Google's strategy for winning the smartphone wars: don't fight the smartphone wars

Why beat Apple if you can make money from them?

I missed this story when it went up, last week, but Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson has an interesting alternative take to the mainstream belief about how Google views Android. It's single sourced – attributed to "one ex-Googler" – but explains a few inconsistencies about the company's actions. The big starting point is the explanation for why Andy Rubin, Android's creator and leader, left the project unexpectedly at the end of March. Carlson writes:

Rubin told a room full of Google executives that Google-owned phone-maker Motorola was a hedge against Samsung growing too powerful.
Rubin's comments indicated a view of Android as something to preserve and protect.
Our source believes that Larry Page isn't nearly so worried about Android itself. This source says that Page views it as a means to an end.
He says Page views Google as "a cloud services company," built on cornerstone products like Search, Maps, Mail, and YouTube.

In other words, Andy Rubin was determined to make Android the best, and most successful, phone platform in the world. But while that's obviously the aim of Apple and Samsung, there's no direct reason why Google needs to "win" the phone wars. It makes more money from iOS than Android.

The obvious counterpoint to that is that Google spent $12.5bn buying Motorola in 2011. Why would it do that if it had no interest in taking on the hardware market? It appears the answer was lying in plain sight: when the purchase was agreed, Google claimed that it was Motorola's patent portfolio which it was after, and Carlson's source backs that up.

Even though Google obtained a world-class phone manufacturer lumped in with its patent purchase, it didn't ramp up its hardware business; the Nexus 4 was made by LG, and the company's tablets were made by Asus and Samsung. So what has it been doing? Carlson says it's been trying to boost the whole smartphone business:

Page wants Motorola to focus on better, longer-lasting batteries and faster chips, with the goal of pushing the entire phone-making industry forward.
So that Google's cloud-based services run better and can do more things on all kinds of mobile devices.

The theory is backed up by Page's choice to replace Rubin: Sundar Pichai, whose previous biggest success was securing widespread adoption of the Google Toolbar at PC manufacturers. If Pichai can make Google's web services as successful on mobile platforms as they are traditional ones, then it may not need an overwhelming success of the Android platform in particular to come out successfully from the smartphone revolution.

In that analysis, Rubin's Android team's success was actually the result of a failure of principle-agent management. His aim – to build the most successful smartphone platform – was not the same as Page's, nor, apparently, Google's overall.

Time will tell which of the two had the right idea. It certainly seems to be a waste of Google's burgeoning ability as a hardware manufacturer to refocus entirely on web services. The biggest threat for Apple remains that Google is getting better at hardware faster than Apple is getting better at online services, and it seems un-Google-like to simply cede that advantage. But if Google is genuinely in a situation where it can "win" whichever phone platform holds the lead, then that seems like a situation worth fighting to stay in.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State