Has Google wasted $12bn on a dud patent poker-chip?

Larry Page's Moto bluff fails to convince


Analysis It's all about patents, says Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page. Google insists that it bought Motorola to shore up its Android platform, which is caught in a litigious pincer movement from old buddies Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison. Microsoft is merely egging them on the sidelines as the manbags fly, shouting: "Fight!"

But analysts I've spoken to are already wondering how much due diligence Google performed before the announcement, or whether the Motorola acquisition will turn out to rival Terra's legendary, rushed purchase of EMI. Here's why.

Android is a copycat platform. The APIs copy Java, and the UI copies Apple's iPhone. Oracle believes Google has violated Java IP, which it acquired with Sun Microsystems. Google says the language, and a third of Android's API's are "derivative" of Java. On the other warpath, Apple has launched three dozen lawsuits relating to usability and UI. Apple is hurling these lawsuits at Android licensees, rather than at Google itself. Google has refused to indemnify its partners, causing much nervousness.

But Motorola's IP war chest does not help Google here. It is poor where it needs to be rich. It is no help at all in the Oracle battle, which (alas) as many people have forgotten today, is largely about copyrights not patents. The Motorola patent war chest could only help Google against Apple by opening up a new front, with retaliatory litigation which threatens every rival handset manufacturer. But have a look where Motorola patents' strengths are: radio engineering and design. The most vital radio patents are already covered by existing patent pools.

Bear in mind, too, that Nokia has a patent portfolio that is as strong as – or stronger than – Motorola's. Nokia executives believed it was so strong it would derail the Cupertino upstart. But when Nokia and Apple settled last month, Nokia barely came out ahead, with a one-off payment of €430m.

These radio and design patents of legacy manufacturers such as Motorola or Nokia really aren't worth quite as much as their owners think they are.

Google has paid $12.5bn for a negotiating chip that appears to be almost impossible to redeem. In this light, the acquisition looks like panic, rather than a calm and carefully deliberated strategy. Google didn't take IP seriously, bidding silly numbers (such as pi billion dollars) for the Nortel patents. Then it realised it might be in trouble, and so went out and bought some IBM patents. Now it has splurged $12.5bn, truly believing the IP is going to be useful.

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