Technology

What Google wants from Motorola

Motorola Atrix in dock
Image caption Google's purchase of Motorola gives it control of both hardware and software

Google's planned purchase of Motorola's mobile phone division bolsters its position in two key ways.

Owning a handset manufacturer opens the way for Google to follow Apple's profitable lead in controlling the software, hardware and content on its devices.

It also gives the search giant access to a range of technology patents which it can use to defend against legal action by its industry rivals.

Many of those who follow this sector closely believe that the deal is more about the latter than the former - buying up a portfolio of patents means extra ammunition in the spiralling arms race of suit and counter suit.

Typically, companies that own lots of inventions can do one of three things with them - licence them for other firms to use in return for money, strike reciprocal deals where each firm gets access to the other's patented technology, or sue them.

The current case of Apple injuncting sales of the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Tab in Europe illustrates the potential consequences of the third option.

It is also testament to how high the stakes have become in the intellectual property game, and how gaining extra leverage can be vital to a business' success, and ultimately survival.

Motorola holds in the region of 17,000 mobile patents with thousands more pending.

However, patents blogger Florian Mueller warned that may not offer the protection that Google hopes.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionBBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones says the deal will be "a wake-up call to the mobile phone industry"

"Apple and Microsoft were not deterred by Motorola's portfolio from bringing litigation," he told BBC News.

In 2010, Apple sued Motorola over its Xoom tablet, while Microsoft pursued the company over aspects of its smartphone interface .

An Apple and Microsoft coalition recently foiled Google in buying patents belonging to the defunct Canadian telecoms firm Nortel.

As it scooped-up Motorola, Google declared that it is not only only seeking to defend itself and its newly announced subsidiary. It wants to extend the umbrella of protection over all Android hardware manufacturers.

Mr Mueller said that striking 'leave Android alone' reciprocal licensing deals with Apple, Microsoft and others was fine when they involved one party on either side. Brokering agreements that would protect every manufacturer making Android devices would be much harder, he predicted.

Mobile mission

Google's generous $12.5bn (£7.7bn) bid for Motorola Mobility is not just about patents. It also gives it a substantial foothold in the mobile hardware business.

Such a vertical structure has worked well for Apple, which has raked in cash from sales of its iPhones and iPads as well as applications and subscriptions sold through its iOS software.

Although Android is an open source system and available to anyone who seeks to build a device around it, Google has exercised a degree of brand control - withholding access to its official Application Market from those manufacturers who do not meet certain technical standards.

Further leveraging that close hardware/software connection is doubtless an attractive option for Google.

Microsoft saw similar opportunities earlier in the year. While it did not go as far as buying Nokia, it struck a deal that would make Windows Phone the sole smartphone platform on the Finnish handsets.

Against the background of such tie-ups, Motorola was ripe for takeover, according to Stuart Miles, founder of Pocket-lint.com.

The company was "low hanging fruit", he said.

"Motorola is an American company, it's been down in the dumps, but it is coming back. It is doing alright. That horrible phrase - the 'synergies' were probably correct."

Mr Miles cautioned that if Motorola was seen to get too much preferential treatment - such as early access to new versions of Android, it might alienate the broader community of hardware manufacturers.

For the moment, the response from other firms, including Samsung and HTC has been positive - most have praised the promised protection of Android from outside forces.

However, their statements are short on detail, and hardly warm in tone. The similarity of their wording looks more like a page of signed confessions than genuine glad tidings.

Analysts have speculated that even the faux positive mood may not last last if Motorola is seen to be too heavily favoured.

"It is highly likely that Motorola will become the new flag bearer for the latest and greatest in both hardware and software," said Ernest Doku of uSwitch.com.

That concern was echoed by Ovum's Nick Dillon, who warned that, rather than protecting Android, the Motorola deal could tear it apart.

"This would place other vendors at a disadvantage and may lead them to question their commitment to the platform, potentially pushing some towards other platforms," he said.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites