The growing consensus seems to be that Google in fact bought Motorola not just for its patents, but to mimic Apple and get into the hardware business in a big way.Henry Blodget floated the idea on Monday, and has been joined by others like Kara Swisher at AllThingsD and Andrew Sorkin at the New York Times.
A couple of former Googlers we spoke with agree — Google has both envied and feared the iPhone since it launched.
Former equity analyst Anton Wahlman is among those who believes that Google truly wants Motorola’s hardware business, and notes that Google had begun hiring hardware specialists to build its own phones long before the patent issue pushed Google into an emergency acquisition.
In an interview, Wahlman pointed out that Google has been studying Apple for the last decade.
“Everybody at Google is a customer of Apple’s. They have Macs in their homes, Macs at work, they go to the Apple Store. They have been observing — like any educated consumer — what Apple has been doing in recent years.”
He hypothesizes that Larry Page could be looking at the Borders bookstore going out of business right down the street from the Apple Store in downtown Palo Alto and imagining how easy it would be to buy the bankrupt chain and turn it into a gleaming outlet for Google phones, Google TV boxes, and other Google software running on third-party hardware. (Sort of like Microsoft is doing.)
Wahlman reasons that Page and other Googlers have been looking at Apple’s success and thinking “why is this so hard?”
Because although Google makes products that are popular with consumers, Google is not now and has never been a consumer company.
Google is good at creating free products that are a notch or leap better than the competition (search, Gmail, Chrome) or that fill some other market need (Android, which freed smartphone buyers — and developers — from Apple’s restrictions).
And Google has undeniably created some great and valuable products for advertisers.
But unlike Apple — or Microsoft, or Nokia, or RIM, or Sony, or even Motorola — Google has never made a product that consumers actually had to pay for.
That means that Google has never had to build products that delight reviewers on day one and convince consumers to part with a good portion of their last paycheck.
Look at recent product releases like Google Music Beta, Android Honeycomb, or Google+, all of which launched with glaring holes. Even search wasn’t launched as a finished product — Google worked like crazy to build its index and make sure it could scale.
The presumption has always been that users would stick around and give time for Google to learn and “iterate.” That works for free Web products. It doesn’t work so well for stuff people pay for.
(Harry McCracken recently did a great piece for Time about how we’re in the era of unfinished tech products, and rightly names Google as the primary offender.)
Plus Google has never had a chance to master skills like marketing, advertising, and merchandising. Apple isn’t just a great product company, but it’s also one of the best marketing companies the world has ever seen. Google never even had a major ad campaign until it started pushing the Chrome browser in the last year.
Google’s foray into hardware will end in one of two ways. Either the company will prove it’s an incredibly adept learner as it fast-follows Apple and builds a successful and highly profitable smartphone business. In that case, nobody will ever accuse Google of being a one-trick pony again.
Or else it’s going to be the greatest act of high-tech hubris since AOL bought Time-Warner.