What will Google do with Motorola?

Now that Google's acquisition of Motorola is a sealed deal, CNET is looking at the options for Google's new hardware business.

All eyes will be on Google as it takes a sudden plunge into the hardware business, courtesy of Motorola.

The US$12.5 billion deal, which closed this week, netted Google a healthy stockpile of patents for legal defence and offence, along with a historic technology brand and a multibillion-dollar handset and TV set-top box business.

It's pretty obvious what Google will do with the patents, given the increasingly litigious environment in which the technology world finds itself. Motorola's last few years of losses also bring a clear tax benefit to Google in the near term. But what is less clear is just how the company will proceed with the actual business of Motorola.

"There are so many different things they can do, and I don't think Google quite knows yet," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner.

Google and Motorola declined to make an executive available to comment on their plans.

That's where CNET comes in; the following are some of the options available to Google, as well as the likelihood and implications of each option.

An independent Motorola

This is a certainty for now, but it could fade as time goes on and plans change. For now, expect Google to keep Motorola running as an independent business. The company wants to tread lightly and stick to its promise of staying neutral. The best way to do this is to run the company at arm's length.

Not that Google and CEO Larry Page don't want to leave their mark on the newly bought company. Page installed "long-time Googler" Dennis Woodside as its new chief executive, as well as several executives from an array of different companies, including Amazon and Visa.

These executives, including Woodside and fellow former Googler and marketing lead Gary Briggs, will get Motorola email addresses, not Google ones, so the brand will remain alive from top to bottom.

Analysts, however, warn that there is little business advantage to running Motorola independently. Google can't give Motorola early access to Android, since it would anger its handset partners, but the business by itself isn't so great.

The company was losing money before it was scooped up, having posted a wider first-quarter loss in its last report as an independent company. That's despite a successful flagship phone with US carrier Verizon Wireless — the Droid Razr. If left alone, it's tough to see the company doing much better, given its already prominent position at Verizon.

Showcase for Android

Google could also use Motorola as a way to ensure that there is a healthy supply of stock Android experience devices in the market.

Android is getting fragmented, with every handset maker opting to customise their phones with skins or other unique features, all in an effort to stand out in the market. It's highly likely that Google could go this route.

"[Motorola] gives them the vehicle to deliver the Android experience that they see fit," Gartenberg said, adding that Motorola could be used as a showcase for stock Android software without trying to dominate the market.

Still, that's a tough line for Google to walk, and the other handset vendors will likely scrutinise how these products come to market.

The timing of when Android will be made available to everyone will be the key. Google is reportedly planning to grant early access to the latest releases of its platform to multiple vendor partners, creating multiple Nexus devices at once. That would do a lot to assuage industry concerns.

Vertical integration

Google could take it a step farther, working with Motorola directly to build its own flagship Android phone with the latest release. The company could take the Apple route, creating a full end-to-end product with Google hardware and software.

Google could finally have a line of product over which it has complete control. Previously, it had to rely on the designs and manufacturing chops of its vendor partners. It now has that expertise in-house with Motorola.

This is an unlikely scenario, as it would put other Android device makers directly in competition with an in-house phone.

"If they become a competitor, the other guys will walk," said Matthew Thornton, an analyst at Avian Securities. "They will flee very quickly."

Despite Android's dominance now, it isn't the only game in town. Windows Phone flopped early for most of the vendors, but that's largely because they were focused on Android. Thornton said that Windows Phone could thrive, if a company like Samsung put its full weight behind the operating system.

A slightly more plausible vertical-integration scenario would be with Motorola's set-top business. The little-mentioned business was actually the more consistently performing unit of the two. The company actually unveiled a new interface that makes it better to search for TV programs without searching. It's not a great leap to see Google TV and the set-top box business getting integrated.

Still, that could also face its own obstacles, since the cable and telecommunications companies purchase the boxes and it's unclear whether they want Google's capabilities in those boxes, rather than their own services.

Shed the business

Google could also throw its hands up and just get rid of the business. There's a 50/50 chance that this could happen.

"It's a silly place to be in," Thorton said. "You know [other Android makers are] nervous, despite what [Google tells] them."

The best way to ease their concern: sell the business and keep the patents.

Thornton said he wouldn't be surprised if the company is already entertaining discussions with potential acquirers.

Despite Motorola's struggles to get back atop the smartphone perch, the business still has value. Its brand would be a boon to an Asian vendor looking to break into the US market in a big way. In particular, the company has strong ties to Verizon, which continues to back it with major marketing support.

The set-top box business could be sold in a separate deal to another set-top box maker or venture capital fund. That's highly likely, despite the potential of a Google TV-Motorola box combination.

Google could take its time with a sale, though. Motorola's past years of losses mean that Google can apply those net operating losses to its own profits for a tax gain. The company would likely prefer to use that tax benefit before moving forward with any deal.

There has been a growing camp of believers who feel that Google should — and will — sell the business.

"Ultimately, I don't think Google wants to go the hardware route," Thornton said.


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grumpi posted a comment   

What Google needs to do with Motorola:

1. Improve reliability of the handsets, including the inexplicable freezes.
2. Get rid of Motoblur and showcase the stock Android experience.
3. Unofficially allow Motorola devices to be easily rooted so that custom ROMS can be installed. Googorola could even charge extra for a "Power User's Warranty" which covers devices with certain custom ROMS.

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