First, my apologies for the long hiatus here – have been focusing on other things…
I end up getting into lots of conversations about what Google is going to do with Motorola Mobility (MMI). Have talked about it on conference calls, in briefings and in discussion threads. I have a pretty strong opinion about it that seems pretty obvious to me, but does not align with what a large number of my colleagues are thinking, so I thought I would put it out here and see what kind of feedback I would get.
I agree with what seems to be the majority opinion – Google wants MMI’s IP. There is a bit of knife fight going on in the IP space and Google is smack in the middle of it, so they clearly want to be well armed (and armored). But, I do not think that IP was the primary driver in this deal. Could they have found a better acquisition with an eye towards improving their patent position? Perhaps, but that is not really what this piece is about. BTW – if you really want to read up on who’s suing who over what, found this great blog called Foss Patents – http://fosspatents.blogspot.com/.
My opinion is that in order for Google to really drive success with Android on tablets (the Kindle Fire aside – it runs a version of Android that Amazon maintains from the Open Source codebase), they will have to vertically integrate on MMI devices. I do not think that there will be a spread of Android tablets coming from the OEMs that can successfully compete with the iPad, because they have one critical stumbling block – fragmentation of Android. Each OEM feels that they must have value-adds to compete on the store shelf successfully – and those value-adds drive differences in hardware and software on each device that makes everyone’s implementation of Android somewhat different. If the OEMs did not each add features and functions that differentiated their tablet from others, then it would be a commodity market driven solely by cost (and perhaps strength of brand/brand loyalty to a much lesser extent).
Where fragmentation is a killer is in the app space – developers need to test on (and perhaps do special development for) every tablet they want to support. If they code and test on only one vendor’s tablet, then they run the very real risk of their app being feature crippled or even crashing on other tablets in the market. I have talked to hundreds of developers and they (virtually) all have to deal with this. Does not matter if the developer is a big media brand with a team of mobile developers or one guy coding in his basement, the developer has to make ROI decisions regarding every Android tablet that their app will run on, because each tablet dictates coding and testing resources. So, some developers pick tablets from the big brands and cross their fingers while others take a wait and see attitude and let the market tell them which devices to support.
In addition, we have all seen Android behave differently on different tablets – video is dropping frames on one and scrolling is a problem on another, etc. Another byproduct of fragmentation of Android due to differences in the underlying hardware.
Well, on iOS this is not an issue – you write an app for an iPad and it runs, period, and iOS behaves/performs the same on every iPad (of the same version, of course). I am not a big iOS coding guy, so it would not surprise me to learn that a software update occasionally breaks an app, but an iPad is an iPad is an iPad as far as apps are concerned. Makes a developer’s decision easier from a supportability and cost perspective.
And, of course, there are the design and fit-and-finish issues that Apple nails every time and which several of the OEMs have struggled with more than once in the rush to get to market.
So, if Google wants to see a killer Android tablet in the market that performs well across the board, is rock solid on apps and looks amazing, then I believe that they have to control both the hardware and the OS , which, in my opinion, points towards a vertical integration on MMI hardware. In the past, they have picked tablet partners to be the “chosen” provider of the first device that is supposedly well integrated with a new Android release, but none of those devices have been very successful in the market for a number of reasons. They need to control the entire stack.
If Google does vertically integrate with an MMI tablet, then they are in a position to field a device that competes well head-to-head with the iPad in the market - they control the entire stack and it would be entirely up to them to build the killer Android device. Unfortunately, going this route creates an unavoidable problem with all of their OEM partners building tablets, because this Google/MMI tablet would be “the” Android tablet and the OEMs become 2nd class Android citizens who are still struggling with what I think is an intractable fragmentation problem. If the MMI device becomes the reference design to “unfragment” Android, then any OEM that adheres to the reference becomes a commodity product. It is an interesting dilemma...
MMI has handsets and set top boxes as well - both additional targets for Android vertical integration.
If Google does go the vertical integration route with MMI on tablets, then what can the OEMs do? Migrate to Windows8? Ask HP to fire webOS back up? Go to Samsung and partner to license Bada? I think that answering each of these requires its own blog entry, as this one is running long already.