Google’s Motorola purchase: Something had to be done

Ready for a bit of a brain dump in a semi rambling manner? I wanted to get a few thoughts of my own out before I published those of the readers.

First though, let me take a wee look back.

It’s been painful to watch Android.

There are some fundamentals that have been missing.

Ever since I picked up a “T-Mobile G1”, they’ve been winding me up quietly. The fact my G1 couldn’t limp into mid-morning without the battery going to red was something that astounded many Nokia executives I know. How could they put something like this out to market?

The camera? Abysmal.

The voice quality? Robotic.

The user experience? Limited.

The best way of running my G1 — if I actually wanted to use it for a full day — was to actually switch everything off.

And looking at my Nexus S, not much has changed. As long as you’re never more than 5 feet away from a USB charge point, you’re good. And if you look good pixelated, then — broadly speaking — Android cameras are definitely for you.

Literally, I feel the best about my Nexus S when it’s switched off. Because I know it’s not using any battery and that when I actually NEED to do something, I can switch it on, use it gloriously, then switch it off again. Or at least, set it to Airplane mode to make sure it only gently slurps on the battery.

The operating system has prompted a phenomenal sea change across the marketplace. Prompted it. There are some wonderful innovations. Google Maps is just delightful. Voice search and integration, wonderful. Sync just works. I think it’s fair to say that the G1 experience heralded the first proper mobile experience — you needed to sign-in with a Gmail account, BUT everything synchronised without you doing any thinking whatsoever. Just a username and password. Calendars, contacts, (“push”) email. This was when folk were still having to tell their Nokia what the time and date was during activation.

The democratisation of the smartphone, prompted by Google “giving away” Android has been super to watch. All of a sudden, consumers upgrading from a shit feature phone got themselves a shit smartphone.

The priority was Google.

There’s nothing wrong with that. They funded it all for commercial gain.

The priority was always search — Google Search — and revenue. Everything about the Android ‘experience’ was about the Google ecosystem. The heavy reliance on search.

It’s been a really nice ride, too. Along the way, millions have been lifted out of feature phone poverty with a wide array of $99-style smartphones.

I began to get rather frustrated by the total lack of consumer focus. Android, I remember remarking, “is not consumer ready.”

Consumers still use it. They still get on fine most of the time. There’s just so many rough edges almost everywhere I look.

The problem with Android is that, for the most part, I believe it won’t take much to persuade a current user to swap, especially if they’ve been left a wee bit disappointed by their existing Android device. This is the big Nokia/Microsoft bet: That they can deliver a better, integrated experience that seriously delights users, at all price points.

In recent years, the rather crazy notion of HTC having to pay license fees for what was supposed to be a ‘free’ operating system, has had quite a lot of people in manufacturers chattering. There’s been the odd pained face.

Updates aren’t fast.

Just look at Sony Ericsson: The company used a ton of resources to get it’s first generation devices out into market running (if memory serves) Android 1.9. Or was it 1.6? I can’t remember but it was shocking.

Consumers were greeted with a wall of silence. Can’t you just buy the device and be happy with it? The culture change that many manufacturers have had to bear has been extreme and rather expensive.

At the end of the day, manufacturers want to see lots of boxes going out the factory door, ideally with a healthy profit attached to each one.

It’s not just about the equipment folk though.

The operators have been watching the Android juggernaut with concern. They’ve been trying to play along where possible. Witness Vodafone’s nigh-on-ridiculous attempts at adding a ‘marketplace’ to a phone that already had one on the front screen by default. Vodafone’s abomination was hidden away on the 10th screen, safely insuring nobody would bother. Right or wrongly, the operators have been staring at Google’s profits and quietly panicking.

One rather large gaping hole with Android is the marketplace. Developer support is still a problem, however Google has arguably done one of the best jobs possible at retaining mindshare. The consumer experience is something else. Dare you download that free game? Or are you likely to end up having every one of your voice calls, SMS messages and emails routed to a mysterious server in China? Because nobody at Google ever bothered to offer a consumer-level ‘managed’ service on Android market?

I’m making sweeping statements, but run with me.

We got to an impasse in early summer where I began to sense a reality shift: Google was, I felt, losing ground. The patent wars have certainly created a lot of problems. I can’t, in all seriousness, go about making devices that are likely to be invalidated or rendered illegal by other players. And, wasn’t all this shit meant to be free? Why am I paying Microsoft? Why is Nokia getting lump-sum payments from Apple? Who’s suing who? And what do these patents mean? And, while I’m at it — what do the chaps at Microsoft and Nokia know that I don’t?

It’s these sorts of issues that I’ve been exploring with quite a few OEMs & operators across the months. They’ve been high-level kick-about conversations usually supported by a beer or two. They’ve got PwC and Accenture to help out during the day with lots of graphs.

Google needed to do something.

Pitted against iOS 5 and Windows Phone Mango, Android doesn’t look that good.

Oh it still delivers. Device specs are still going to be up there with the best of them. It just — Android needs to iterate really, really fast. Honeycomb was a monumental screw-up. I honestly couldn’t actually find the sodding applications folder on the XOOM. I had to actually switch into ‘techie’ to navigate.

Faced with the beautifully marketed iOS 5, now surely about to spread far and wide with some kind of Nano-style pricing strategy, and with highly excited, confident noises coming from Microsoft and Nokia, I could see a time where manufacturers actually begin reducing their Android production.

It’s taken perhaps 18 months or so for Android to really begin to dominate.

That’s easily attacked. It’s easily eroded. Indeed, when it’s not free, when there’s lots other partners with cash ready to rock and when there’s hundreds of operators out there ready to see Google get it’s wing clipped a little bit, the future for Android was less than certain.

Buying Motorola fixes that.

It guarantees at least one manufacturer — a big one in Android spheres — will retain the operating system. I wouldn’t expect Samsung or HTC to walk away from Android overnight — absolutely not. But I think it’s fair to say none of them are committed.

Name me an Android manufacturer who is committed?

Go on.

Name someone who absolutely positively would never look at Windows Phone. Or QNX. Or anything else. Can you guarantee HTC will always deliver Android devices? What about Samsung? The company’s doing very, very well with Android right now but it’s got (highly capable) Bada in the back pocket and it’s playing with Windows.

Everyone’s hedging their bets.

Today’s news helps change things.

Android is a permanent fixture.

Don’t read that sentence and think I’m being flippant. Yes it’s the planet’s largest smartphone operating system today, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll stay that way.

Guaranteeing that Motorola — one of the best known brands in the States — is on your side is rather useful.

Patents are certainly useful too.

Some of the utter shit I’ve been reading today has been laughable. One patent could generate a billion dollars. 1,000 patents could generate $500,000. Motorola certainly has a library of ’em.

Google’s move is, I think, not just about patents.

The biggest benefit of the news is that, today, thousands of board directors will have dropped everything to dial into hastily arranged emergency direction meetings. Google buying Motorola is a turn-on-a-six-pence moment. All bets are off. Continents are shifting.

The Motorola acquisition has now prompted a lot more companies to look at the whole sector in a different way. Once Google’s done it, then it’s ok.

One senior operator executive I spoke to this evening likened the news to a very smart if rather blatant, bold chess move.

“We think they’ve done it 25% for the IP, 25% to assure a continued position for Android and 50% to unnerve the industry.”

I think there’s a bit of truth there.

The chest-beating is fantastic. It’s big, bold, direct. Android is safe[r]. The purchase will give comfort to the others who might have been thinking about adjusting their Android strategy into 2012/2013.

It also gets Google into the box-shifting business — rather unfamiliar territory.

Bring it on though. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can mutually deliver.

I’m most excited by the emergency board meetings though.

Make no mistake, right now there’s lots of plotting going on.

It gets a bit boring when things are steady-as-she-goes.

,

6 Responses to Google’s Motorola purchase: Something had to be done

  1. Gdawkz August 16, 2011 at 3:03 am #

    I disagree with a lot of your commentary, you make statements about those who will leave android for greener pastures and that is not true. Those who love Apple will stay Apple,those.who love Microsoft will stay, and the same for android and BlackBerry. The big difference is those who only like those others will migrate to android, because of the wide variety of phones,OEMs and price.plain and simple.

  2. Ewan August 16, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    Oh I know I did make some sweeping statements, you’re right to point that out. As I wrote each sentence I was thinking, “yeah, that needs defending,” and “should I qualify this?” but I was aiming for a rolling perspective to point out that — fundamentally, despite selling millions upon millions, Android wasn’t in a particularly strong position. The purchase has helped solidify this in quite a few ways.

    I’m not convinced that the 550,000 people who activated their Android phones yesterday will purchase another Android device in 12-18 months time.

  3. Kip Hakes August 16, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    I must admit Android got off to a shaky start, but if you look at say, the Galaxy S2 it really is a fantastic phone, it’s Android at it’s best, the camera is fantastic and the battery life is very good too. The good thing about Android is that it is so universal, T-Mobile were doing cheap Android handsets for £20 a few months back, and yet you will still see it on the high end devices like the SGS2. I think the only area that letting the Android side down is the Tablets, there are so many different Chinese shitty bullshit variants out there. It’s such a shame Apple threw it’s toys out over the Galaxy Tab 10.1 as that looks amazing and could have really done wonders for the Android brand.

  4. Giff Gfroerer, i2SMS August 16, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

    Right on, Ewan.  I follow Gdawkz’s line of thought and questioning, but have to side on your camp on this one.

    Too many folks are writing about the patents.  I think it was the whole enchilada here.  And I say right on to the comment “to unnerve the industry.”  I think Google was tired of being messed with, and this is a huge concrete post to tie a ship to…

    Giff

  5. JK August 16, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    Spot on Ewan… They lost out on Nortel’s portfolio of patents (4.5 billion) to MSFT, Cisco, EMC, AAPL, Sony, Ericcsson, and RIMM.  They have a cascade of lawsuites coming their way from Oracle/Sun, MSFT and others for not paying royalties on patents, but hey they are google and “do no evil” we just look the other way.  Motorola for real?  So the patents are a great step for them, so their various OEM’s like HTC, Samsung LG and others have a small leg to stand on in negotiating with others.  But as far as giving them any scale… what’s Motorola’s global market share?  Maybe 3-4% and without the US market they are tiny.  This will drive many more OEM’s to take a good size position in Windows/Mango and for the carriers/operators to start pushing Windows/Mango out to the market place.  MSFT will be agnostic and will benifit the most over the next 24 months.

  6. Mike Stead August 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    “I’m not convinced that the 550,000 people who activated their
    Android phones yesterday will purchase another Android device in 12-18
    months time.”

    hmmm…if you have spent 18 months building up a load of Google services and apps into your first Android device, then your MNO offers you a dual-core 4.3″ one with an 8MP camera, would you *really* decide to jump ship to, er, iOS or WP7?

    iOS is a fundamentally different UX beast. Yes, a reasonable number of the Google services cross-pollenate, but not all, and not at all well. WP7 – much the same.

    And it is getting materially much better. When I first got an Xperia ARC it was bloody awful. Now, 3 updates later, it is actually very, very tasty. Gone is all the SEM Timescape crap, it’s noticeably faster, new cool things like the ‘telly off’ screen power-down, etc. I’d now actually recommend it as a day-to-day device.

    And with the pricepoint of comparatively fairly stunning devices coming down & down all the time (£99 Orange San Francisco for example) I think this one’s got a loooong way to run yet.

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