One of the biggest Android stories of 2011 was Google’s acquisition of American handset manufacturer Motorola, now in its final stages. While most business pundits speculated that the purchase was primarily for Motorola’s extensive patent portfolio (the company was one of the first large-scale manufacturers of cell phones and pagers) Android fans held out hope that Moto would become Google’s unofficial hardware supplier, despite the latter’s claim that no preferential treatment would be given. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, it really was all for the patents – Google was apparently so disinterested in Moto’s handset division that they offered to sell it to Chinese manufacturer Huawei.
As disheartening a move as that might be, it makes sense. Google doesn’t make hardware, at least not on a consumer electronics level, and trying to shift their focus away from web services and software would put them in direct competition with some of their biggest mobile partners. Add to that the fact that a lot of Motorola’s non-mobile hardware like cable boxes and short-range communications line up with Huawei’s, since the Chinese company is one of the biggest suppliers of communication infrastructure hardware in the world. While Motorola’s profits are growing, they’re still in the red – and the company is nowhere near the leading position it claimed in the early 2000s. Google asked Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha to step down two months ago.
I had hoped that Ice Cream Sandwich would finally give manufacturers a reason to stop covering up the “ugly” aspects of Android with skins in the nebulous name of differentiation. That hasn’t happened. Every major phone manufacturer, including Motorola (even with the Google purchase looming over them) and interestingly excluding Huawei, continues to force their custom interface on top of Android, with varying success. Google can’t be happy about that, but they’re not so displeased as to make Motorola into an example of how things should be done – it appears that outside of the Nexus devices, which themselves are becoming more and more marginalized, Google will continue to allow manufacturers relatively free rein while granting access to the essential Android services like the Google Play Store.
The patent wars from Apple and Microsoft seem to be quieting down as 2012 continues, with only Oracle actually confronting Google head-on in their crusade against Android. Ir’s hard to say if Motorola’s extensive patent portfolio made a difference, or if it was simply fatigue, or in Apple’s case the loss of an obsessively single-minded leader. In any case, Google holding the keys to an extensive set of essential patents is the equivalent of a big stick in the corporate patent world. Maybe that’s all they wanted with Motorola after all. No one at Google, Motorola or Huawei has commented on the rumor.