One of the world’s leading software companies (Google) deciding to become a hardware manufacturer is an extremely significant event. It could also be extremely disruptive, potentially creating lots of problems for Google’s existing partner, despite the search giant’s claims to the contrary.

For this reason it’s easy to see why the Google/Motorola merger has come under serious scrutiny from trade authorities the globe over. Announced almost a year ago, it has taken Google thousands hours to get the deal finalised. China finally signed off on the deal last week confirming the buyout – but there were ‘conditions.’

Keeping Android open source for five years

To get support from the Chinese authorities Google has had to commit to keeping Android open for 5 years, which reinforces the perception that these will continue to be ‘interesting times’ for the software platform. Does Google plan to eventually make Android closed source? The history of mobile software and hardware platform relationships has always been challenging. The software companies offering mobile operating systems have generally struggled to get traction and then momentum with hardware OEMs.

Microsoft’s mobile problem

Despite its overall industry clout Microsoft has always struggled to get mobile momentum, but is hoping things might be different with a hardware legend like Nokia. The Finnish company’s software past is not so legendary as its hardware. Symbian, which Nokia was first a major investor and then took total control of in 2008, started with the strong mobile handheld computer heritage of Psion, spiced it with the involvement of major telecoms handset players, but still failed to become dominant, especially outside of Europe.

The death of Palm

The demise of the other major mobile handheld platform Palm, partly due to its own failings, and partly the ineptitude of its acquirer, HP, is another example of how once apparently unassailable market leaders can falter. Palm had both hardware and software under its control, a strong application ecosystem and even an online ‘app’ store, but failed among the powerbases of operators as IT converged with telecoms.

Apple redefining the market

This is where Apple succeeded. Despite (or because of) the consumer appeal of the iPod, the narrowest of handset ranges and a closed platform, its relationship with mobile operators started on a different footing. The industry dynamics and commercial models have been changed forever – mobile networks have become open like the internet, operator control and walled gardens have become overrun, and ‘over the top’ services are no longer preventable.

This should be the perfect environment for open mobile platforms to thrive, and Google’s Android acquisition in 2005 (Oracle lawyers notwithstanding) was astute and well timed. There are other open mobile platforms, especially in the mobile Linux camp, where Palm momentarily dallied, and some have enjoyed considerable growth in numbers, particularly in China and Asia, but have thus far struggled to get much attention in the noisy US and Western European mobile markets.

Unstoppable Android

Growth figures don’t lie: Android is massive, covering a wide range of handsets from a varied group of manufacturers, including Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei and Sony. Scale-wise, Google’s way of doing things seems to beat Apple’s – Android is the world’s number one mobile software.

The problem is, as many software platform companies have found, that hardware OEMs have their own agendas and all move at different paces. The software platform company is not in control, but is the ‘face’ of the device and will most likely be blamed by users first for any problems they encounter. Phone operators used to be the first port of call but now users emphasise the ‘smart’ more than the ‘phone’. So does ownership of a hardware company fix the problem? Perhaps, but it brings others, and this might give a clue as to why the Chinese authorities insisted on keeping the platform open for five years.

Tizen – the next Android

Right now, even with assurances from Google, almost every Android OEM will have nagging doubts that Motorola hardware teams will have an edge from access and proximity to Android software engineers. Google will no doubt try very hard to be transparent and avoid this issue, but short of not making smartphone hardware, it will prove difficult to completely quash these concerns.

So why five years? Well that should give enough time for brands to establish, and perhaps build sufficient profile to break away from Android. Google’s biggest hardware partner Samsung is already linked with a new open-source platform that it’s co-developing with Intel and The Linux Foundation. HTC is also linked to the Tizen project, albeit in an unofficial capacity, making one think Tizen could be the answer for many of Google’s disaffected partners.

In the meantime Google might also shift its attention to other directions, especially given all the speculation about Apple going further into the TV market than its current small black box.

There is a lesser-known part of Motorola that Google now has access to, which builds broadband modems, home gateways, set top boxes and TV technology. This was what Motorola called the ‘Home’ division. The hardware in this corner could be exploited without upsetting smartphone OEMs and would give Google some CPE (customer premises equipment) foothold to complement its default appearance in the browser and on many phones. While many thought this marriage was about patent wars and mobile, it might be a little more radical – interesting times indeed.