Google: Hello Moto

Business user holding mobile phone

As a company, Google is not afraid of making big bets. So the search company's purchase of Motorola Mobility is not out of character.

But the $12.5 billion deal does show how the sands are shifting, in communications technology. Motorola Mobility is the consumer handsets to tablets business split out of Motorola, the company credited with, among other milestones, inventing the walkie-talkie.

More recently, Motorola had lost money, and in January of this year it spun out its phone business, and became Motorola Solutions. Motorola Solutions then sold its networking hardware division - to Nokia Siemens Networks - and now focuses on Government and public safety equipment, such as TETRA, and two-way radios.

The business Google has bought has its own landmarks, from the StarTac to the RAZR (and even an early attempt, with Apple, to put iTunes into a phone). But more recently Motorola has been squarely in the Android camp, and it is that which provides many of the synergies between Google and its newly-bought business.

Much of the value, to Google at least, lies in Motorola's patent portfolio. According to analysis by Frost & Sullivan, the $12.5 billion deal brought in 24,500 patents and patent applications, exactly the same price as Novell achieved, per patent, in its sale at the end of last year. "Google bought a patent portfolio and got a mobile phone business thrown in for free," the analysts said.

That may well be the case. Although some of Motorola's patents cover pure hardware and industrial design, many more cover software and firmware. Even basic components such as a mobile phone's radio is now software, with multiple radio systems programmed in to silicon.

Based on Motorola's recent form in the handset market, it seems unlikely that Google bought the company for its industrial design prowess alone. It is the firmware and software that makes a set of chips into a working smartphone that Google will have been interested in, and it is that expertise that is now more readily accessible to Android.

This will benefit Google, and a tighter link to Android may well help Motorola make better phones.

Questions have been raised, though, about the outlook for the Android system as a whole. Mobile industry watchers will recall how phone maker after phone maker deserted Symbian, leading to the company's effective takeover by Nokia, and eventually Nokia's decision to switch its smartphones to Microsoft's OS. Google will need to take care to prevent Android suffering a similar fate.

For businesses, though, a tighter tie between Google and a phone maker might be no bad thing. Corporate users like stability; that is why BlackBerry phones remain popular. Tech enthusiasts and developers may like Android's more open nature, but for CIOs, much of what is good about Android is also slightly scary.

Business users are not deterred from buying BlackBerry or iPhone handsets because the OS is not open, and the reverse might even be true. And if Google can pool its business insights with Motorola's handset know-how, together they might even develop a robust, but flexible, business phone.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT PRO.

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