When Google bought Motorola two years ago, most of us were pretty surprised. What would Google, an Internet services company that works with numerous hardware makers, want with a struggling phone manufacturer?
Initially, much of the focus revolved around patents and how having Moto under its wing would put Google in a better position to deal with legal nonsense. And that's certainly a logical piece of the puzzle.
Two years later, though, as we see more and more of Google's vision for Motorola falling into place, it's becoming increasingly clear that there's another side to the story. And when you start putting all the pieces together, you realize this second side is just as important as the first.
Here it is: Google didn't acquire Motorola simply to protect its assets or to make Droid-branded Android phones. It acquired Motorola to push mobile innovation forward in a way it couldn't do with Android software alone.
Think about it: Google's ultimate goal in most everything it does is making it easy and desirable for people to spend as much time as possible online -- and thus to spend as much time as possible using its various services. Google's core business is advertising, after all, and the more time you spend using its services, the better it can learn about you and serve up relevant ads.
Taking ownership of Android in the first place, way back in 2005, was a way for Google to make sure its services didn't get left out in the cold within the then-budding mobile realm. "If Google did not act, we faced a draconian future -- a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice," Google execs explained.
Such a future could have risked putting Google in the background; just look at the recent changes to iOS to see how easily such a shift could occur. But it's not only about access to Google services: Advancing Android has allowed Google to -- yep, you guessed it -- push mobile innovation forward in ways it couldn't have otherwise done.
The platform's open approach has helped Google grab the lion's share of the global mobile market by encouraging OEM-generated versatility -- everything from plus-sized phones to smartwatches and media streaming devices. And OS-level functions like Google Now and Android Voice Search are tying numerous Google services together in impressive ways that simply wouldn't work in other environments.
All that stuff has one thing in common: It makes it easier and more desirable for people to spend as much time as possible online. Sound familiar?
Fast-forward now to Motorola. The company's first phone developed fully under Google's guidance, the Moto X, introduced innovative new ways of letting you stay connected -- from its Touchless Control feature to its Active Display option -- without venturing into gimmicky terrain or requiring unnecessary compromise in user interface design. That's a concept most Android manufacturers have generally failed to grasp.
And now we're seeing the next steps. Late last night, Motorola announced a new endeavor called Project Ara. In short, it's an open hardware platform that'll allow for "modular" smartphones -- phones you can customize and expand by inserting new physical modules into the device's frame. Modules could be anything from processors to displays, keyboards, or additional sensors for the device. In other words, you'll theoretically be able to change and upgrade your phone piece by piece both when you buy it and in the future -- not just in terms of software, as you can now, but also when it comes to hardware elements.
That, my friends, is exciting stuff. Innovative stuff. Revolutionary stuff, you might even say. As Moto explains it, the goal is to "do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software" -- to "create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines."
See where this is going? In many ways, Motorola is serving as the natural next step of what Google started with Android. While other phone manufacturers are focused squarely on selling their current product, often with silly but marketing-friendly features, Moto is focusing much of its efforts on bigger picture goals. Goals that might not lead to immediate sales but will lead to an ecosystem that's better for users -- one that ultimately makes it easier and more desirable for people to spend as much time as possible online.
And there it is: the connective tissue that brings it all together. Android serves an important purpose for Google. Motorola builds on that layer and takes it to the next level. What we're seeing now are only the seeds of what's to come.
Looking back at Google's original Motorola acquisition announcement, Larry Page actually laid it all out for us. "Together, [Motorola and Google] will create amazing user experiences that supercharge the entire Android ecosystem for the benefit of consumers, partners and developers," he said.
"The combination of Google and Motorola will not only supercharge Android but will also enhance competition and offer consumers accelerating innovation, greater choice, and wonderful user experiences."
We didn't have the context we needed to fully understand what he meant at the time. Little by little, though, it's starting to make sense. With Motorola in the picture, the future of mobile is suddenly looking a lot less predictable -- and a lot more interesting.