterprise-level equipment for large customers. But that’s not the superstar half, right? The fast-paced world of mobile communications is the one consumers get excited about and enthusiasts -yourself presumably included- follow with foam-mouthed zeal. So it’s scary when a longtime player gets folded into another, newer company … even when it’s one as respected and as successful as Google.
But once I started thinking it over, it made all the sense in the world.
Google’s approach to dominance in the mobile OS wars has been via market share. They purchased the nascent operating system in its development phase, then released it for free to any OEMs that wanted to build phones running it – in a smartphone world under siege by the iPhone, that was soon every manufacturer. Google then entered into high-profile relationships with carriers like Verizon Wireless, whose DROID campaign catapulted Android into popularity here in the United States. Even the other carriers, bereft of such bold branding assistance, were soon pushing Android in huge numbers as Google offered them a cut of the advertising dollars from all those eyeballs on all those tiny displays.
This strategy worked well for Android, and it continues to do so. The problem: because it’s the opposite of Apple’s vertical “we control everything” model, there’s no assurance of quality when buying an Android device. Almost every manufacturer of mobile technology has at least a small investment in Android-based hardware, and so there’s as much junk as there is solid product out there. Some would say the ratio is much heavier on the side of the former. Because a new phone from a no-name manufacturer running Froyo on a single core has as much right to call itself an “Android phone” as the Galaxy Nexus does, the Android message is diluted, and the fragmentation effect so visible in the application world also shows itself in hardware.
Google has taken steps to combat this, first with the “Google experience” label and then with the “certified by Google” branding approach, and also via the “upgrade alliance,” but these have all failed to catch on to an extent meaningful to the average consumer. What Google really needs is a sub-brand of core-experience devices, like the Nexus line, but more extensive, with tight control over the hardware. Owning Motorola will allow them to do this.
That’s not to say that the forthcoming “new-Nexus line,” if it comes to pass, will feature all-Motorola hardware; it almost certainly won’t. Google has taken extreme pains not to alienate its existing hardware partners, many of whom may have been understandably rattled to learn of Google’s purchase of Motorola. Historically, anyone Google has “worked closely with,” like Samsung on the Galaxy Nexus, has received early access to newer builds of Android, giving them a leg up on competitors when it comes to releasing new hardware. Anxiety must have been running high in a few boardrooms across the globe when Google announced it was scooping up Moto, which is why CEO Larry Page released this statement along with the purchase announcement last August:
This acquisition will not change our commitment to run Android as an open platform. Motorola will remain a licensee of Android and Android will remain open. We will run Motorola as a separate business. Many hardware partners have contributed to Android’s success and we look forward to continuing to work with all of them to deliver outstanding user experiences.
So it’s clear Google will press forward with its original vision for Android, but it’s also probably true that some of that announcement was feel-good lip-service. Unless you’re buying a hardware company just for its patents, which I don’t think Google was doing, you don’t stick with a completely hands-off approach to running it.
If it can walk the line with aplomb, though, Google can quite possibly have its Cupcake and eat it, too (see what I did there?). If it can throw enough bones to the long-term OEMs that helped drive Android’s success, rotating its attention across the entire lineup and granting early-access and other privileges to the whole bunch, it can keep them happy. Some of the rumors we’ve heard about the forthcoming Nexus phones lineup would tend to support this theory.
In the meantime, though, Google can leverage Motorola’s excellent hardware capabilities to create a line of premium Android smartphones and tablets, building on the branding approaches where they’re strongest -like Verizon’s “DROID” campaign- and replacing less-engaging appellations -like Verizon’s XYBOARD campaign- with a new, Google-based branding scheme. While it seems highly likely that the first “Nexus tablet” will come courtesy of ASUS, I’d be surprised if we didn’t see a follow-on from Motorola in the following year, bearing some new naming convention.
These are the possibilities that keep me salivating at the potential of the Google-Motorola partnership. Stock Android incorporating top Motorola customizations like Smart Actions, dumping less-successful accessories like Blur, running on beautiful hardware that stands out from the crowd and brings something unique to the table: eye-catching design, top-shelf materials, durability, and -if the trend started by the Droid RAZR Maxx is to continue- extreme battery life. That’s a future I can get behind. That’s a future worthy of the venerable name Motorola carved out for itself over eighty years of doing business.
Do you think the Google-rola partnership is the next big thing in wireless? The most overhyped story this side of Facebook’s IPO? A sign of the coming apocalypse? You know where to put those opinions. We’ve got a shiny new Disqus thing happening down there – best get to usin’ it, commenter!