Google/Motorola Probe Could Prove Illuminating

Emergence of Google documents hinting at Android favouritism could prompt a revealing probe into the Motorola deal, says Clint Boulton

For several months, pundits and folks with grudges against Google’s Android operating system have speculated that the provider of the world’s leading smartphone platform has a heavier hand in the release of its platform to open source than it led us to believe.

Google didn’t do itself any favours when it withheld its Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” platform from open-source development. That called into question just how “open” Android really is.


Internal Google document

Now check out that “bombshell” to the left, courtesy of an internal Google document Foss Patents blogger Florian Mueller fished out of the myriad files in the patent infringement case against Google by Oracle.

The document appears to reason how Google can profit from ceding Android to developers under an open-source license. This is the key part:

“Lead device concept: Give early access to the software to partners who build and distribute devices to our specification (ie, Motorola and Verizon). They get a non-contractual time to market advantage and in return they align to our standard.”

Meanwhile, Oracle noted in a filing that Google actively participates in the design and build of some device makers’ handsets, and signs off on the final Android build.

As Mueller noted, this is confirmation that the Android source code tree has “private branches” and some OEMs were always more equal than others.

Mueller wondered how Samsung, HTC, LG or Sony could still trust Google if it gets Motorola. He suggests these companies will be nervous that Google will seed Motorola with privileges.

But didn’t we already know that?

However, TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid offered a valuable counter argument, noting that it’s well-known Google works with these partners separately and helps usher some of the builds to market.

For example, Google worked closely with Motorola and Verizon Wireless on the first Motorola Droid. The HTC Nexus One launched with T-Mobile, while the Nexus S launched on T-Mobile and the Nexus S 4G launched on Sprint.

Verizon is allegedly getting the “Ice Cream Sandwich“-based Samsung Droid Prime, so Google seems to be spreading around the “pure Google experience” equally enough.

Kincaid’s strongest counterpoint is that Google wouldn’t favour Motorola because “this is a land rush, and Google has every reason to keep as many OEMs pumping out as many Android devices as possible; it isn’t about to infuriate them all by turning Motorola into its blessed favorite.”

To wit, keep everyone happy: That makes good business for Google, which as Mueller noted later in his post is geared to drive search and ads on Android handsets.

What’s wrong with this? Google is a bee, pollinating different OEMs and carriers with its Google essence before moving on to the next device and OS build. If only Google had opened Honeycomb to complete the metaphor!

All will be revealed… maybe

I appreciate both Mueller’s and Kincaid’s arguments, but what I suspect is that Mueller’s illumination of this practice will simply serve as ammunition for federal regulators mulling whether or not to block the Motorola deal.

I’m not confident the Justice Department or Federal Trade Commission effectively grok how Google’s Android ecosystem works.

They may smell favoritism, however liberally laced throughout Google’s partners, and just squash the Motorola deal outright because they feel the company will use Motorola as an ax to chop at other OEMs’ legs. This has to be a concern for Google, which is already under the antitrust microscope by the FTC for search, and possibly Android.

The upshot of this is that if regulators press Google on its practices, it may become public information (just as these documents came to light only thanks to the Oracle suit), which means we’ll learn a lot about how Google runs its mobile business.

Of course, Google could sell the Motorola hardware business and simply keep the 17,000 patents to foil future attacks on Android. In which case the favoritism question becomes moot.