Google moves Android from a PlaysForSure strategy to Zune strategy
August 15th, 2011
Daniel Eran Dilger
While Android fans like to point out how well the free software is performing by looking at its plurality of market share among smartphone makers, the reality is that Android isn’t doing so well. Google’s acquisition of Motorola is proof of that.
In buying Motorola Mobility, Google hopes to “supercharge” the platform by releasing phones that show what Google really wants the platform to do (i.e., become far more like the iPhone), rather that deal with a series of incompetent partners who are all shooting themselves, and the platform, in the foot.
This is exactly what Microsoft did when it realized its PlaysForSure “more choices” strategy was failing against the iPod. It ended up working exclusively with one partner (Toshiba) to take its existing PlaysForSure player and turn it into a Microsoft-branded model called the Zune.
The problem for Microsoft was that this completely destroyed the entire premise of PlaysForSure, even as the company insisted that both would live together harmoniously. Microsoft actually suggested that the Zune would compete against Apple’s iPod while PlaysForSure makers would continue to build and sell product in a separate universe.
In retrospect, this was fantastically stupid. It was obviously wrong to me at the time, too, but not to devoted fans who had been calling for Microsoft to make its own hardware just like Apple all along. They had a simplistic “common sense” opinion based on fanciful thinking of how the world works and no real knowledge or intelligent awareness of what might go wrong from such a deal.
More than just copying Microsoft’s grave strategy shift however, Google is now copying something even more insidious: the company appears to be turning into a corporation run by a populist vote of its ignorant, idealistic fans. Call it the Tea Party Company.
Google & the Tea Bags
Google’s Android is facing some core problems, but to its fans, things are awesome. At the lowest level, Android incorporates Linux, the “most devotedly open” OS kernel. Companies run by smart people avoid Linux and its GPL religion because such fantasy-ideology is toxic to progress (and profits).
Apple, for example, has been working hard to replace important components at the core of Mac OS X to isolate its dependence upon software maintained under the GPL. The company has put millions into developing LLVM as a viable replacement and improvement to GCC, just one example of Apple’s preferential alignment with Apache/BSD/MIT style open licensing over the pure ideology ensconced by the GPL.
Not Google! When the company acquired Android, it spent some time thinking about how to avoid paying Sun licensing fees for Java, but didn’t blink an eye at managing the risk associated with continuing to maintain its platform on a Linux kernel.
If this sounds as penny wise and pound foolish as Michelle Bachman saying the US can’t afford to extend unemployment benefits while she collects more than a million dollars a year from Medicare payments, farm subsidies and wages on the Federal dime, then yes, you must be of at least moderate intelligence.
The backfiring of foolish thinking
Google now faces Java infringement litigation from Sun’s new overlord Oracle, and at the same time has exposed all of its Android licensees to a separate issue of violating the GPL. That’s because when you pick Linux to run your product, you can’t decide to close the source to make things easier for you while you ship products.
Google did this with Android 3.0 Honeycomb, and lots of Android licensees are similarly exposing themselves to lawsuits from the various Linux IP holders due to their own violations of the GPL’s rules. If Android tablets were making any money, there are lots of parties ready to step in and cash in on Google’s ignorance in building its platform upon such a mess of ideological purity.
The potential of such a problem is far overshadowed by the fact that Android licensees are already being sued by everyone else. With Microsoft killing time while it waits for its Windows Phone platform to deliver something with Nokia (its own disastrous Zune phone strategy), it’s spending its days suing Android licensees for violating its patents, collecting more from royalties on Android than it made selling Windows Mobile.
Apple is suing to stop Android licensees from copying. I’ll be surprised if Apple attempts to make money from royalty payments like Microsoft. Apple is seeking to actually stop copying from happening, and has already been successful in winning injunctions against Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1. It has similar action against other Android licensees, including Motorola.
Motorola: Google’s waterlogged life vest
Android fans have been wishing aloud that Google would just buy Motorola, because to the uninformed, buying another company half again as big as you is always a brilliant idea that does nothing but solve problems. The big problem Motorola will solve for Google is giving the company a big patent portfolio in mobile technologies.
The problem, of course, is that if Motorola had a savior set of patents, it wouldn’t have been one of the first targets of Microsoft. And if Motorola’s patent portfolio were really that dangerous, Apple would have settled quickly, not dragged out patent countersuits of its own. Apple settled with Nokia pretty quickly, and Nokia, like Motorola, has patents primarily in network technology, not the kind of usability and OS technologies Apple has the most strength in.
And so, Google’s acquisition of Motorola is very much like Microsoft’s parasitic takeover of Nokia: not a great fit, but a desperate stab at one of the few directions left available. Motorola is currently losing money in smartphones. Take that in for a moment.
Google’s Vic Gundrota joked about the Microsoft/Nokia partnership that “two turkeys don’t make an eagle,” but lets look at what fine products Motorola and Google could make together. The Google Nexus One? Oh wait, that failure was a partnership of Google and HTC, launched just a couple months after Google had exclusively partnered with Motorola to deliver the then new Android 2.0 on its Verizon Droid-branded phones.
Motorola does not exactly have a history in making brilliant smartphones. Its former glory came from building simple mobile phones that folded up into tiny packages. Even when it had an exclusive minute with Google on releasing the Droid/Milestone at the beginning of 2010, it lost its perch almost immediately to the next Android model to arrive, over and over again throughout the Year of Android.
How will Google dance from one partner to the next popping out babies it then abandons after a few months now that its married to Motorola? Won’t Motorola expect more? Shouldn’t Motorola’s rivals expect less attention and even rougher treatment? Or will Google really keep its promise of loving all of its common law wives equally?
Less than open
HTC and Samsung can hope that Motorola won’t make good on its promise to sue other Android makers using its patent portfolio, now that its owned by the company that makes Android (and makes next to nothing providing them with Android). However, they’ll now be competing against Google’s Motorola Zunes like the poor schlumps who bought into PlaysForSure as a platform offering choice.
Will Samsung, HTC and ZTE make it into the exclusive circle who gain early access to Google’s “open” releases of Android, now that Google has a financial interest in returning Motorola to profitability? Google has only said that Android will ‘remain available” as open source, but so far, that has been meaningless, because Google regularly closes access to Android whenever it sees fit.
Android is no more open than Apple’s Darwin, and nobody uses Darwin to power their own commercial products for good reason. Apple can at any time make substantial changes and wait to release those new versions as it sees fit. Apple can do that because it voluntarily opened Darwin under a BSD-style license.
Google doesn’t really have the right to close Android (because the GPL forbids it), but it does anyway in rather brazen contempt for the GPL. At some point, you’d think that the free software acolytes would protest this mockery of their religion. At some point they will, likely when Android starts to make enough money to warrant some action against it.
A mess made in heaven
And so you have it: Google appears to be run by the collective intelligence of a bunch of children who comment on blog entries. It has exercised this spectacular collection of crowd sourced strategic thinking to buy up one of its weaker, profitless hardware partners and is now putting it into competition (both for attention within the Android circle, and in the marketplace) with its two strongest allies: Samsung and HTC.
Google is inheriting expertise and patents related to making phones that sold well before the iPhone Era. It will now be able to release phones and tablets with a level of integration closer to the iPhone and iPad, at the expense of other devices in the Android ecosystem, which will be less integrated due to new barriers between Google and its other hardware partners, who are now also its direct hardware competitors.
Perhaps after spending billions to buy Motorola, Google will now forgo profitability to help Samsung and HTC gain traction with their own phones and tablets? Right, just like Microsoft’s Zune was all about making Creative and SanDisk rich at its own expense. If nothing else, Google’s noob move will likely push Samsung to reconsider shifting efforts toward Bada, or push both Samsung and HTC closer to Windows Phone 7.
The fantasy surrounding Android is about to collapse. Google wasn’t sponsoring Android to bring balance to the Force. It was hoping to make inroads into the mobile market for paid placement in web search and display advertising. By acquiring Motorola, Google is indicating that that effort was not working out, and admitting that the real money in mobiles is coming from selling integrated, differentiated hardware like Apple.
Google: you are no Apple
The problem is that Google has no ability to invent products like Apple. Nexus One, Google TV, and Honeycomb tablets have all been massive failures, just as bad, if not worse, than Microsoft’s Zune and Surface. Microsoft hoped it could morph out of the software licensing business, but has largely failed to do this outside of some minor success with Xbox (after a decade of multibillion dollar subsidies).
Google can’t even claim a glimmer of success in the hardware realm, yet it is taking over a failed hardware dinosaur in an attempt to shift its Android platform from an “open.” ad-ware funded free distribution (which only works when the software is widely distributed by a bunch of vendors who all delegate their web and ad based businesses to Google), into a software later that can run on hardware it owns.
Pull the ubiquity rug out from under Android and it becomes just another run of the mill Linux/Java/Flash distribution powering hardware from Motorola. Given that Android’s widely deployed scale hasn’t successfully translated into a vibrant software platform, it also makes one wonder what kind of assistance Google can offer Motorola to help turn the company around now that Android’s scale (its core value) is likely to shrink as licensees scramble to make their own survival plans in a post-Androidalyptic world.
Additionally, Google just shifted from being entirely a web software company funded by ads to being a web company tied to a failing phone maker. Didn’t the rest of Motorola just split from Motorola Mobility to exit the phone business? Google just took a leap of faith off the end of its burning platform, hoping that the remains of one of the worst performing companies in the mobile business will break its fall.
Could be worse: Google could have bought Sony Ericsson.