What developers need to know about the Google/Motorola deal

Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

By now you don't need me to tell you that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) will acquire Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) for roughly $12.5 billion--the news hit early Monday morning with the force of a Mack truck, and its repercussions rippled across the entirety of the mobile industry. Here's what we know: Google promises Android will remain open. It will operate Motorola Mobility as a separate business, and the device manufacturer will remain an Android licensee. The deal is above all about patents: In a blog entry posted Monday morning, Google CEO Larry Page states the Motorola Mobility deal bolsters the company's ongoing efforts to "protect Android from anti-competitive threats" by enhancing its patent portfolio, with Motorola Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha later indicating the manufacturer boasts more than 17,000 patents in all, along with another 7,500 patent applications in progress.

Those are the basic facts. But what does the Motorola Mobility acquisition mean for Android developers? Conventional wisdom indicates Google will be able to leverage the deal to improve the Android ecosystem for both developers and consumers alike by more effectively integrating software upgrades with new hardware builds, at the same time reducing platform fragmentation. But if Google grants Motorola Mobility favored nation status, giving Motorola engineers early access to new Android features and functionality, fragmentation could become even more pronounced. No one knows for sure, of course, but here's what you can likely expect.

Android app development isn't going to experience significant upheaval. Regardless of the failings of the Android platform--and no matter what Google does to foster a more streamlined and lucrative developer environment--the reality is that developer interest in the operating system was already strong prior to Monday's bombshell. Eighty-seven percent of developers expressed strong enthusiasm for building Android apps in a recent Appcelerator/IDC study, behind only the iPhone and iPad.

"[The Motorola Mobility acquisition] doesn't change anything substantially--Android is already a compelling platform," says Jeff Lawson, co-founder and CEO of cloud communications infrastructure developer Twilio. "I don't expect [the deal] will dramatically change how developers build or distribute apps. It will result in better devices for consumers. There's already a very healthy ecosystem of third-party Android devices, and giving Google greater control over the end-to-end experience will not only accelerate competition with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), it will also drive competition among other Android manufacturers."

Android fragmentation isn't going away. As long as Motorola Mobility rivals like Samsung, HTC and Sony Ericsson continue building Android devices with different screen sizes, form factors and other unique signatures, Android developers must continue tweaking their applications accordingly. Google has promised Android's forthcoming Ice Cream Sandwich operating system update will reduce fragmentation by delivering the tablet-optimized innovations introduced in Google's Android 3.0 Honeycomb update to all devices, but open is open--fragmentation goes with the territory.

"If Google is going to continue to be open and let other handset makers integrate Android as they see fit, you're still going to have fragmentation," says Paul Reddick, CEO of mobile applications services firm Handmark. "When Google built the first Nexus phone with HTC, you saw them taking control of what got built in. I think that's the precursor to what will be a bigger play with Motorola, and I would expect that future Motorola phones will be Google phones with little fragmentation. But that doesn't change how Samsung, ZTE and all the other guys build their phones."

Handset makers won't abandon Android... but they will consider their options. Longtime Android proponents like LG Electronics and Samsung are now effectively competing head-to-head with Google in the battle for smartphone market share supremacy. Although Samsung, Sony Ericsson, HTC and LG have already made public statements in support of the Motorola Mobility purchase, praising Google's efforts to defend Android from patent tyranny, there seems little doubt most manufacturers will at least reconsider their commitment to the platform and mull producing devices running other operating systems. But unless Google wavers in its commitment to Android openness, partners won't waver in their commitment to Android.

"I expect Google to keep their word that Android is going to be open, but I could see LG, Samsung and others hedging their bets," Reddick says. "That does nothing but create healthy competition. Abandoning Android is a knee-jerk decision. I don't see that happening."

Windows Phone 7 is most likely to benefit if Android developers and device makers flirt with other platforms. Already rumors are circulating to the effect that Google's move will force Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) to respond by acquiring Nokia. Even if it doesn't happen, most pundits give Windows Phone 7 the best chance to attract both manufacturer and developer attention, beating out operating systems like BlackBerry and webOS.       

"[The Motorola acquisition] is going to increase the relevance of all the other platforms as people hedge their bets," says Scott Kveton, CEO of mobile app engagement solutions developer Urban Airship. "Microsoft is going to have to make the same play [and acquire Nokia]. That wouldn't be a stretch to me. Everyone believes there's going to be a third platform, and I believe it will be Windows Phone. Microsoft has always had one of the biggest developer ecosystems, and now Windows Phone is even more attractive to developers."

Expect the unexpected. This is the mobile industry, after all. The Google/Motorola Mobility announcement is clearly the biggest thing to happen in the mobile segment this year... which is precisely what people said when AT&T (NYSE:T) revealed its plans to acquire T-Mobile USA a few months back. It's what happens in mobile. Nothing stands still for too long. That's kinda the point of mobility.

"I understand why Google did it--Android was unconquerable before these patent fights became such a drain, but you could see how bad it was getting its head kicked in," says Patrick Emmons, co-founder and director of professional services with mobile web and custom app development company Adage Technologies. "But now Google has a whole different kind of problem: Will other manufacturers stick with it? I don't think Android is likely to lose market share, but the market is always going to be voluble. In 1992, Apple was dead. It seems to be doing alright now. You can't ever call anybody out of it. But no one is going to be in the lead for very long, either." -Jason

P.S. For more industry reaction to the Google/Motorola agreement, check out the FierceWireless special report Sound off: Experts weigh in on why Google purchased Motorola.