by Johnny Major
In the same month the HP TouchPad goes down in flames, Apple has successfully gotten the Samsung Galaxy Tab banned permanently in Germany, setting a precedent which could see an exodus of iPad copycats worldwide. That puts Apple on course to seemingly have the only tablet left on the market by the time it launches the iPad 3 in the spring of 2012 or perhaps later this year. The patent wars between Apple and those Android tablet makers who borrowed liberally from the iPad’s hardware design had seen a number of temporary bans around the world, but the Germany ruling is significant for two reasons.
One is that it’s a permanent ban: there will be Galaxy Tab for sale in the nation, ever, unless Samsung can go back and come up with an original design. Secondly, the recent attempt on the part of Android OS maker Google to come to the rescue of Android hardware manufacturers by acquiring Motorola’s patents was of no use here. That sets an early precedent for the Motorola intellectual property, considered superfluous to the iPad-Android lawsuits at best, not being enough to save Samsung, HTC, or any other copycats Apple goes after. This all comes amid HP yanking its TouchPad from shelves due to lack of interest, meaning that whatever competitors the iPad 3 faces, it could be an entirely different crop of tablets than is on sale now…
Little is known about the iPad 3 as of yet, including whether its release date will be this year or next. It’ll run some iteration of the new iOS 5 operating system, and may see a screen resolution boost to Retina Display quality. It’ll almost certainly offer an improved rear-facing camera over that of the current iPad 2. But even as Apple works to protecting its tablet marketshare lead by releasing an iPad 3 in the near or mid term future, it’s also working to eradicate copycat competitors in advance…
HTC fired back this week by filing suit against Apple using the patents Google acquired from Motorola, but the fact that those patents were ignored in the Samsung ruling points to murky waters on that front. Amazon is reportedly ready to launch an Android based tablet of its own, one which (for once) isn’t a hardware copycat of the iPad. So as Samsung and HTC presumably get yanked from markets worldwide and the TouchPad dies of its own accord, Amazon could be in position to be the leading tablet competitor to the iPad by the time the iPad 3 arrives. Then again, Google with its acquisition of Motorola’s tablet lineup may have something to say about that, if Google itself can avoid Apple’s legal wrath.
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.
The Verizon iPhone is a done deal for early 2011, say these four insider clinchers which could each be explained away separately but when combined paint a picture of an Verizon launch being the next iPhone news Apple serves up once the clock strikes 2011. Here are the big four.
Verizon has a secret: When you’ve got a secret you want to share but aren’t allowed to, you start dropping every increasingly obvious hint you can, in the hopes others will put two and two together. The mere fact that Verizon has TV a TV ad for the iPad is over the top. The fact that the ad is in heavy rotation is a desperate teletype from the carrier to its customers: “We’ve got the Verizon iPhone on the way, we just can’t tell you about it. Hang in with us a little longer, no need to switch to the iPhone carrier, because we’re about to become an iPhone carrier. Why else would we be running all these ads just to announce that we’re now one of dozens of retailers who resell the iPad? We’re giving you the strongest hint we can, without actually breaking whatever secret vows we’re under.”
AT&T doth protest too much: When you know that bad news about you is about to drop, you go into overtime trying to convince everyone around you that you’re fine. In doing so, you often telegraph what that impending bad news is. For AT&T, the bad news is that it’s about to have to start sharing the iPhone with Verizon. And the pre-emptive “I’m fine” assurances are coming in the form of TV ads for the new AT&T BlackBerry, the new AT&T Windows Phone 7, and before it’s all said and done, we’ll probably see ads for the new AT&T Zune as well. AT&T wants you to know it’ll be fine in the Verizon iPhone era. Apparently, it doesn’t mind being the one to inform you that the Verizon iPhone era is coming.
Motorola thinks it’s AT&T: Same story as above, except with Motorola playing the role of AT&T, the mouth of Motorola’s CEO taking the place of AT&T’s TV ads, and the Verizon iPhone being the big bad news for the company which manufactures some of the iPhone’s top Verizon-based competitors. If you want double confirmation, the interchangeability of the actions of AT&T and Motorola at the moment seals it.
The future is long: Apple doesn’t comment on future, potential, unannounced products. Except when it sometimes makes a point of announcing what it won’t be bringing to market, so as to steer attention back to the path the company is actually on. And yet every time Apple has the chance to make it clear to U.S. consumers that it has no intention of doing a Verizon iPhone any time soon, it declines to, even though such a definitive statement would surely motivate at least some Verizon holdouts to go ahead and switch to AT&T and buy an iPhone. If Apple could truthfully make a dismissive statement about a Verizon iPhone, it would certainly do so. Instead, when Apple is asked directly about the matter, Steve Jobs says things like “the future is long.” The clear cut conclusion is that he’s declining to dismiss the possibility of a Verizon iPhone because doing so wouldn’t be an honest statement. In other words, well, you do the math.
The iPhone needs Verizon compatibility in order to keep up with the rapidly ascending Droid and the rest of the Android platform, the claim goes. The iPhone’s AT&T exclusivity is causing Verizon customers, even if they would prefer the iPhone, to settle for an Android-based phone available from Verizon instead, the headlines proclaim. But the sales numbers say different. Not only is the iPhone outselling Motorola’s Droid line of phones according to the latest sales numbers, the iPhone is single-handedly outselling all of Motorola’s phones combined, says Apple Insider. In fact, the big picture numbers say that since the iPhone launched three years ago, Motorola’s total number of phones sold has plummeted, thus painting the current success of the Droid and Droid X as perhaps a mere anomaly for a company whose fortunes in the cellphone industry have been dwindling for years.
And before you go blaming Motorola’s misfortunes on the bad economy, the company is now selling a mere one-fifth as many cellphones as it was selling back when the iPhone first launched. With death-spiral numbers like that, it begs the question of just what Verizon was thinking when it chose a flagging partner like Motorola to build its flagship Droid line of phones. The move suggests Verizon was in a panic to come up with an iPhone competitor of any kind, even if that meant saddling up with a dying company like Motorola. It also strongly suggests that Verizon knew the Droid thing wouldn’t be a permanent one, more aimed at forcing Apple to bring the iPhone to the bargaining table under terms that favored Verizon more than they favored Apple itself.
While the Droid is far from the only Android-based phone on the market, Verizon has spent more than a year positioning the phone as its most visible flagship product. But even with all that effort, the iPhone is outselling the Droid and every other Motorola phone combined. It makes you wonder why Verizon isn’t pushing harder to get its hands on the iPhone than it is – or perhaps that’s exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.