Could Android Grease Motorola’s Wheels?

Nearly a week after T-Mobile, HTC and Google unveiled the G1, the first handset running the open source Android mobile platform, another handset maker is reportedly preparing a large push to incorporate the nascent mobile software system into its upcoming devices.

Technology blog reported Sunday that Motorola is boosting the size of its Android development team from 50 to 350. The information was attributed to an unnamed developer who was approached by a headhunter for one of the positions.

Motorola would not confirm or deny its Android team’s reported expansion or detail its Android-related plans. However, “Motorola is pleased to see carrier acceptance of the Android operating system,” Charles Kaiser, a Motorola spokesperson, told LinuxInsider. “It promises to be one of the most powerful, flexible and customizable open platforms, enabling truly integrated mobile hardware, software and Web experiences.”

“We’re excited about our own plans to innovate on Android, and look forward to delivering great products in partnership with Google and the Open Handset Alliance community,” he added.

Something’s Gotta Happen

The last few years have been difficult for Motorola. The company rode the success of its Razr mobile phone to the top of the handset market in 2005. By July 2006, Motorola announced had sold 50 million units of the iconic clamshell cell phone. However, in the three years since the phone hit the market, Motorola has struggled to duplicate its success. Subsequent Razr models such as the Razr2, the Krzr and the Slvr L7 have seen nowhere near the same mass appeal as the original, and Motorola’s smartphones have had trouble gaining traction against offerings from rivals like Research In Motion and Apple.

Motorola’s reported interest in Android comes as no surprise to Carl Howe, a Yankee Group analyst.

“Motorola and Android were made for each other. Android is a mobile OS (operating system) designed to allow handset innovation. Motorola wants to innovate over new handset designs and already has Linux expertise in-house. I would have been more surprised if they had ignored Android,” he told LinuxInsider.

A Good Match?

Motorola’s leadership is “highly conversant with strategies for Android and very familiar with the burgeoning ecosystem,” according to John Jackson, another Yankee Group analyst.

“Qualcomm is at the heart of the first Android phone, of course, and have been instrumental in the porting of Android. But Motorola has a couple of things happening,” he told LinuxInsider. “Greg Brown [president and co-chief executive officer of Motorola] has articulated what he calls a ‘product lead recovery.’ Now, taken on the surface, if by ‘product’ he simply means ‘more models,’ that’s a bit of a recipe for continued failure. They are not going to out-model LG, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung.”

Instead, Motorola’s new strategy has to come on the back of an integrated offering, Jackson pointed out.

It has to come up with something that “basically tightly incorporates high value-added services that both users want and operators are increasingly open to supporting on their networks. I would expect that a product is one thing, but a partnership is another. So, the implication is that they need a platform upon which to mount their retrenchment. If it’s Android, that is not particularly surprising,” he continued.

However, the G1 won’t be available to consumers until Oct. 22. At this time, relatively few in the industry have had an opportunity to deeply examine the platform at work first-hand. Motorola could be taking a risk if it pins its fortunes to the mobile operating system.

“Nobody knows what Android really is, and it’s not cheap to bootstrap a device portfolio on a new, untested platform. It’s also not clear at all whether the carriers will be amenable to something that may be construed as a Google vehicle. There are big risks involved — the upfront risk of investing all this money to port to Android, if they are doing it, and then there’s the risk that the operators may reject it,” Jackson noted.

Operators, according to Jackson, tend to be wary of third parties and their agendas. The industry’s history is full of accounts of third-party software that fell flat because carriers were reluctant to support it.

Motorola, he said, is likely planning a portfolio of handsets geared to take advantage of Android, but it’s anybody’s guess whether this supposed effort will reinvigorate the company’s fortunes in the market.

“[Motorola will] continue to get smaller before they get bigger. It’s basically a matter of a radical refocus,” Jackson concluded.

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