Google’s Schmidt points to in-house plans for Motorola Android lineup
September 3, 2011 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
Like most consumer tech prognosticators, my predictions are more often wrong than they are right. But when Google acquired Motorola Mobility last month, I asserted that the move, even if initially all about obtaining patents which could be used to protect other Android hardware makers against Apple’s lawsuits, would eventually be all about turning products like Motorola’s Droid lineup into the “official” line of Android products. The move would either shove third party Android vendors like Samsung and HTC closer to the door, or would act as insurance in case said vendors pulled the plug on their Android products in order to escape further legal persecution. Now Google chairman Eric Schmidt says that he’s “excited to have the product line” in reference to Motorola’s Android hardware products. After all, he says, “These guys invented the RAZR.”
Putting aside any scoffing about the merits of having invented a flip-phone with no meaningful features, uber-fragile design, horrid reception, and an infinitely infuriating interface (a perfect example of how making a product thinner can ruin everything), Schmidt’s quote from a PC Magazine article appears to suggest that I may have been sniffing out the right path after all. Sure, we can all give Google the benefit of the doubt in that the move may have indeed been made in order to protect the Android platform from lawsuits; after all, products like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1 are being yanked from shelves around the world as we speak due to legal issues, and Motorola’s patents just might help in that area. But even in a sham wedding which was only conducted for legal reasons (keeping someone from being deported for instance), an attempt to forge some kind of meaningful relationship will inevitably follow – or at least an attempt to make the best of what the union brings to the table. Whether it intended to or not, Google has just put itself in a position to become much more Apple-like…
Even as Android powered devices continue to sell in large numbers, the platform faces several vulnerabilities even beyond those in courtrooms. Google must develop the Android OS to work equally well on any random third party hardware, thus handicapping the OS in much the same way Microsoft’s one-size-fits-all Windows OS is handicapped across PC hardware. If Google now opts to (officially or unofficially) begin coding Android OS to run ideally on its own Motorola Android hardware, then customers would benefit by having a consistent Android experience on at least one brand of hardware. And for their part, other Android vendors could simply build to the same general hardware specs, so they wouldn’t necessarily be at an unfair advantage. But that’s not necessarily the biggest issue making Android’s current level of success very fragile going forward…
Various surveys have shown overwhelming dissatisfaction among Android users, with multiple studies showing a planned mass exodus of current users to the tune of half or more of them moving elsewhere for their next device. That strongly suggests that most Android sales thus far have been a direct result of Apple’s bizarre move to lock the iPhone out of most carriers in most countries from 2007 to 2010, and customers’ willingness to try a “Brand B” alternative like Android instead of moving to a carrier like AT&T to get the iPhone. That gives Google a relatively short amount of time to make major changes to the Android platform if it wants to retain those disgruntled customers, particularly in light of continued iPhone carrier expansion.
Right now, Google can do all the software innovation for Android that it wants, but any hardware innovation is in the hands of companies like Samsung and HTC. The fact that those companies chose to merely copycat last year’s iPad hardware to the point of being sued over it, rather than attempting to do any hardware innovation of their own, says that it’ll never happen under the current setup. If Google wants hardware innovation to happen on its Android platform, it’ll have to direct those advancements itself. So when Google’s Schmidt suddenly starts playing up Motorola as being a hardware innovator, that tells me that Google plans to use Motorola as a way of showcasing the kind of next-gen Android hardware that it wants to see on the market. If non-innovators like Samsung perk up and follow suit, then great. If not, copycat products like the Galaxy Tab will fade as Google’s own Motorola-branded Android products take over the majority of Android hardware sales.
That leaves Google functioning quite a bit like Apple, essentially controlling the direction of both the software and hardware side of its mobile devices. In fact the two companies now give each other regulatory cover: if the DOJ starts sniffing around Apple for controlling both sides of the iPad and iPhone, it can now point to Google-Motorola, and vice versa. I’ve talked to enough former Motorola employees, and studied enough of its history, to know that it’s one of the most fundamentally screwed up companies in the history of consumer technology. And the idea that products like RAZR count as innovation has me rolling my eyes so severely that I worry about them getting stuck in the back of my head (for the record, I was a RAZR user before the first iPhone hit the market). But that doesn’t mean Google can’t gut everything that’s wrong with Motorola and try to turn its Android hardware line into the kind of products which Google wants its Android OS running. How far that goes in the name of retaining all those disgruntled Android users looking for an exit, and what it portends for third party Android hardware manufacturers, remains to be seen.