Monday, August 15, 2011

Google buys Motorola Mobility: More questions than answers?

This morning opened with a bang, when Google announced that it had made a friendly offer to acquire Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. The offer caught a lot of people in the industry flat-footed (although not Ben Bajarin, who wrote an amazingly prescient post last week on why Google should buy Motorola Mobility.)

$12.5 billion is a 63% premium over the price that Motorola Mobility's stock closed at last Friday, so why would Google pay so much to purchase the company? The one thing that everyone agrees upon is that Google wanted Motorola's patents, a pool nearly four times larger than the one that the company bid on from Nortel. The question is how valuable those patents will be in protecting Google's Android licensees from patent challenges by Microsoft, Apple and others. Microsoft was suing Motorola Mobility for patent infringement before today's announcement, so the Motorola patent library might not provide all the protection that Google needs. In addition, acquiring Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion to get the patents prompts the question, in hindsight, whether Google would have been better off staying in the Nortel bidding and perhaps winning exclusive ownership of the patents for $5 or $6 billion. It also begs the question as to why Google didn't simply buy Motorola's patents, not the entire company; the consensus opinion is that Motorola's management refused to sell the patents by themselves.

Google got most of its top hardware partners to sign onto a press release endorsing the acquisition, but you have to wonder what the leaders of companies such as HTC, Samsung and LG Electronics are really thinking. In one move, Google went from being a supplier of perhaps their most critical smartphone technology to one of their biggest competitors. As Henry Blodget points out, hardware is a low-margin, semi-commodity business (for everyone except Apple). It's radically different from the software business, and the Motorola acquisition will increase Google's headcount by 60% overnight.

Google has declared that it will run Motorola Mobility as a separate business, and won't change the way that it runs its Android business. That's what Motorola's hardware partners (and possibly regulators) want to hear, but it creates a dilemma for Google. If the company wants to maximize the value of Motorola, it has to much more tightly integrate Android and Motorola, enabling Motorola to get new features and new versions of Android before other licensees. That, however, would violate its pledge to run the two businesses independently. The second option is to run Motorola so that it doesn't compete with other licensees, but that would cause the company to lose all its good developers, designers and hardware engineers. No one wants to work for a crippled company. The third option is that Google could sell off Motorola's hardware businesses, but to whom? The fate of Motorola's hardware businesses will be up in the air until the acquisition is completed, if not substantially after that.

In addition, despite some analysts' opinions that antitrust regulators won't stop the acquisition, there's substantial reason to doubt that the acquisition will occur without significant concessions by Google. There are so many antitrust investigations of Google underway, from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to U.S. State investigations, to European Union investigations, that this acquisition can't help but be looked at in the context of Google's overall behavior. At the very least, Google will have to make its "hands-off" approach to running Motorola Mobility a guarantee, and will have to agree to make Android and related products available to all licensees on an equal, non-discriminatory basis. Regulatory agencies may also use approval of this acquisition as a lever to get Google to agree to restrictions on how it runs its search engine, how it integrates its products, and how its services work on mobile platforms.

One final note: Most reports have noted only in passing that, in addition to mobile phones and patents, Google is also getting Motorola's set-top box business. In fact, depending on who's doing the measurement, Motorola is either the world's #1 or #2 vendor of set-top boxes. Historically, customers such as cable and IPTV operators have had enormous control over the design of the set-top boxes they buy, so Google can't arbitrarily add Google TV or the Google search engine to all of its devices. However, this acquisition gets Google's foot in the door with established multichannel video providers in a very big way. At the very least, we're likely to see the next generation of Motorola's set-top boxes and home gateways run Android, even if Google's customers hide the Android layer from end users.

Google's proposed acquisition of Motorola Mobility poses more questions than it answers. We may be waiting for the answers for quite some time.
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