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Googorola versus the Android ecosystem

The war Google won't admit

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When announcing its planned acquisition of Motorola Mobility, Google went out of its way to reassure existing Android device manufacturers that it wasn't cutting their legs out from under them.

But whether or not Larry Page is actually revving up his amputation chainsaw depends on whether or not you believe him when he says: "We built Android as an open source platform, and it will stay that way," as he did during a conference call with analysts and reporters on Monday morning.

"There's no change in how we're running Android – Android is still open," he reiterated. What he's concerned about, he emphasized, is "protecting and supporting the Android ecosystem."

That protection, Page hopes, will come from the massive patent load that'll flow to Mountain View with the acquisition. As Motorola Mobility chairman and CEO Sanjay Jha totes up the patent pile, the company has over 17,000 patents issued worldwide, and over 7,500 applications in progress.

Google chief legal officer David Drummond, also on the call, was blunt. "Look," he said, "I think that we've seen some very aggressive licensing demands in the Android ecosystem, and we think that as a result of having the patent portfolio we'll be able to make sure that Android remains open and vibrant, and the kind of platform that lots of companies can innovate on top of."

it remains an open question if that will work, as The Reg discussed earlier today.

Motorola: first among equals?

But Android's vibrancy is not the only thing worrying Android-handset manufacturers. Patent questions aside, there's also the fact that Google is spending $12.5bn to acquire the world's second-largest Android-handset maker.

There are a lot of other players in the Android market – according to Page, Android handsets are currently being made by 39 manufacturers. Recent figures from Nielsen Research put HTC at the top of that pack with a 35.9 per cent share of the Android market, followed by Motorola at 28.2 per cent, and Samsung at 20.5 per cent. LG, Sony Ericsson, Acer, and over two dozen smaller players provide the final 15.4 per cent.

According to Android headman Andy Rubin, all the major Android partners are on board, and happy about it. "I spoke yesterday to, I think it was, the top five Android licensees," he told the call's listeners, "and they all showed very enthusiastic support for the deal."

Whether those partners actually are as energetically ebullient as he claims, of course, depends on your faith in Rubin's rectitude.

Google has no plans to slight existing licensees, Rubin says. "Android obviously was born as an open platform. It doesn't make sense for it to be a single OEM," he reassured HTC, Samsung, et al. "We want to go as wide as possible, obviously."

If you see Android as at its core an ad platform, Rubin's reasoning is, well, reasonable: the more the merrier. "After this transaction," he said, "nothing changes. [Motorola] is going to be a separate business, and it's business as usual for Android. So I see it as basically protecting the ecosystem and extending it as well."

Business as (un)usual

But it's that "business as usual" comment that's intriguing. As Rubin explains it, Google's Android-development strategy includes working closely with a single lead manufacturer to develop each new generation of Android phones – as it did, for example, with HTC for the Nexus One and Samsung for the Nexus S.

"What we do is we select – around Christmastime of each year – we select a manufacturer that we work very closely with to release a device in that timeframe," he said.

"And essentially the teams huddle together in one building. They jointly work on these development efforts. They go on from nine to twelve months, and ultimately at the holiday season or right before it devices pop out that are based on this effort," Rubin explained.

It stands to reason that a Google-owned Motorola would now have the inside track on getting first crack at the latest and greatest Android versions. After all, Google's vision of "open source" is, shall we say, more than a little self-serving.

Take the tablet-centric Android version 3.x, aka Honeycomb. is not open source. Google worked with Motorola to build the Honeycomb-based Xoom tablet, and later, the company began sharing the code with other close partners, but it's not available to world+dog. It was supposed to be open source, then it wasn't, now it won't, and tablet and smartphone manufacturers alike must wait for the next Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, which is slated to arrive later this year.

But will Motorola always have that inside track? According to Rubin, the answer is no. "We don't expect [our development process] to change at all," he said. "As [Motorola] is going to be run as a separate business, they will be part of that bidding process and part of that development process, and obviously Android remains open to other partners as they are today."

The future of Googorola

As we said above, whether HTC, Samsung, and the other 36 Android partners should be placing calls to Redmond to inquire about Windows Phone 7 licenses depends on whether Page & Co.'s assurances are to be believed.

But it is interesting to note that Google and Microsoft – Mountain View's bête noire in one of the major patent dust-ups that the Motorola Mobility acquisition is intended to help – seem destined to be the developers of the last mobile operating systems not part of a vertically integrated hardware-software combo.

Apple and iOS, HP and webOS, RIM and BlackBerry OS/QNX – and, one might argue, Nokia and Windows Phone 7, at least from a market-share perspective. Might Googorola and Android be next?

From where we sit, that's unlikely. And as for the offerings from Apple, HP, RIM, and any other mobile operating system that might appear – did we just hear someone mumble MeeGo? – nothing much will change. Apple will keep its dominant position among stylistas, HP will continue to flop along on the margins, RIM will battle to keep its enterprise edge, and lawyers will continue to toss patent-infringement lawsuits at one another.

And don't for a moment think that the patent-acquisition wars are over, now that the Nortel, Novell, IBM and now Motorola Mobility patent-grabs have been made.

During Monday's call, Google's Drummond was asked if the Motorola acqusition would be followed by more such maneuvers. "We've said for some time that we need to build our patent portfolio to make sure that Android and other businesses can be successful," he said, "so we will continue to do that." ®

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