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Google buying Motorola Mobility should build a better Android

A MotorolMobility Xoom tablet. Google is buying cellphone maker MotorolMobility for $12.5 billicash whis by far company's biggest acquisitidate.

A Motorola Mobility Xoom tablet. Google is buying cellphone maker Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion in cash in what is by far the company's biggest acquisition to date. | AP file

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Updated: October 19, 2011 3:35AM

Google’s purchase of Motorola’s mobile businesses underscores two 21st-century contradictions: today, patents are weapons, not shields ... and when you try to create an free technology, the natural momentum of that door is to swing further closed rather than wider open.

The immediate benefit to Google of this $12.5 billion acquisition is obvious.

Motorola makes some nice hardware but what they’re really bringing to this deal is a huge patent library. Every major tech company is in the same position today that every nation was in back in the 1930s, when it became obvious that a second world war was inevitable. There will be no non-combatants in the ongoing and expanding patent wars, and where intellectual property is concerned, every company needs to switch from building tractors to building tanks.

Google’s lack of patent protection had left the company and its Android licensees increasingly vulnerable to suits from everybody - from patent trolls hot for a lucrative settlement to companies like Apple who in this new environment have been moving more aggressively to defend their turf.

Microsoft and Apple invited Google in on the purchase of a massive library of mobile and communications-related patents. Buying into that library would have been fine for defense but ineffective for offense against their chief competitors. Hence, owning a separate library potentially seems like a shrewd strategic move.

(Though Google’s reaction after that deal closing without them - Google’s attorney-in-chief David Drummond whined on an official blog about how Microsoft and Apple were obviously ganging up on them - remains thrillingly idiotic.)

But there’s more to this deal than just patents. Google, by buying Motorola’s hardware arm, can now possibly turn Android into an earner for the company. That’s become important, as intellectual-property problems have raised the possibility of the sort of judgment that would force Google to pay the so-called Evil Twins or another company a fee for every Android device that ships.

On top of that, it’s become clear that the idea of a free, open operating system that Google just gives away and works great was just an idealized fantasy. Over the past few years, Google has made subtle and consistent moves to exert more control over Android . . . specifically, the end-user experience. They’re attempting to control how apps are deployed and attempting to control access to APIs. Google certainly isn’t doing it to the extent that Apple does (a typical comminqué between Apple and their developer community ends with a Vader-esque “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further”) but with each subtle move, the claim of Android as an open OS seems less like a defining philosophy and more like a marketing tagline in a press conference where no follow-up questions are going to be allowed.

Google has stated that Android will remain . . . well, let’s just start putting air-quotes around the word “open.” But they now own one of the most recognized brands in mobile devices and the one that was most committed to Android.

This could have repercussions in Motortola’s cable-box business, but I doubt it. Establishing Google TV as either a basic feature of Motorola DVRs or as an add-on service is a natural progression, yes, but networks and cable companies have been cool at best and obstructive at worst ever since Google first announced their internet TV software. Overall, they seem to feel that the system lets Google get a taste of the rich, buttery frosting of TV advertising revenue. They aren’t about to allow any other company to lick those beaters . . . certainly not the company whose advertising system is its most powerful and lucrative asset.

What about the phones?

This will obviously alter the balance of power in mobile handset space, though. I see no chance that Google will erect a brick wall between these two companies and allow Motorola’s current management to continue to operate independently. Owning a hardware maker is far too important a move. Google can’t tell HTC or Samsung how to make an Android phone or tablet, and that’s been a large part of Android’s problem.

Google now has the power to do much more than suggest how an Android device should look, feel, and work. They can actually do damage to manufacturers who refuse to come on board by competing directly.

I can only see this as a good thing for the platform and especially for consumers. When I get a new Android phone for testing, the first few days are usually a soul-dredging experience. These handset makers and mobile carriers act like (if you’ll pardon the vulgarity) handset makers and mobile carriers. They cover the Android UI with something different, usually just to differentiate their phones from other Android licensees rather than because they want improve the user experience.

They load the phone up with page after page after page of useless demo apps and co-branding opportunities. Often, the dealmaking trumps the user’s needs to the extreme that a subscription-required NASCAR app is right there when you wake the phone, but the web browser is buried somewhere on page three. And a clean, efficient built-in app like Camera is replaced with something that’s slightly less useful at capturing an image than painting the phone’s screen with silver nitrate and dropping it inside a Quaker Oats box with a pinhole punched through it.

My reference Android hardware is the Nexus, designed by Google. It gets its OS updates right from the factory floor and it represents Android as Google intended it. This is a phone that I can recommend to people . . . even to people who ask me about the next iPhone. It’s clean, it’s quick, and it’s packed with useful features that are easy to find and operate.

Which leaves one or two salient questions. Will Samsung and HTC be happy to be competing directly with Google? Oh, let’s hope not. Let’s hope that they’re so consumed with rage that they’re inspired to make handsets that are ten times better.

This is an important period for Android. It’s become the number one mobile OS on the planet, but solely because Apple, as one company contracting with one manufacturer, can’t possibly keep up with the demand for the phones they’ve designed and aren’t interested in producing a wide enough range of hardware to suit every whim. So Google has achieved market dominance more or less for free.

The risk, however, is to lose the value of the brand.

People who own iPhones almost never switch to anything else. People who own Android phones by and large were looking for any phone with these features available from this carrier at this price. They’re no more aware of the technology that powers it, nor do they feel any inclinations to specifically go back for more of the same after they accidentally run their phone through the laundry, than I am of the logo on my toaster oven.

The only way to firmly define Google as a top-tier maker of a mobile OS, as opposed to just another company that cranks out toasters, is to take control over Android and enforce the sort of vision which allows the platform to move forward. Sometimes, you can’t let a market keep building faster and faster horses. You have to start selling cars.

Which leads us to one last contradictory truism: Freedom is such an important concept that it should be left in as few hands as possible.

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