Do Google know who their friends are?

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A few week ago I went along to the UK launch of the Motorola Moto X – the latest flagship phone from the company. To be honest, it was a relatively unremarkable piece of kit. Because all non-Apple smartphones all run Android these days, the experience of using any phone running it is always going to be pretty familiar. Yes, the phone had a fairly decent spec but ultimately, it was boring old Android.

Phone manufacturers know this, which is why the different companies will offer specific tweaks to the OS, to try to give themselves the advantage over the competition. Samsung are perhaps best known for this – they have their “S” suite of Samsung-specific apps, and fairly heavy customisation of the user interface. HTC have it too – they’ve got their special HTC Sense UI, which aims to bring a social media stream to the homescreen. And yes – Motorola had a couple of tricks up their sleeve too.

The Moto X had a nice camera app, that did away with on screen buttons and meant taking a photo was simply a case of tapping anywhere on the screen – and gesture-based swipes could be used to change different settings (like switch the flash on and off). Perhaps more interesting was Motorola’s “Assist” app, which you could change the phone settings at the touch of a button, for changing circumstances, such as if you’re driving or in a meeting. This means that when you’re on the road, your phone can read out any incoming text messages, or in a meeting it will stay silent.

And then it hit me. Umm… aren’t Motorola owned by Google? Why would Google have a bit of Google doing its own thing and making products that aren’t 100% Google? Why is this phone not running ‘vanilla’ Android? And more to the point… why is Motorola still a brand, and why does Google also sell it’s Nexus line of Android phones and despite owning Motorola outsource the manufacturing to LG?

The other day, my questions were answered when Google sold Motorola to Lenovo for $2.91bn less than two years after buying them for $12.5bn. Did Lenovo, who are perhaps best known for producing boring business laptops for business people, just get the bargain of the century?

It’s not all bad news for Google – they did use the acquisition to get hold of something important to them: various mobile patents that will stop them having to pay royalties on every phone sold. Despite selling the business to Lenovo, the patents are very much something they’ve held on to.

It seems Google must have been pretty desperate to get rid of Motorola though. As my experience above shows, they clearly never properly integrated it into the rest of Google and many people have speculated that they’ve learned an important lesson about being a platform holder: that you must be seen a neutral, and have the confidence of partner companies.

Unlike Apple, who make themselves all of the iPhones that run their iOS platform, Google’s Android is reliant on the goodwill of the likes of Samsung, HTC and LG for it to be a success. Until Google bought Motorola, the division of responsibilities was pretty simple. Google said to them “we make the software, you make the hardware”, and everyone won. By buying Motorola, suddenly the waters became muddied. If Google were going to make their own hardware under the auspices of Motorola then do they really need to worry about keeping the other companies happy? Why should Samsung continue to worry about keeping Google happy, if Google could just drop them and still have a tonne of phones that work on their platform?

Once Motorola has achieved a certain market share, what’s to stop Google changing the rules on Android and allowing it only on Motorola phones? Then any Android users who want to keep pace with the latest technology, rather than going from say, a Samsung Galaxy S4 to a Galaxy S5, they could be forced to instead pick up a Moto X if they want to continue using the same apps and access the same Google Play purchases and so on.

This problem isn’t a new one. One of the many speculated reasons for Nintendo’s lacklustre support from third party games publishers since the days of the Nintendo 64 is because they’re not just a hardware platform, but are a major software producer too. If you were, say, EA Games wanting to produce a game – would you really want to publish on a platform knowing that your game will be likely a 5th or 6th on the pecking order after the console owner has picked up likes of Mario and Zelda – when instead you could make your game for Xbox or Playstation (which have far weaker first party franchises – or at least, less first party franchises) and be the must have game on that system? Like Google, trying to have their fingers in both the hardware and software pies has caused them problems.

Now Google have offloaded Motorola, this should increase the confidence of the companies they rely on, and perhaps converse to what you might expect, actually make Android a stronger platform. The lesson is simple: make sure you know who your friends are… and don’t upset them!

James O’Malley