The Land Rush: Why Google Won’t Bless Motorola As Its Favorite Android

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The basics: Google is buying Motorola, pending government approval. Everyone and their editor-at-large has written about it. Now I’ll take my shot at the soapbox.

I don’t know why Google acquired Motorola as opposed to simply licensing its trove of patents. My hunch is that it had more to do with fending off a threat from Microsoft than it had to do with Google’s hitherto unforeseen hardware ambitions.

But while I don’t know the why, I have some guesses as to what’s next. And I think that one of the prevailing theories — that Google is going to turn Motorola into its chosen House of Android, blessed with the latest and greatest releases before its competitors as it attempts to mirror Apple — is completely wrong.

Google CEO Larry Page, they say, has been inspired by Steve Jobs. He wants to completely own the Android experience, controlling both the hardware and the software from the ground up. Apple has reaped huge benefits with this strategy, and Google wants in on the action.

From where I’m sitting, the aforementioned scenario doesn’t make a lick of sense.

The way I see it, Android — and the smartphone industry in general — is still very much in a land grab mode. There are billions of people who are going to buy smartphones in the next five to ten years. Billions. Take every Android phone sold thus far, then multiply it by a factor of 10. Or 30. These phones will combine computing power and affordability in a way that has never been seen before. An $80 handset is selling like hotcakes in Kenya with no contract. Give it a few years and they’ll be selling for a fraction of that.

And that’s just the phones. Google allotted plenty of time at its recent I/O conference to discuss the future of Android — a future that includes Android-powered speakers, hardware accessories, and home appliances. There’ll be Android-powered car consoles, refrigerators, dishwashers, and clock radios. If it has an LCD screen, there isn’t much reason why it can’t be powered by Android.

But if Google wants to see this Android-powered future come to fruition, time is of the essence.

The Clock Is Ticking

All of the smartphone platforms have a strong lock-in effect. Those movies and apps you’ve purchased on your iPhone? They’re not going to work on Android or Windows Phone any time soon, and vice versa. Switching between one of these platforms is painful for your wallet, and it’s only going to get worse as your growing library of DRMed content weighs you down.

And then there are the hardware ecosystems. Apple TV already runs on iOS; Google TV runs on Android. Xbox has Windows Phone integration. Each of these operating systems is going to get more promiscuous and spread to more devices. The mobile phones of today are hooks, luring you into the comfort of iOS or Android or Windows — and each of these devices is only friendly with other devices in the same ecosystem.

The point being, all of the of the customers who get snatched up by iOS, Web OS, or Windows today are going to be much harder for Google to convert down the line. Which is why it needs to get as many of them as it can, right now.

Which brings us back to the Motorola deal.

The Nexus Advantage?

HTC, Samsung, and the other OEMs have done an excellent job thus far at creating a diverse ecosystem of Android devices that have given Google’s OS a huge market share remarkably quickly. Yes, a few of the devices stink. But you know what? Most people don’t really care. Or, rather, they don’t know they should care, which is all the same to Google. And even the mediocre Android phones are still a huge leap over the ‘feature phones’ many people are transitioning away from.

In short, the system is doing exactly what Google needs it to. Android is spreading like wildfire. If the premature launch of the Xoom proved nothing else, it’s that Google cares far more about getting a solid foothold in the market than it does about the user experience.

Which is why it won’t be using Motorola to one-up the existing fleet of Android partners. There’s just no reason to release a suite of superior devices, because Android isn’t struggling. And besides, Google couldn’t pull it off even if they wanted to: being Apple is harder than it looks.

But what, you say? Hasn’t Google already proven that it can produce superior phones when it designs both the hardware and the software, as it has with its Nexus line?

Except, err, the Nexus phones aren’t that much better than their ‘normal’ counterparts. I’ve used both the Nexus One and the Nexus S extensively. From a hardware perspective, they’re good, but hardly revolutionary. The real reason people think these phones are superior has everything to do with their software. They have ‘vanilla’ Android installed and they receive system updates relatively quickly. Most people couldn’t care less about either of these things. And eventually the other OEMs may be able to make skins that are actually improvements over vanilla Android.

Of course, Google could still get ambitious and try to make a completely integrated fleet of Motorola Android devices that blow everything else (including the iPhone) out of the water. But it would only get one shot at it — such a move would infuriate its partners to the point that they would abandon the platform, or at the very least, begin to seek alternatives. I don’t think Google is going to take that chance.

Which is why, for the foreseeable future, Google is going to do everything it can to make Samsung, HTC, and other major OEMs happy. They will receive previews of upcoming releases of Android at the same time as Motorola. They will be chosen for Nexus releases when Motorola won’t be. And they will help ensure that Android permeates into every market and cranny it can.

So what changes will Google make to Motorola, if any? My guess is that we’ll see it start pushing the boundaries on what can be done with Android. Motorola will start aggressively testing the waters with new form factors and entirely new devices. The hits will be quickly copied by the other OEMs, who will enjoy the benefits of expanding into new markets. And Android will spread even further.

Of course, this land rush wouldn’t be possible if OEMs were concerned about Android’s future because of patent issues — and it could take years for these to be resolved. Which is why Google was willing to throw down $12.5 billion to make sure they’re no longer a problem.

You Know What’s Cool?

Finally, I want to address the argument — if you can even call it that — that’s irked me most about recent analysis in Android-land. Namely, the notion that Android needs to start making more money immediately in order to justify this huge investment on Google’s part.

Any attempts by Google now to seriously monetize Android would be akin to Facebook doing a major ad push circa 2005. As I said earlier, this is still very much the land grab stage. Once it has billions of users on Android, Google will have plenty of opportunities to monetize them.

They’ll know where their users are, who they’re friends with, and where they’re going — and plenty of other information that’s both a little creepy and very valuable. AdWords won’t be the answer here, but I’m guessing Google will be able to turn this information into some lucrative products. But just like Facebook, they can figure out the specifics later. At this point, it’s more important that they figure out how to boost their user base by an order of magnitude — before they miss their chance.