Google buy Motorola Mobility: How fighting the patent war could damage Android

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Google, in something of a shock move, revealed today that they had bought Motorola Mobility, manufacturer Motorola’s mobile arm, for a reported $12.5 billion.

For years Google have been rumoured to be entering the hardware manufacturing game, testing the water by out-sourcing the manufacture of products like the Nexus smartphones and Chromebook computers to hardware giants like Samsung. With Motorola now Google’s new best friend, they’re in a position to make waves as big in the hardware market as they do in terms of web and software.

But just as the move is important in terms of new hardware opportunities for Google, it’s also a defensive move against rivals Microsoft and Apple in terms of patents.

All these factors could have some major repercussions not only for the many manufacturers that currently produce Android devices, but the Android eco-system as a whole.

On the face of things, it shouldn’t affect Google’s Android partners, with Larry Page (co-founder and CEO of Google) assuring all parties that Google will remain open for all to use:

“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,” he said.

Certainly, the top dogs of the major Android manufacturers sang the praises of the deal:

“We welcome the news of today’s acquisition, which demonstrates that Google is deeply committed to defending Android, its partners, and the entire ecosystem,” said Peter Chou, CEO of HTC.

JK Shin, CEO of Samsung Mobile, shared similar feelings: “We welcome today’s news, which demonstrates Google’s deep commitment to defending Android, its partners, and the ecosystem.”

“We welcome Google’s commitment to defending Android and its partners,” said Jong-Seok Park President & CEO of LG Electronics.

“I welcome Google’s commitment to defending Android and its partners,” added Bert Nordberg President & CEO of Sony Ericsson.

Indeed the move puts potentially 21,300 patents (Motorola’s 14,600 current patents and a further 6,700 pending) out of reach of Apple and Microsoft. Google have in the past stated that Microsoft and Apple were undertaking a “hostile, organized campaign against Android” by continuously buying up patents; the acquisition of Motorola goes some way towards defending Google’s OS interests in this regard.

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But secretly we’d imagine the likes of LG, HTC, Sony Ericsson and Samsung will be infuriated with the news. Just as the patents acquired protect Android, they can also be used against the other Android phone manufacturers, increasing royalty rates and pushing them towards other operating system options.

The growth of Android itself could be harmed as a result. Those outside of Google’s new deal will likely get the cold-shoulder when it comes to exclusives. The Google/ Motorola partnership will almost certainly mean that Motorola get first dibs on any new Android updates, just as they did with the inclusion of Honeycomb in their Xoom tablet.

Though Motorola will continue to exist as a separate brand, what’s to stop Google a few years down the line completely merging the Motorola brand with Android? It would make the hardware and the OS synonymous with each other and eventual create a closed trinity of hardware (phones and tablets), software (apps) and operating system (Android), akin to that currently employed lucratively by Apple to reap great financial rewards. The Android brand, in no small part thanks to the myriad hardware manufacturers that have worked with it, is now recognisable enough to no longer need the big-name tech brands to endorse it in order for it to sell.

When it comes to innovation, Android will be worse off for having Motorola presumably become the key Android manufacturer. The open nature of the platform had lead to great strides being made in the platform’s UI; you just need to look at the excellent work done by HTC with their Sense UI to see the potential of Android.

Motorola’s Android addition? MotoBlur. If MotoBlur is indicative of what’s to come from a Google/Motorola partnership, Phandroids should be very worried indeed. LG, Samsung, HTC and Sony Ericsson will feel eventually feel the pressure; don’t be too surprised to see further Windows Phone 7 offerings from these manufacturers, and maybe even wild-card handsets using something like MeeGo too.

And what of the Google-branded hardware expected to materialise following the deal? The last time a software giant bought up a mobile manufacturer, it was Microsoft’s acquisition of Danger, makers of the SideKick. The fruits of their labour? The ill-fated Kin, a device so poorly executed it needed, well, executing.

As an Android lover, here’s hoping Google don’t make similar mistakes. Though the world wasn’t ready for it, the Xoom showed that Motorola could produce excellent Android-based hardware. There’s potential for some great devices to be born from the partnership, but equally the potential for the eco-system as a whole to suffer.

“Don’t be evil” is Google’s mantra. Let’s hope they stick by it.

Gerald Lynch