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Day August 15, 2011

The perils of licensing to your competitors

Google’s acquisition of Motorola is clearly designed to be an acquisition of Intellectual Property rather than an entry of Google into the phone business, but the impact on the business will be felt in many ways.

It is surely going to send some Android vendors scrambling. The situation is not without precedent however. The history of governance and ownership of Symbian shows how the licensing of platforms by licensor competitors leads to unintended consequences.

Symbian was formed to be governed in a way very similar to the original Android via the Open Handset Alliance. The company was owned by a consortium of phone vendors.[1] The shares were not equally distributed however with Nokia holding a larger share (though not a majority).

Although nominally involved in decision making, the smaller shareholders never felt entirely comfortable with the arrangement and over time some sold their shares and left the group even though they continued to license the OS.

Eventually Nokia ended up acquiring the company outright and open sourced the code. However, by then the product was obsolete and the only licensee was Nokia itself.

The lesson (and warning) was that a licensor that is also a licensee makes other licensees uncomfortable. The supplier is also a competitor. This is classic channel conflict and never ends well.

Open or not, with or without equity, these arrangements are always unworkable.

So Google’s promise that

“This acquisition will not change our commitment to run Android as an open platform. Motorola will remain a licensee of Android and Android will remain open. We will run Motorola as a separate business. Many hardware partners have contributed to Android’s success and we look forward to continuing to work with all of them to deliver outstanding user experiences.”

seems naive at best.

Notes:

  1. Before its outright purchase by Nokia in December 2008, Symbian Ltd. was owned by Nokia (56.3%), Ericsson (15.6%), Sony Ericsson (13.1%), Matsushita (10.5%), and Samsung (4.5%). The company’s founder shareholders were Psion, Nokia, Ericsson, Panasonic/ Matsushita and Motorola. Motorola sold its stake in the company to Psion and Nokia in September 2003. Psion’s stake was bought by Nokia, Matsushita, Siemens AG and Sony Ericsson in July 2004.