Is Google favouring Motorola over its other Android partners? Samsung isn’t taking any chances, as Guy Daniels reports.
As if the constant legal battles over software patents that are pushing up the cost of Android development wasn’t bad enough. A Google document disclosed to courts yesterday appears to indicate that the Android developer is giving the newly-acquired Motorola a time-to-market advantage over other manufacturers to build so-called “lead devices”.
The document emerged from the court case currently getting underway in the US between Google and Oracle. That in itself is becoming a source of constant amusement, and the fact that Java code could have been used in the Android OS without Oracle’s permission could well costly to the Android OEM community.
But now Google finds itself open to attack on another front – its purchase of Android handset manufacturer Motorola Mobility, which is still subject to the usual US antitrust scrutiny and approval process. If it looks like the deal may favour Motorola over other Android OEMs, then Google could be heading for a whole lot of worry.
Florian Mueller over at the Foss Patents blog has spotted a potentially damaging reference to this alleged favouritism in one of the documents submitted by Google’s legal team to Judge Alsup. It’s a page from an internal Google presentation, and contains the following bullet-point passage:
“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.”
But surely this refers to Google’s Nexus handset range, for which it partners with one manufacturer per year to develop a device that runs the very latest OS, under the Google brand, as a kind of proof of concept model that appealed mainly to application developers?
Not so, says Mueller. He argues that the Nexus handsets were never competitive with other OEMs, as they ran “stock Android”, i.e. Android without the various own-brand extensions and interfaces that OEMs place on top of the OS. The limited (and often bug-filled) Nexus handsets were never a commercial threat to the main manufacturers, no matter what Google originally intended. So this “time to market advantage” has nothing to do with Nexus, and instead points to Google wanting to favour Motorola products.
We’re not so convinced.
It’s the phrase “align to our standard” that suggests Google wants to expand its Nexus initiative to encompass a selection (if not all) of Motorola Android handsets. But however you look at it, it certainly does appear that Google is intent on giving Motorola a clear commercial advantage.
So where does that leave the other Android partners? The recent escalation in court cases over alleged patent infringements is pushing up the cost of development. So much so that one manufacturer, INQ, has gone on record to say that it is now looking at Windows Phone 7 as a lower-cost alternative. Let’s face it, OEMs don’t have too much room to differentiate themselves from their competitors. As far as consumers are concerned, an Android phone is an Android phone, right? And don’t mention the upgrade woes – it can be a logistical nightmare to upgrade an OS across all models and regional territories, as Motorola knows only too well.
Which brings us to Samsung. As one of the largest Android OEMs, Samsung knows all too well that t is perilously exposed to the fortunes of Android. Sure, it made money when all was well with the Android world, but will the Korean industrial giant lie down and let the courts in other countries decide its commercial fate? Will it trust in Google while at the same time its Galaxy Tabs are being pulled from sale in Europe over alleged patent infringement with Apple? Not a chance.
Which is why Samsung is reportedly shifting resources to redevelop its Bada operating system. Bada launched with a big media splash at Mobile World Congress in 2010, when its Wave handset were launched. But until now, Bada has been consigned to its lower-end phone range, with Android being preferred for its high-end models.
Samsung was already under pressure by the South Korean government to pursue using other operating systems other than Android. Then there was speculation that Samsung might acquire Nokia’s MeeGo OS, which was dismissed as incorrect. And now the attention has returned to Bada.
Rumours suggest that the company is developing a Linux kernel and new design for Bada. The hiring of top mobile software developer Steve Klondik also points to this possibility. For the moment though, there’s no official statement from Samsung.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, officials acting on behalf of the Korean Fair Trade Commission (KFTC), raided Google's offices in Seoul. According to a report on the CNET website, South Korea’s antitrust regulators were looking for evidence about Google allegedly limiting access to rival search engines on Android. The move came after complaints were filed in April by Korean internet companies NHN and Daum Communications.
In a statement following the raid (the second by officials this year – there was an earlier one regarding AdMob in May), Google said:
“We will work with the KFTC to address any questions they may have about our business. Android is an open platform, and carrier and OEM partners are free to decide which applications and services to include on their Android phones. We do not require carriers or manufacturers to include Google Search or Google applications on Android-powered devices.”
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