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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Lord of the Droids

One smartphone to rule them all? What might a future Motorola smartphone look like, given the recent Google acquisition?

  • September 2, 2011

On November 5, 2007, Google and an alliance of other companies–T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm, and Motorola among them–announced the development of the Android platform, altering the smartphone landscape. Said Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt at the time: “Today’s announcement is more ambitious than any single ‘Google Phone’ that the press has been speculating about over the past few weeks. Our vision is that the powerful platform we’re unveiling will power thousands of different phone models.”

That vision still remains true–to a certain extent. But Google’s surprise announcement two weeks ago that it would acquire Motorola Mobility has again altered the landscape. Partly, this was a savvy intellectual property move; Google now greatly expands its patent portfolio (Motorola has 17,000 patents), a formidable weapon in the smartphone wars. But it also has transformed Google into something of a hardware company, a real pivot. And despite Google’s protestations to the contrary, the move has inevitably made Motorola something like the Anointed One among Android’s hardware partners. As some have observed, the quotes from other Android partners regarding the acquisition read as though coming through “clenched teeth.” There is now one Android Partner to Rule Them All–and it’s not HTC, Samsung, or Sony.

With the dust of the acquisition news beginning to settle, it’s an opportune moment to speculate on what benefits Motorola hardware produced in-house at Google might have over other Android partners. How might Android’s Lord of the Smartphones differ from its peers-turned-subjects?

One complaint with Android devices is that apps sometimes don’t properly work across the entire ecosystem; there are simply too many variations to code for. Android developers now will have their eye on the next Google-Motorola phone as the implicit standard from which others deviate. It seems logical to conclude that by placing Motorola at the center of the Android universe, the specs of Motorola’s products will have a major influence on the choices developers make in their apps.

And though this is exactly the situation that Larry Page claims he won’t be implementing, it’s hard not to speculate, as Farhad Manjoo and others have, that Google might one day “threaten to give its own phone division early access to Android code.” If that were to become the case, then Motorola might become emboldened to take risks that other manufacturers wouldn’t dare to take. Motorola might then become something like a hardware equivalent of Gmail Labs or Maps Labs, where ideas, innovations, and experiments are nurtured with the support of Google itself.

This is something that will unfold slowly. One thing we know for sure though; the Android experience is sure to change, becoming more like the centralized one iPhone users currently have. And for Google’s non-acquired partners like HTC and Sony, things are bound to change, too–perhaps with a new focus on building phones to run Windows’s mobile OS.

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