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Does Google-Motorola Deal Make Android Weaker?

Google just spent $12.5 billion to fortify its defenses against Apple and Microsoft in the patent wars, and it got a smartphone maker in the deal. That’s the gist of this blockbuster acquisition. But despite supportive comments to the contrary by its other Android partners, Google’s bid for Motorola looks more anti-competitive on the surface than any legal threat. Did Android just get weaker or stronger?

If you look at the prepared statements released by Motorola’s mobile enemies, all of them echo the same sentiment. In fact, Samsung’s and HTC’s comments are practically identical. See if you can guess who said what.

"We welcome today’s news, which demonstrates Google’s deep commitment to defending Android, its partners, and the ecosystem.”

“We welcome the news of today’s acquisition, which demonstrates that Google is deeply committed to defending Android, its partners, and the entire ecosystem.”

The first quote comes from Samsung and the second from HTC, but it doesn’t really matter. Both companies seem happy that they now have the full might of Google in their corner as they attempt to overcome legal obstacles. HTC was on the losing end of a July 15th ruling by the ITC that said the company had infringed on two of Apple’s patents.

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab sales were blocked in Europe as a result of a separate preliminary injunction granted to Apple. Meanwhile, Microsoft reaps licensing fees for Android phone sales from multiple companies. Google stepping in this forcefully is reassuring on one level, but the Motorola deal also threatens the very ecosystem it was designed to protect.

Whether you’re HTC, LG, or Samsung, one of your main rivals is now owned by the same company whose software you use in your devices. Any way you slice it, that’s a conflict of interest. In a blog post announcing the deal, Google CEO Larry Page insisted that Motorola will remain a separate business, but it would be silly for Google not to leverage its new prize to battle Apple. Where does that leave everyone else? Saying nice things about Googorola publicly while second-guessing its long-term commitment to Android.

HTC, LG, and Samsung, all already make Windows Phone 7 devices, and Google’s getting in bed with Motorola could case these manufacturers to put more eggs in the Microsoft basket instead of pushing the Android envelope. It’s also been rumored that Samsung has expressed interest in licensing webOS, though that’s never been confirmed. Just last week, Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha said he was open to using Windows Phone, a move the Google deal likely eliminates as a possibility. Now it seems Google’s other partners will be more open than ever to pursuing alternatives to the “open OS.”

One of the reasons iOS devices continue to set the standard in terms of user experience is because Apple controls both the hardware and software. And on the surface having Motorola in its stable could give Google the same type of control. But that’s only if Google knows how to integrate well with a hardware company. Through deep collaboration with Google, the Motorola Xoom tablet was supposed to deliver a great pure Android experience, but its buggy performance and somewhat confusing interface turned buyers off.  Buying Motorola also does nothing to increase the number of tablet apps in the Android Market.

On the phone front, Motorola has fallen behind the competition partly because of its lackluster Motoblur interface and partly because it simply hasn’t had the scale to compete on the global stage. Now the assumption is that Motorola will drop its homegrown UI in favor of stock Android, which would be welcome. However, while having the backing and resources of Google should accelerate Motorola’s time to market for devices (where is the Droid Bionic, anyway?), Google insists that its Nexus flagship phone program will continue to involve a bidding process that doesn’t favor specific vendors.

Where I see the most synergy with this acquisition is an area not a lot of people are taking about: the living room. As one of the leading set-top box makers, Motorola could help transform home entertainment by adopting Google TV (which is built on Android) as its platform of choice. The software inside cable boxes is so clunky that I often turn on my Roku to rent the same movies I could order on demand from Cablevision. It’s about time someone shook up this space.

The bottom line is that the only way Google can truly “supercharge the entire Android ecosystem” is if the company goes back on its word and doesn’t treat Motorola as a separate business. And that won’t sit well with the other companies that helped catapult Android to its market-leading position. Google buying Motorola could help cool the patent wars, but only at the risk of making the OS more vulnerable to defections.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.