In a move that was as surprising as it is rife with possibilities, Google announced today they will purchase Motorola’s Mobility division for a staggering $12.5 billion. It is clear that this move is a game-changer for the smartphone industry. But the real question is who’s game does it change?
Is this move simply a patent portfolio purchase? Perhaps Google is trying to shore itself up against future litigation like the lawsuits their hardware partners are encountering now. But it isn’t evident that Motorola Mobility had any patents worth gobbling up. If so, likely the other players who have been purchasing patent portfolios would have been bidding. And from early reports, it appears that Google will keep Motorola Mobility running as a wholly owned and independent subsidiary. So it doesn’t appear to just be a patent grab – especially considering what Google paid. $12.5 billion is about one-third of their cash reserves.
So if Google is interested in making both the hardware and software (a la the Apple iPhone and iPad), where does this leave Google’s current Android partners? Does Google actually intend to allow other companies to continue to make Android-based phones and tablets while competing against them with their own devices? Does Google think that their partners are excited about this?
If it is true that Google wants to move to an Apple-style production model, it only reinforces the idea that Apple’s top-to-bottom control model is the only viable blueprint for the New World of smartphones. The Old World of smartphones was characterized by one company creating the software, other companies creating the hardware, and the carriers enforcing their whims on both. I’ve written many times how Google was following the footsteps of the Old World smartphone market with potentially disastrous results. Perhaps they’ve figured this out now?
Then the question becomes can Google compete against Apple in the game Apple invented? Apple has been in the hardware manufacturing business for over 35 years, has a minimum 4 year head-start on smartphone manufacturing, and has ample experience with all the business infrastructure required to run a company that makes physical products for their customers (support staff, fabrication contacts, supply chains, etc.). Google has never competed in this market before, and when they tip-toed into it with their Nexus One phone, most agree it was a disaster across the board for Google. Has Google learned from their mistakes or are they hoping that Motorola’s experience will fill in the gaps? Either way, it seems like a long shot for Google to take Apple head-on. But, after a couple of years of doing things the Old World way, perhaps Google has come to the realization it is their only viable strategy?
If so, can Google rollout this new model quickly enough to avoid a potential disaster? If Google chooses this new path, it goes against almost everything Google has said to this point regarding their strategy for the smartphone market. Not only could this destroy some of their credibility in the industry, but it could also devastate their relationships with their current hardware partners. What would happen if their partners suddenly stopped making new phones (say after the holidays this year)? Could Google’s Android platform survive such a blow? Could Google have a full-blown operation running to counter this potential so soon?
The bottom line is that this move won’t have any effect on the market until at least the beginning of next year. However, it is not too early for those considering device purchases to ponder the ramifications that this move will have. Primarily, if Google’s move destroys their relationships with their current hardware partners, what will happen to their options for support and upgradability over the next couple of years? If one buys an Android-based Samsung phone today, for example, and expects to keep it for 2 years, will they be orphaned in 6 – 9 months?
Already, Apple iOS devices have an overall ease-of-use and reliability advantage over the various Android-based devices. Now a cloud of uncertainty exists over the future of the current line-up of Android devices. At least until it is clear what Google’s plans are with this purchase and what effect it will have on their current hardware partners, I must recommend extreme prudence to those considering a purchase of an Android device.