Divining Google’s Intentions for Motorola Mobility

In commenting now on Google’s announcement that it will acquire Motorola Mobility Holdings for $12.5 billion, I feel like the guest who arrives at a party the morning after festivities have ended: There’s not much for me to add, there’s a mess everywhere, more than a few participants have hangovers, and some have gone well past their party-tolerance level.

Still, in the spirit of sober second thought, I will attempt to provide Yet Another Perspective (YAP).

Misdirection and Tumult

It was easy to get lost in all the misdirection and tumult that followed the Google-Motorola Mobility announcement. Questions abounded, Google’s intentions weren’t yet clear, its competitors were more than willing to add turbidity to already muddy waters, and opinions on what it all meant exploded like scattershot in all directions.

In such situations, I like to go back to fundamental facts and work outward from there. What is it we know for sure? Once we’re on a firm foundation, we can attempt to make relatively educated suppositions about why Google made this acquisition, where it will take it, and how the plot is likely to unspool.

Okay, the first thing we know is that Google makes the overwhelming majority (97%) of its revenue from advertising. That is unlikely to change. I don’t think Google is buying Motorola Mobility because it sees its future as a hardware manufacturer of smartphones and tablets. It wants to get its software platform on mobile devices, yes, because that’s the only way it can ensure that consumers will use its search and location services ubiquitously; but don’t confuse that strategic objective with Google wanting to be a hardware purveyor.

Patent Considerations 

So, working back from what we know about Google, we now can discount the theory that Google will be use Motorola Mobility as a means of competing aggressively against its other Android licensees, including Samsung, HTC, LG, and scores of others.  There has been some fragmentation of the Android platform, and it could be that Google intends to use Motorola Mobility’s hardware as a means of enforcing platform discipline and rigor on its Android licensees, but I don’t envision Google trying to put them out of business with Motorola. That would be an unwise move and a Sisyphean task.

Perhaps, then, it was all about the patents? Yes, I think patents and intellectual-property rights figured prominently into Google’s calculations. Google made no secret that it felt itself at a patent deficit in relation to its major technology rivals and primary intellectual-property litigants. For a variety of reasons — the morass that is patent law, the growing complexity of mobile devices such as smartphones, the burgeoning size and strategic importance of mobility as a market — all the big vendors are playing for keeps in mobile. Big money is on the table, and no holds are barred.

Patents are a means of constraining competition, conditioning and controlling market outcomes, and — it must be said — inhibiting innovation. But this situation wasn’t created by one vendor. It has been evolving (or devolving) for a great many years, and the vendors are only playing the cards they’ve been dealt by a patent system that is in need of serious reform. The only real winners in this ongoing mess are the lawyers . . . but I digress.

Defensive Move

Getting back on track, we can conclude that, considering its business orientation, Google doesn’t really want to compete with its Android licensees and that patent considerations figured highly in its motivation for acquiring Motorola Mobility.

Suggestions also surfaced that the deal was, at least in part, a defensive move. Apparently Microsoft had been kicking Motorola Mobility’s tires and wanted to buy it strictly for its patent portfolio. Motorola wanted to find a buyer willing to take, and pay for, the entire company. That apparently was Google’s opening to snatch the Motorola patents away from Microsoft’s outstretched hands — at a cost of $12.5 billion, of course. This has the ring of truth to it. I can imagine Microsoft wanting to administer something approaching a litigious coup de grace on Google, and I can just as easily imagine Google trying to preclude that from happening.

What about the theory that Google believes that it must have an “integrated stack” — that it must control, design, and deliver all the hardware and software that constitutes the mobile experience embodied in a smartphone or a tablet — to succeed against Apple?

No Need for a Bazooka

Here, I would use the market as a point of refutation. Until the patent imbroglio raised its ugly head, Google’s Android was ascendant in the mobile space. It had gone from nowhere to the leading mobile operating system worldwide, represented by a growing army of diverse device licensees targeting nearly every nook and cranny of the mobile market. There was some platform fragmentation, which introduced application-interoperability issues, but those problems were and are correctable without Google having recourse to direct competition with its partners.  That would be an extreme measure, akin to using a bazooka to herd sheep.

Google Android licensees were struggling in the court of law, but not so much in the court of public opinion as represented by the market. Why do you think Google’s competitors resorted to litigious measures in the first place?

So, no — at least based on the available evidence — I don’t think Google has concluded that it must try to remake itself into a mirror image of Apple for Android to have a fighting chance in the mobile marketplace. The data suggests otherwise. And let’s remember that Android, smartphones, and tablets are not ends in themselves but means to an end for Google.

Chinese Connection?

What’s next, then? Google can begin to wield the Motorola Mobility patent portfolio to defend and protect is Android licensees. It also will keep Motorola Mobility’s hardware unit as a standalone, separate entity for now. In time, though, I would be surprised if Google didn’t sell that business.

Interestingly, the Motorola hardware group could become a bargaining chip of sorts for Google. I’ve seen the names Huawei and ZTE mentioned as possible buyers of the hardware business. While Google’s travails in China are well known, I don’t think it’s given up entirely on its Chinese aspirations. A deal involving the sale of the Motorola hardware business to Huawei or ZTE that included the buyer’s long-term support for Android — with the Chinese government’s blessing, of course — could offer compelling value to both sides.

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