Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 11:45 am.

Motorola Will Be Google’s Most Interesting Project Yet

Rudy Krolopp

Motorola designer Rudy Krolopp with DynaTAC cellphone prototypes, 1983

Google’s $12+ billion Motorola deal is closed, and Google veteran Dennis Woodside is taking over as Motorola CEO. Now the fun begins. For a variety of reasons, this has the potential to be Google’s most interesting project yet.

  • This is Google’s first and biggest opportunity to make cool, real, physical things that could change the way people live. That sounds annoyingly optimistic, but it’s true. It is fun to laugh a little at Google’s glasses project, self-driving cars, or whatever. But try telling me with a straight face that your iPhone hasn’t changed your life. Many very smart, creative people work at Google, and I’d love to see them try some interesting things and really go for it in a way that Motorola would never have done before.
  • This sort of stuff is not in Google’s comfort zone. Google has been excellent at building and acquiring web-based software, running it at scale, and brokering the sale of keyword-based advertising. Google has done some hardware stuff for a long time, such as its homegrown servers and its Google Search Appliance. But Google has no background in creating, marketing, or supporting consumer hardware for millions of people at a time. This means Google could either be really bad at it, or it could become really good at it. It helps that Motorola is a sort-of-functioning company today, but not successful enough that anything is sacred.
  • Google has long maintained that Motorola will be kept at arm’s length, that it won’t be favored over other Android partners, that it will be separate from Google, etc. Some of that may be true, but my hunch is that a lot of that was just posturing to get the deal approved. Google has a huge opportunity to do fascinating, important work with Motorola, and even create a real business around Android-powered mobile devices. I expect Google and Motorola will eventually become a lot closer.
  • This could present some soul-searching opportunities for Google, during which it will have to decide whether to do things that are better for its Android partners or better for Google. In some cases, what’s better for Google — and worse for the Android partners — may also be better for society. In some cases, worse. This highlights the weird position that Google is in with Android. On one hand, it has built something huge that it doesn’t really control. If anything, its lack of control is what allowed it to become so huge, so fast, in the first place. On the other hand, Android-the-product probably needs more of Google’s control to improve. And Android-the-business definitely does.
  • One opportunity would be to formally split Android devices into three tracks: Plain-old-Android, do what you want with it; the Nexus program (significant Google control, available to select partners); and a third line (complete Google control, exclusive to Motorola, ideally the highest-quality line). We’ll see if that happens — and if it does, whether it works. Everyone has different motivations for Android: Google, phone manufacturers, carriers, and consumers. They might never harmonize.
  • Motorola Mobility isn’t just a cellphone company. It also owns a TV set-top box and infrastructure division. This could be helpful in getting Google deeper into the television industry, where the largest chunk of big-brand ad dollars are still spent. But Motorola’s set-top box customers — the world’s cable and telco giants — are probably some of the most Google-phobic companies around. Watching Google’s courtship here — or perhaps its decision to flip this business altogether — will be especially interesting.
  • Lastly, Motorola is huge, which makes this interesting for totally different reasons. Google has had a lot of experience — and success — taking small and mid-sized companies and making them part of the Google story. In some cases, like YouTube, they’re sort-of left alone. In other cases, like AdMob, they’re built into Google and then Google is built around it. But this is a totally new experiment that incorporates moving large, unfamiliar objects at scale like nothing Google has done before. It could be a dramatic failure or a huge success. (Or Google could just decide to piece things apart and sell them!) And that’s unlike almost everything else Google does, which either starts out small and fizzles, or gradually grows bigger — Gmail, Chrome, etc. The fact that it’s already so big makes it special. And one of the first moves to watch will be to see how big Google keeps it.

Also: Will Android Ever Beat Google’s Search Market Share?