The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Google’s Motorola unit is hard at work on a secret “X-phone” that will “provide more potent competition for devices like Apple Inc.’s iPhone.” However my suspicion is that the phone is less about competiting with Apple’s device and more about providing a counterweight to the Samdroid juggernaut.
This is what Google did successfully when it created the Nexus 7 with ASUS to compete with Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Indeed, Amazon had the only non-Apple tablet that was selling in the market. However Amazon was using a “forked” version of Android that essentially shut Google out of key functionality on the device, including Maps.
There’s a potential analogy here with handsets, as Samsung has become increasingly identified with Android.
Motorola CEO, Google’s Dennis Woodside, denies to the WSJ that the “X-phone” is some sort of “hedge” against Samsung. However that’s what it would effectively be if it succeeded, even though Google has other objectives for the handset undoubtedly.
While Motorola could be given significant advantages in competing with other Android OEMs (i.e., early access to advanced features of Android) Google has promised to keep the division at “arm’s length” and show it no favoritsim, as a condition of being allowed to acquire the company without a fight.
In the past year Samsung has come to dominante the Android market trouncing HTC, LG and Motorola. The chart above from mobile ad network Millennial Media reflects Samsung’s increasing share of the US Android handset market and the decline of other manufacturers.
For its part Samsung is very ambivalent about relying on Google for what has become a core product in a critical global market. Samsung developed its own Bada operating system but that has seen limited success in markets outside Asia.
It’s quite possible, as the article suggests, that Samsung would seek to assert more leverage over Android, even to the point of creating its own “forked version” of the operating system as Amazon did for Kindle Fire.
Samsung is approaching 50 percent Android market share. And Android is now well over 50 percent of the global smartphone market. The more Samsung vanquishes competing OEMs in the Android market, the more it would be in a position to assert itself over Android development, with Amazon as a potential model.
The WSJ article identifies a number of proposed handset features and materials being considered for the X-phone but also says there have been manufacturing setbacks and other problems. The project is being managed by Lior Ron, who formerly ran Google’s local initiatives for a time.
Other than larger screens and other incremental improvements, smartphone design has largely stagnated. Let’s hope that Google can in fact create a “revolutionary” new smartphone that shakes up the market. To some degree Motorola’s future depends on it.