Google and Samsung grow cozier with patent deal, Motorola sale

Samsung will hold onto its TouchWiz skin, but its new Magazine UX will quickly dwindle

Google and Samsung have grown closer over the past week following Google's sale of Motorola to Lenovo and a 10-year global patent cross-license agreement signed by the tech giants.

While not exactly kissing cousins, Samsung and Google are set to evolve into much closer technology partners in smartphones, tablets, wearables and emerging tech areas.

"I think that Samsung and Google realized that they should stick to what they are good at and work together," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar WorldPanel.

Stripping off the Motorola division at Google in a $2.9 billion deal with Lenovo will remove concerns that held by Samsung and other Android licensees that Google would favor Motorola. Since Samsung is by far the largest maker of Android smartphones and tablets globally, it was important for Google to find ways to show it was not favoring Motorola with early innovation insights.

"I believe there are bigger [innovations] afoot now that Google and Samsung have buried the hatchet," said Jack Narcotta, an analyst at Technology Business Research. "With Google now back in its groove as curator of Android -- divesting itself of that pesky hardware [at Motorola] that caused friction between it and Samsung -- we believe that Samsung will tweak Android less, reducing the focus on the Samsung apps and services in future iterations of Galaxy smartphones."

Samsung made several changes to its Android mobile devices to separate them from Google and Motorola's. These changes included replacing the Google Chrome browser with Samsung's default Internet browser, using Samsung's ChatOn instead of Google Hangouts, and converting Google's Voice Search into Samsung's S Voice and Google Wallet into Samsung Wallet, Narcotta noted.

"Samsung was focused on copying every Google mobile app available, primarily in efforts to boost its appeal to users, but also as a reaction to the Motorola purchase," he added.

Samsung remains wary of Google's control over the Android OS used in Samsung's devices, but with Google out of the handset business, Samsung can focus on helping Android proliferate instead of "seeking to strike out on its own," Narcotta said.

With their new relationship, Narcotta said Samsung is marshal of the Android army, while Google is the central command center for Android.

A recent report in Re/code said Google executives were dismayed to see a new Samsung tablet user interface called Magazine UX at the International CES trade show in early January. The new interface represented another departure from Google's vision for Android.

That disagreement led to a set of broad agreements that Samsung and Google worked on together, resulting in the sweeping 10-year patent deal reported Sunday as a means of reducing the potential for patent litigation and putting the focus on innovation. In a statement the next day, the companies said they will each gain access to the other's industry-leading patent portfolios, "paving the way for deeper collaboration on research and development of current and future products and technologies."

The $2.9 billion sell-off of Motorola was announced four days later. In that deal, Google retains the vast majority of the patents it gained in acquiring Motorola for $12.5 billion two years earlier, and gives Lenovo 2,000 patent assets -- an indication of the balancing act Google must perform to show Lenovo it is valued in the Android ecosystem. Google received 24,500 patents on technologies for smartphones, handsets and mobile standards, among other things, when it acquired Motorola.

Narcotta doesn't believe Magazine UX will disappear as a result of the new Google-Samsung relationship. But the UI will appear "in the wild" at the same time that Samsung's support for it "quickly dwindles," he said. "The likelihood of it showing up on future Samsung devices is small now that Samsung has more certainty that Google is not grooming Motorola as a competitor."

Remnants of Samsung's earlier reaction to Google's ownership of Motorola will linger, however. Touchwiz, the Samsung UI that runs over stock Android, will continue as a major part of Samsung's Android strategy, Narcotta believes. Samsung will want to retain the UI as a differentiator from Lenovo and competitors.

Still, Samsung will demonstrate "less aggressive customization," Narcotta said, predicting that the Galaxy S5 smartphone, expected to be launched in late February at Mobile World Congress, will be customized to a lesser degree now that Google is not competing directly with Samsung. "The UI at the Galaxy S4's launch in March 2013 was a bold move by Samsung, essentially saying 'this is a Samsung phone, not a Google phone,' " he and other analysts noted at the time.

With Motorola out at Google and with Google and Samsung working more harmoniously, there can be little doubt that Samsung's Tizen initiative will be used as a niche operating system, offered as the OS in handsets in emerging markets such as India or southeast Asia. Narcotta said Tizen will be a bridge for feature phone customers who want to move to their first smartphone, but a less expensive one. Other analysts expect Samsung to pull back slightly from Tizen.

The future of the pure Android Nexus phones that Google offered is in doubt, Narcotta said. "Nexus devices are a showcase for the capabilities and features of the stock version of Android, [and] Samsung could easily become the manufacturer for all Nexus or Nexus-like devices" thus becoming the proponent for the pure, no-frills, Android experience for customers.

Google is highly motivated to promote pure Android or a Samsung version of Android with few alterations, especially when compared to smaller Android device makers, primarily those based in China and Asia that work with forked, or modified, versions of Android that don't support Google services or work with Android apps in the Google Play store.

Forked versions of Android add to challenges

Research firm ABI on Wednesday asked "Is Google losing Control of the Android Ecosystem?" noting that such forked Android smartphone shipments made up 25% of all 221.5 million Android smartphones shipped in the fourth quarter, an increase from 22% in the previous quarter.

The growth in forked Android smartphones made by Xiaomi, Coolpad, Giomee and others in the Android Open Source Project hurts Google's ability to monetize the Android ecosystem, said Nick Spencer, an ABI analyst, in an interview.

Samsung, on the other hand, with ZTE, Lenovo and Alcatel Lucent, are certified with other vendors in the Open Handset Alliance, giving users of their devices access to the Google Play Store and its apps.

Spencer said the cross-license deal between Google and Samsung is important for both companies. "A 10-year deal is a big deal, and it must be very financially beneficial for both of them," he said.

Google's steps to work closer with Samsung mean the two companies will be better equipped to compete with Apple and Microsoft, said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insight & Strategy. Samsung will be brought earlier into the Android product development process to ensure that Samsung has less incentive to create Android tweaks and homegrown services, he said.

With the threat of low-cost Android devices in many markets, Google realizes the value of keeping its biggest Android manufacturer in its camp. "Samsung is Android in mature markets, with an overwhelming share of the market, so Google wants them to be happy," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.

"Getting rid of Moto made the relationship much more palatable to Samsung, and the cross-licensing of patents was just a first step in making the collaboration between Google and Samsung closer," Gold said.

This article, Google and Samsung grow cozier with patent deal, Motorola sale, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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