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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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