Google did win from buying Motorola, but not in the way you might expect

Summary:Google might have needed Motorola's patents to defend other Android manufacturers from them rather than to make money, but they pulled Google into much more direct conflict.

In some ways, selling off Motorola at any price is a bargain for Google. The bump in Google's share price that came in response to the news, and how much less uncomfortable it will make the company's future earnings calls, are obvious benefits.

But did Google really come out of the whole Motorola business a winner?

The big bonus that Google was supposed to get out of acquiring the company in the first place was the patents that came with it. Those don't seem to be worth nearly as much as Google paid for them, given how few lawsuits the company won using them since the acquisition.

As well as the well-known judgement that reduced the amount Microsoft had to pay Motorola for its patents covering H.264 video and wi-fi from $4bn a year to $1.8m, Motorola also lost several patent cases in Germany, and for a time Motorola wasn't able to sell any Android handsets there due to injunctions.

And beyond the cost of litigating those cases, which really ought to be factored into the arithmetic of how bad a loss this is for Google, is the position it put the company in.

In the past, Google has helped out Android partners in court, but it's tried to keep patent lawsuits over Android at arm's length. Owning Motorola made that a lot harder.

Having Motorola meant Google was getting ever more involved in legal fights about Android handsets, because it's much easier for companies making handsets, rather than OSes, to get sued.

Selling Motorola to Lenovo means Google is no longer the only Android handset maker publicly refusing to take a patent licence from Microsoft ( companies such as Foxconn , LG, Samsung and HTC are among those that have decided to license Microsoft's Android-related patents) and lets Google avoid the negative publicity that would come from having to sign such a deal with its arch-rival. 

Despite selling off Motorola, Google is holding onto the patents it bought when it acquired the company. It can still enforce those patents if it chooses — which is increasing unlikely without a handset business — but post-Motorola, it's equally unlikely to face the same legal hassles as a result.

In the end, Google did win by buying Motorola. It got to experiment with making its own handsets, as it once experimented with selling phones direct and then backed away from that.

And, as we've seen with Microsoft having experience building hardware can improve your software products (Windows 8.1 shows some lessons Microsoft learned by making Surface), the lessons learned with Motorola may help to make Android a better OS. 

With the patent cross-licensing it did with Samsung, and with Lenovo taking the handset business (and at least some of the legal headaches) off its hands, Google comes out of the whole Motorola experiment potentially out of pocket. However, it also comes out of the experience without the worry that its handset partners will drag each other to court over Android. 

In the best case scenario, Google would have got a thriving handset business out of the deal as well, instead of confirming that the only way to make a profit from Android handsets is to be Samsung . But avoiding internecine OEM warfare has to be worth a lot too. Never mind the figures: Google got what it wanted from Motorola and sold it when the handset experiment failed.

Further reading

Topics: Android, Google, Patents

About

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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