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.
Why?
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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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