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How does the Google-Motorola deal change mobility?

Jury is way out on the deal, with patents, Android, Microsoft caught in blender of issues

By , Network World
August 22, 2011 06:07 AM ET

Network World - What does Google's decision to buy Motorola Mobility mean for the future of mobility?

Last week's mega-mobility-deal throws into relief a range of interrelated issues facing Google, its advertising-based business model, and the role and future of the Android mobile operating system. This mélange feature six key items:

It's all about the patents.

In this line of reasoning, Google saw its Android mobile operating system under mounting pressure from patent infringement actions by Apple and Microsoft (and separately by Oracle over Java licensing), and bought Motorola for its 24,500 patents and patent applications as a defensive, some say "desperate," counter-move.

"Google tried to present its $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola as an opportunity to 'supercharge the Android ecosystem,' but it's clear that the deal was equally prompted out of desire to protect Android from further patent lawsuits using Motorola's strong patent portfolio," writes Nilay Patel, as ThisIsMyNext.com

Once it takes ownership of Motorola, Google becomes directly involved in two high-profile patent disputes with Apple and with Microsoft. It's already a direct party in Oracle's suit over licensing its Java code for Android.

Patel, echoing a widely held view, says the Motorola patents give Google leverage over its rivals: they'll think twice about starting or continuing Android suits because they open themselves to countersuits based on the Motorola patents, or they can be induced to resolve disputes with a mutually beneficial cross-licensing deal.

"Patents are used often in a 'horse-trading' scenario, in which firms grant one another the rights to license each other's technology," says Craig Cartier, analyst with Frost & Sullivan. "Google's pre-Motorola patent weakness puts them at a disadvantage in these scenarios."

It's not about the patents.

"Android still has patent issues," says Bill Morelli, analyst with IMS Research's wireless group. "The acquisition will not provide much, if any substantive relief from the existing patent lawsuits against both Motorola and Google. In addition, many are seeing this move as an admission by Google of just how weak the Android patent position is."

The number of Motorola patents don't speak to their importance or to their value. Florian Mueller, who describes himself as a "intellectual property activist-turned-analyst" and mobile patent consultant (though not an attorney), argues that Motorola's patent portfolio is actually quite weak. So far, he notes, it hasn't stopped Apple or Microsoft from filing infringement actions.

"Both disputes are at a fairly advanced stage," Mueller say. "For example, the ITC [U.S. International Trade Commission] hearing on Microsoft's initial complaint against Motorola will begin in a week from today. At this stage, Motorola has certainly fired its best shots, and those aren't really impressive.

[See: "Are Motorola's patents enough to protect Android?"]

Really, it's all about greater control over Android

"Today, the [Android] platform is "open" but chaotic — because phone-makers get the software for free and can do whatever they want with it, Android is available on some good phones as well as lots and lots of cheap, bad ones," writes Farhad Majoo in "Android Isn't Free: How Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility will make it more like Apple" for Slate. "In the aftermath of this deal, Google will seek to exert greater influence over hardware companies. Eventually, the deal will help reduce the number of new Android devices that are released every year, and the few that are released will be of generally higher quality — and sell for higher prices — than what we see in the Android device market today."

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