This week has started with a bang: Google is acquiring Motorola Mobility for much more than a sarcastic math constant. Larry Page says this is largely a defensive move to acquire Motorola’s patent portfolio, so I presume David Drummond’s team did the appropriate diligence to confirm the patents are not “bogus”.
Macworld’s Dan Moren makes a good, sad point: we are in the middle of a cynical IP arms race that doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Over at The New Yorker, Nicholas Thompson laments the depressing irony of this move: just twelve days after fairly lamenting patent warfare as stifling, Google has forcefully decided a once-free company’s direction.
The patent harassment lawsuits between Apple, Microsoft, Google, and the Android OEMs won’t stop, but Google is at least less likely to lose now. It’ll likely end as it always does: with cross-licensing cease-fires, which may or may not trickle down to Google’s partners. Nilay Patel has a quick summary of the short-term legal fallout. He concludes:
…it’s still curious why Google spent the full $12.5b on Motorola, instead of a smaller amount acquiring the rights to Moto’s patents — or the rights to litigate with those patents.
I think that’s pretty simple: Motorola is already a leading Android OEM and has little to gain from a mere licensing deal. It could certainly use the cash — the last three fiscal years have ended with net losses — but I think the executive team saw an opportunity to really alter the company’s future and played hardball. In that light, Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha’s recent public comments become much more interesting. In a two-day span last week, Jha said that he was interested in building Windows Phone 7 hardware, and that they may start flexing their IP against fellow Android OEMs. It’s now obvious that these were warning shots to Google during negotiations. Given the ludicrous price Google paid, I’d say it worked.
I think there’s more, though. Florian Mueller tweets:
Google’s original strategy for Android resulted in huge and fast-growing activation numbers. But something must have been missing.
A lot is missing, not the least of which is a stable platform. OS and app fragmentation will only get worse as more Android devices pop up. Google can solve this problem in a few ways, assuming the MMI acquisition goes through:
- Choke the OEMs out of business with unified, best-of-breed Motorola devices.
- Make it easier for Android developers to write multi-device native apps.
- Make the browser a true first-class unifying platform on Android.
OEMs should definitely be afraid of option 1, but ad sales are still Google’s core business. Eyeballs are all that matter there, so momentum through a diverse flood of devices will continue to be Android’s goal for some time. But there’s little doubt that Motorola will be the preferred Android OEM moving forward, just as there’s little doubt that Nokia will be the preferred Windows Phone 7 OEM.
I don’t believe Google will solve the fragmentation problem at the native level; it’s just not in their self-styled DNA to apply the necessary focus or constraints, especially while growth is a priority. But I am willing to believe Google will try to solve the fragmentation problem with a rich web framework. And this is the point where we recall that Motorola acquired 280 North almost exactly one year ago.
280 North makes a framework called Cappuccino that allows you to write rich web applications using Objective-C syntax. (Objective-C is the language used to write native Mac and iOS applications.) The technology has produced some beautiful work, and could help Google woo iOS developers to Android with much less pain than they’re accustomed to. We haven’t heard a whole lot since Motorola bought them, but I have to believe Google is interested in this technology. It’s produced some compelling work, I don’t believe it was a factor in the acquisition deal, but I do think Cappuccino has a future at Google.
Motorola has had problems for years, and Google is not a hardware company. Time will tell whether this marriage will actually work. For the time being, the winners are Motorola’s shareholders, and its executive team, who pulled off a hell of a deal.
(UPDATE: Florian Mueller has observed an unusually large $2.5B “breakup” fee for Motorola if the deal falls through. It really looks like Motorola got its way here.)