What Google Gets With Motorola Mobility

from the yet-another-IP-market-distortion dept

Having already covered the basics of the Google deal to buy Motorola Mobility, we asked Derek Kerton to weigh in with his thoughts on what the deal really means.

Some suggest that Google bought Motorola Mobility Inc (MMI) so that it can vertically integrate and produce flagship phone models that have the polish and seamlessness of the iPhone. But the real reason is a common theme here at Techdirt: Google needs to build its defenses against patent lawsuits in the smartphone industry.

On the very face of it, Google doesn't need a handset subsidiary to make a custom Google phone. They can easily commission a handset exactly how they want it from OEM brands like HTC and Samsung, and have already done just that with the Nexus models. They could easily design their own brand of phones and have it built by contract manufacturers like Foxconn (as Apple does). I've read elsewhere that Google now gets the benefit of better understanding of the challenges of integrating Android into handsets. That's also incorrect. Google has a history of sending teams of engineers to most of their handset and tablet partners to work side by side overcoming those challenges.

Perhaps Google just saw a good deal on Motorola. Its stock price has been dropping through the decade, and also the past year. The market value prior to today was just $7.3 Billion, compared to $20B for Nokia or $13B for RIM. Perhaps, like Nortel before it, the value of Motorola's Intellectual Property (IP) is being hidden by a poor operational record. A buyer like Gordon Gekko (of the 1987 film Wall Street) could have bought up MMI, divested the operational arm from the IP portfolio, and realized a gain by separating the parts (as Gekko famously did to an airline). Of course, that's a 'private equity' view on the purchase, but Google has indicated it will retain MMI for now. Still the sum of the parts might be worth more than the whole. Although not a startup, this seems similar to Masnick's post yesterday that the value of a startup's patents might exceed the value of the operation.

There is also the less-mentioned factor that Google now also owns MMI's set-top-box division, which might give a shot in the arm to the fledgling Google TV business. Bundling Google TV into every STB would be great for Google, but I would expect that, since these boxes are all bought by cable operators, the cable companies would ultimately decide if Google TV actually remained in the box once it was installed on the customer premises. Since Google TV competes with their on demand services, it may end up as popular as the built-in laptop tethering feature is on Verizon's Android smartphones - i.e. Verizon takes it out.

My understanding is that Google intends to run Motorola as independently as possible. That is, no doubt, to head off what is known as 'channel conflict'. Channel conflict occurs when one member of a supply chain, say the Android OS supplier to many handset vendors, expands into another part of the chain, in this case the handset industry. Now they are both a supplier AND a competitor to companies like HTC, Samsung, LG, etc. Historically, the other vendors start to mistrust their OS supplier, and become more reluctant to use the OS as they search for other options.

We've seen this before with Nokia's handling of Symbian. Since 2001, Symbian was, ostensibly, an openly available smartphone OS that any handset manufacturer could use. Nokia got behind this idea full force, not wanting to cede the market to OS companies like Microsoft. They pushed the idea of other handset vendors joining them, in competition against Redmond. Some did adopt Symbian, including Ericsson, Motorola, Siemens, NTT DoCoMo. But Nokia struggled with the notion that Symbian was "too controlled by Nokia" since around 2003, so they spun it off into an open consortium in 2009. Too little too late. The other OEMs didn't ever really believe that Symbian was truly independent. The end result is that very few other handset vendors ever got fully behind Symbian, even during the time when it was the best smartphone OS in the world. So Nokia just ended up buying it back again in 2010, and finally killing it off recently.

With Android linked too closely to Motorola, companies like Samsung might be driven more to their own OS, called BADA, while others like LG could seek new alternatives (Windows, QNX...) Thus, Google now must re-interpret the same dance that Nokia did years ago: "No, don't worry, Android is still open. You will have as equal access as Motorola." This may succeed, but is a precarious position. The dance partners may have changed, but the music is still the same. Let's see if they come up with some new moves.

OEM confidence that Google will keep equal access to Android to all handset vendors is made even more precarious since the recent moves by Google to prefer some vendors of its formerly "open" Android OS. Google only released the latest tablet version of the OS (Honeycomb 3.0) to select partners, shutting out the open source community and other hardware vendors from the OS for now. The first to get exclusive access? Motorola, for the Xoom tablet. This is not the best way to ease OEM concerns around equal access, given that some may be 'more equal than others'.

It becomes clear that what Google truly needs from the acquisition is the patent portfolio of Motorola Mobility. The smartphone patent wars have been raging lately. It seems every handset vendor is getting sued by big competitors and by patent trolls alike on a daily basis. Android vendors, for example, pay nothing to Google for use of the OS... but they must pay about $5 per phone to Microsoft because MSFT had the smartphone patent leverage against Google. In another dire example of the risk of patent assault on Android device makers, the Samsung Galaxy 10.1 Tablet has been shut out of European and Asian markets by injunctions based on patent claims from Apple.

To fend off patent assaults, companies seek to build their own patent arsenals. That, for example, is why so many vultures hovered around the carcass of Nortel, and bid up its patent portfolio to 4x what the market expected. Google bid, but did not win at the Nortel auction. But with Motorola's 14,000+ patent portfolio in the mobile phone industry, Google can not only defend Android much better from the patent assault (by threatening counter-assault), but Google can thus reduce risk and uncertainty for its handset partners, thereby making Android more attractive.

Think about it. One of the biggest features of the Android OS for device makers was the license fee: free. Free, as Techdirt readers know, offers some very powerful mathematical and business implications. Suddenly, building an in-house OS for your car stereo or TV remote control may look less attractive than a more powerful, free, Android OS. Same goes for tablets, fridges, netbooks, or phones. But if MSFT and Apple (and countless others) can layer up license fees, the attractiveness of Android starts to diminish. The power of 'free' disappears, and instead, uncertainty and risk of lawsuit reign supreme.

So, the deal results in two opposing forces for the future of Google: IP cost and risk mitigation, and potential channel conflict. If Google can succeed at making the IP risk mitigation more important than the channel conflict for the OEM vendors of the world, thereby winning more handset and device partners, the Motorola purchase can be a success. If channel conflict is the more important part of the equation, Google loses big. I wonder if Google might someday sell off the handset maker, but keep the IP. Big news, either way. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Filed Under: deals, handsets, patents
Companies: google, motorola mobility

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  1. icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), 17 Aug 2011 @ 3:02pm

    Re: NOT useful patents

    Valid points, and time will tell. But what we suspect with patents is that sheer number is starting to represent power. With a legal regime that so strongly favors patent holders, grands broad, vague patents, 14,000 could effectively cover EVERYTHING about a mobile phone. That's just like the stockpile of nuclear weapons could blow up the earth many times over, and why we draw the analogy of Mutually Assured Destruction.

    It doesn't matter if the patents are precisely relevant, or if they remain valid after review, or if there was any prior art. What matters is whether you can use the patents to impede the progress of your rivals. Are the patents good enough to go to court? Are they even good enough for an injuction? If so, that's good enough. You don't have to win. There's no penalty for suing and losing.

    And, since patents are deliberately written so broadly, and since the USPTO grants these vague, broad patents. It is highly likely that there will actually be a few winners within a treasure trove of 14,000. And these are the patents from the company that made the FIRST cellular phone. Make no mistake, despite what some may think of Motorola, they have contributed a tremendous amount of real innovation to the industry. And they've acquired a bunch of other companies that have some relevant IP, say Good Technology for example, or sync technology like Starfish or Zecter. Could it be that Apple's Wi-Fi sync violates some Motorola patent? Sure, why not, just as an example.

    I promise you one thing, no practicing entity - not Apple, Microsoft, not Nokia, not Samsung - wants to have Google point that IP cannon at their face, and bet that they're just shooting blanks.

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