Why did Google pay for Motorola to be behind a 'firewall'?

Google has all but acquired Motorola Mobility. Okay, so now what? Good question.

Google headquarters

Google has all but acquired Motorola Mobility, having won Department of Justice and European Commission approval. Okay, so now what? Good question.

Google has, continually and vociferously, said that the acquisition of the Motorola division that makes cell phones and set-top TV boxes was not intended as a way for Google to make its own Android phones. In a conference call with investors and analysts the day of the acquisition announcement, Google CEO Larry Page emphasized that “many hardware partners have contributed to Android’s success,” and that Google “look(s) forward to dealing with all of them on an equal basis.” Android head Andy Rubin even said that Motorola would have to bid like any other manufacturer to work with Google on any upcoming Nexus phones, the models that Google partners with a hardware firm to load with short-term exclusives on new Android releases.

Backing up that image of “Motorola has their shed, and I have mine,” Rubin said at the Mobile World Congress event happening this week in Spain that Google had “literally built a firewall” between Android headquarters and Motorola. Quite the interesting construction project, it must be, to create heat-resistant walls along halfway curve between Mountain View, Calif. and Motorola Mobility’s Libertyview, Ill. headquarters. Regardless, you get the point: Rubin says he has no control, he had no idea even what phones Motorola is working on, and even if he wanted to, he couldn’t really leverage Motorola to conquer the Android ecosystem. Even though Google is installing one of their executives as Motorola Mobility’s next CEO, Rubin maintains that Motorola is an independent entity, and that the Android system remains an open-source operating system, however many painful bumps and conflicts it creates.

So, patents, right? Google must have bought Motorola for its key mobile and communications patents, as part of the ongoing arms race that all major tech firms must engage in. Well, you’d be surprised how tricky those patent weapons are to fire. Motorola owns a patent relating to “push”-based information, such as offered by mobile devices that sync email and calendars, and forced Apple to turn off push syncing in Germany. But a German court just overturned that ruling, and raised the “antitrust” flag in its ruling. Microsoft, too, has complained about Motorola’s unfair licensing restrictions. It’s a tricky thing, apparently, having a store of essential patents that could be used against almost any device, but only being able to use them when it doesn’t look mean.

That somewhat matches up with what Google has said publicly about Motorola’s patents. David Drummond, chief legal officer and senior vice president at Google, answered a question about patents during that first-take conference call that Google intends to “protect the Android ecosystem,” and that “having that kind of patent portfolio is a good thing.” Page reiterated that point: “I’m really excited about protecting and supporting the Android ecosystem. We believe Motorola Mobility has a tremendous opportunity for growth. I think this is a unique opportunity.”

So unique that it’s hard for anybody, except maybe someone serving on the boards of Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Motorola all at once, to see how spending $12.5 billion on a company that could, potentially, maybe, hopefully defend an open-source project against patent infringement isn’t a tiny bit crazy. But maybe crazy in a good way. We shall see.

Top photo and thumb image by Flickr user brionv.

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