Google Is Getting Its Mobile House in Order

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-05-23

Oracle Patent Decision, Motorola Acquisition Give Google Reasons to Cheer

Google CEO Larry Page is going to have to mark the third week of May on his calendar, and he might be justified in observing it with an annual company celebration.

For on this particular week, Google finally got all of the government approvals it needed and closed its acquisition of Motorola Mobility. The following day, Google learned that a federal court jury decided that it didn€™t infringe on Oracle€™s patents. Google agreed to buy Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion in early November 2011 and had since been waiting for federal authorities to clear the deal.

The result is that Google Android business, operating since 2010 under something of a cloud while Oracle€™s patent infringement lawsuit made its way through the legal system, now finds the sun is shining again on its high-flying mobile operating system. And even better, Google is finding itself in the corporate version of the catbird seat when it comes to mobile devices.

This pair of events means that Google is now free to challenge Apple head-on for phone dominance. By buying Motorola, Google also managed to nab a collection of 17,000 mobile device patents, which should protect it against any infringement cases Apple might bring up. In fact, it might give Google new ways to make sure Apple€™s lawyers are busier than ever. So now Google has a phone manufacturing company (complete with Chinese employees), a warehouse full of patents, significantly more control over Android, and no fears of having anything derailed by Oracle.

While it€™s true that Oracle could appeal the May 23 jury decision, it€™s unlikely to be successful. Federal courts have long determined that unless some sort of defect in the jury€™s deliberations (like a juror taking bribes) can be found, they rarely overturn the findings of juries.

Oracle could also ask that its copyright case against Google be retried, since the jury hung on the question of fair use in its copyright infringement suit. But first the federal judge in the case will rule on whether APIs (the code in question in the copyright case) can be copyrighted at all. Right now, Oracle€™s chances of getting anything like a substantial damage award out of the copyright case look pretty slim.

In other words, Google is on track to be just like Apple€“it controls the operating system, it controls a phone handset manufacturer and it has its own app store. But despite the similarity, Google won€™t be another Apple. While there€™s no question that Google will make sure that its Motorola phones run the latest version of Android and that they aren€™t subject to the kind of fragmentation that€™s plagued Android in the past, Google still has to hold on to its partners.

After all, it€™s those partners, including giants like HTC and Samsung, that helped Android become the top selling mobile operating system on Earth. This is something that Apple has chosen not to do and it€™s the reason why Android will continue to gain market share over iOS devices.

Google Is Getting Its Mobile House in Order

But that pesky problem with fragmentation is hurting Android and that€™s something that Google needs to get a handle on before it starts to result in customer defections. And that€™s where the Motorola acquisition comes in. Instead of being a competitor to other makers of Android devices, Motorola provides what can best be described as a reference platform.

This is especially the case if Google follows through with its plans to sell phones directly to customers and not just through carriers. This would mean that the Motorola versions of Android phones would be pure Android, without all of the proprietary and mostly useless bloatware that shows up on the phones sold by carriers€“with settings that keep it from being removed. Users could buy a phone with no contract, and use it with the carrier of their choice.

Right now, of course, that means two major carriers in the United States. If you have a GSM version of a phone from Google, you can use it with AT&T or T-Mobile (or one of several regional GSM carriers). If you have a CDMA version of a Motorola phone from Google, you can use it on Verizon and Sprint. Of course, there is the question of how the growth of 4G communications will affect the mobile phone market. While it will affect the CDMA world, it won€™t really have an impact on GSM phones.

Right now, T-Mobile is in the process of re-farming its 4G signals so they share the same frequency bands as AT&T. This process is partly complete and when it€™s done you€™ll be able to use any HSPA+ phone on either carrier€™s network. This is how things already work in Europe, where this interoperability and lack of proprietary bands means lower costs for wireless communications.

There will still be some accommodation that needs to be made for LTE, but today€™s smartphones already have radios that cover a wide selection of bands, so this probably isn€™t insurmountable. In addition, there are already more and more dual-mode phones. Verizon Wireless, for example, sells a number of devices that handle both CDMA and GSM modes so they can be used globally.

All this doesn€™t mean that there isn€™t a cloud in sky for Google€™s business prospects. It still is facing a potentially huge fine in Europe on charges that it has abused its search dominance. Even U.S. regulators are keeping a wary eye on Google€™s business moves from an antitrust standpoint.

This week€™s news on the mobility front means that life is good if you€™re Google. Your path is clear, your enemies vanquished, your plans are in place. So the next question has to be, how is Google going to execute on this new opportunity? One hopes that the company won€™t find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but you never know. 

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