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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide