Google’s smartphone redial 

Contact:Scott Denne

For a first marriage, it’s common to overlook a spouse’s flaws, harbor unrealistic fantasies about life together and spend unjustifiable sums on the wedding. A second marriage tends to be a more measured affair, with a conservative price tag and thoughtful evaluation of how the pairing fits into one’s broader life goals. The same applies to Google’s second purchase of a mobile phone company, as the search giant is paying $1.1bn for certain assets of HTC almost three years after unwinding its tie-up with Motorola Mobility.

While today’s deal marks a big commitment, it’s well short of the $12.5bn it spent for Motorola six years ago. Its reach for HTC differs from that earlier one – most of which it unwound in a 2014 divestiture to Lenovo – in more ways than price. With Motorola, Google envisioned itself becoming a marquee manufacturer of smartphones. This time, Google is making a more tactical move in the mobile market.

Google is obtaining the HTC team (and a license to related patents) that it used to build its Pixel phone, a collaboration that’s showing early signs of paying off. According to 451 Research’s VoCUL surveys, less than 1% of consumers with a smartphone own one made by Google, although the number planning to buy a Google phone sits near 3%. Even with those gains, Google’s phone business remains a long distance from matching Apple or Samsung.

But catching up to those companies, at least in hardware sales, isn’t likely the goal. Those same 451 surveys show that Google’s mobile OS, Android, has a larger market share than Apple’s iOS and more consumers prefer Android for future purchases. In that sense, the HTC pickup isn’t so much a break from its Motorola deal, but a continuation of the gains made from it.

Leading up to its acquisition by Google, Motorola’s sales were in a tailspin that continued after the transaction. Yet Google was able to build a broad ecosystem for Android during that time. That’s what it has in mind in nabbing the HTC team. Google is focusing its own hardware efforts on building high-end devices not mainly to sell devices but to showcase what’s possible with Android, making it easier for other hardware providers to develop functionality they’ll need in the competition against Apple, ensuring that Google’s software (and its cash-cow search engine) retains a place in the mobile market.

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