SAN JOSE, Calif. – Google's bid for Motorola may save the Android ecosystem from legal threats, but it also will raise new tensions among smartphone, tablet and TV makers. The Internet search giant also must figure out how to manage handset and set-top businesses at arm's length.
Google is saying all the right things: It will make no changes in how it manages access to Android, and it vows to run Motorola as a separate company. But with both efforts, the devil is in the details.
In a conference call announcing the acquisition plan, Google's top Android executive gave a look into his group's evolving development process.
"We select around Christmas time each year a manufacturer to work closely with to release a device [and] that includes [their] semiconductor and key component [suppliers]," said Andy Rubin, Google's senior vice president of mobile. "Teams huddle together in one building for nine to 12 months and at or right before the next holiday season, the device pops out," he said.
"We don’t expect that to change at all [after the Motorola acquisition]," Rubin said. All Android partners "will be part of that bidding process" presumably to be chosen for a collaboration effort "and that lead development process and Android remains open to other partners," he added.
But when the company used that process to carefully stage access to its Honeycomb version of Android for tablets, Google left many OEMs feeling left in the lurch.
Google worked with Motorola and key chip suppliers on its Xoom, the first Honeycomb tablet. It then worked with a handful of other top tier OEMs for tablets that followed a few months later. Other OEMs are still waiting for the release of Ice Cream Sandwich, the first open source release of Android that will include the Honeycomb code.
In addition, mobile systems makers in Taiwan who make as much as 90 percent of the world's notebook PCs, said Google provides virtually no local support for their efforts. By contrast, Microsoft has a long tradition of working closely with Taiwanese companies such as Compal, Foxconn, Inventec and Quanta.
Google provided quotes from top execs at HTC, LG Electronics, Samsung and Sony-Ericsson saying they support the Motorola deal as a way to protect the Android ecosystem. However, it appeared from the Google conference call that those companies were only very recently briefed on the plan.
"I spoke yesterday to I think it was the top five Android licensees and they all showed enthusiastic support for the deal," said Rubin.
Google chief executive Larry Page suggested he participated in the calls.
"Although they provided canned quote from key partners, I am sure that hardware OEMs will be very nervous now about whether Google is playing the Android field evenly," said an executive at one Taiwan notebook maker who asked not to be named.
Google will not want to favor any one system maker. In a Google I/O press conference earlier this year, Rubin was clearly at pains to show he wants to give every major player a chance to be involved in lead projects. But the Motorola deal will increase the complexity of being even handed—and being perceived as fair.
At the end of the day, this was a challenge Google didn't need. It is hard enough herding all the Android cats without owning one of them.