The Motorola buyout: Can Google reinvent itself as an Apple?

Google's purchase of Motorola Mobility is a risky but perhaps necessary bet to create an Apple-caliber ecosystem

Google's surprise announcement today that it is buying Motorola Mobility, which makes the Android-based Motorola Xoom tablet and several Android smartphones, suggests that the executives at Google have figured out they require more than a decent operating system to take on Apple. Google needs a complete ecosystem of hardware, software, and services to challenge the highly integrated and mutually supporting ecosystem elements that Apple has in its iPhone, iPad, Mac, iTunes, Apple TV, and related products.

When you buy an iPhone or an iPad, you get much more than a device; the same is not true of an Android tablet or smartphone. Of course, buying a hardware maker -- especially one with a poor history in capturing customers' imaginations and that has struggled for years to break its stodgy product approach -- is no guarantee an ecosystem will follow. Apple designs all the pieces to work together from the get-go; it doesn't graft on alien segments in hopes the composite creature will work.

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Why Google's Motorola Mobility buy makes sense, in theory
But Google may have no choice. Sure, it dominates sales of smartphones, but if you look at who's buying them, they're the same people who used to buy regular smartphones -- lots of volume, but little profit margin. Nokia justified its lack of smartphone progress by citing that "feature phone" market as its powerhouse of profit -- until it evaporated in the last year. Google likely can see a similar trajectory occur if it didn't shake up its business.

As you'd expect, industry analysts have warned the Motorola Mobility acquisition will scare off Samsung and HTC from the Android platform. Given that Samsung sells more smartphones than anyone but Apple, a shift by Samsung from Android to, say, Windows Phone 7, could gut the Android market. That's possible, but companies like HTC and Samsung are like arms dealers: They buy from and sell to anyone. If they think there's money to be made in Windows Phone 7, Bada (a Samsung "lite" smartphone OS sold outside the United States), or even DOS, they will have products using that technology. There is no loyalty, and Google likely understands these "friends" are only fair-weather allies. 

Google's understanding that it needs a more consistent hardware experience is not new. It partnered with HTC to create its first Nexus One smartphone as a "reference model" design that it also sold. That device tanked, but Google persevered, working closely with Samsung on the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the first real iPad competitor on the market.

But those partnerships also showed the limit of depending on device makers who work with anyone and sell any technology they think they can make a buck on. HTC, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung have each come out with Android variations that cause developer headaches, introduce inconsistencies to the user experience, and generally fragment the market. After all, they all want their products to stand out from other Android devices.

However, their commitment (or perhaps ability) to doing so has been uneven. Thus, HTC came out strong with its Sense UI but lately has appeared to be just going through the motions. Motorola made a lot of noise last year about building a developer platform, and then again last winter about adding corporate security to Android; both seem to have fizzled.

Motorola's own Android UI variant, Motoblur, has been widely criticized, although its Atrix device showed real innovative thinking earlier this year about "post-PC" product possibilities. Samsung recently has been the most active partner, with the Galaxy Tab tablet and Galaxy line of smartphones lighting up the charts; plus, it has been the most aggressive in supporting Google's Chromebook intiative (Google's weak attempt to create a competitor to Windows and Mac OS X).

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