I wish I knew the inside story on Google's recent confrontation with the Chinese government. At first Google's announcement looked like a principled, well thought-out stand in a long behind-the-scenes dispute (link). But as more details have emerged, it has started to look as if Google didn't think through the consequences outside of its core search business. In the mobile market, those consequences could be significant. Here's why...
Google's Android OS has been gaining enormous support among mobile operators and handset vendors because it was viewed as the most feasible alternative to total domination by Apple. All of the other OS options had nasty baggage -- Microsoft was viewed as both controlling and unable to create demand, Symbian was seen as Nokia's pet, and the other flavors of Linux were all below critical mass.
In contrast, Google seemed technically competent, vendor-neutral, and capable of attracting users. (By the way, it says something about Apple's growing power in the mobile industry that a company as controlling as Google was seen as the safe partner; it's kind of like cozying up to a kodiak bear to escape a tiger.)
Google's dispute in China damages its image as a safe partner. A phone announcement in China involving Motorola, Samsung, and China Unicom has now been delayed because of the dispute, and it's not clear when it will be rescheduled. The public story on the delay is that Google demanded it (link), but I'm not sure I believe that. China Unicom is basically owned by the Chinese government, and I wouldn't be surprised if the delay was forced by them as a way to punish Google.
Either way, picture how this must feel to Motorola and Samsung. They have nothing to do with the dispute, but now they're trapped between Google and the Chinese government. That wouldn't be a big deal if we were talking about, say, the Cambodian phone market (no offense, Cambodia), but Samsung and Motorola both view China as a critical growth market. They can't afford to be pushed out of it.
Even aside from the political fears, real economic damage has already been done. Google's actions have delayed the imminent release of some major licensees' devices. Unless you have worked in a handset company, it's hard to understand how utterly unacceptable that is to them. Product launches are planned many months in advance, and are coordinated down to the day. Samsung and Motorola both have phone inventory waiting to be sold. There's cash tied up in that inventory, salespeople can't make their quotas, advertising was probably planned that now has to be rescheduled at additional cost, and so on. Plus, both companies now lose ground to competitors selling other devices. Most phones have a short lifetime anyway, so sales lost now probably can't be made up later. If you were a Motorola employee and you caused that sort of disruption, you'd probably get fired. But Motorola can't fire its OS supplier.
At least not immediately.
Because of problems like this, Google is now talking hopefully about retaining its business unit in China even if it closes down its search engine there (link). That raises the question of why Google threatened to completely pull out of China in the first place. If I were an official in the Chinese government, I'd view this flip-flop as a sign of vulnerability, and would be tempted to systematically go after targets like Android in an effort to put more pressure on Google. But for the moment the government appears to be moving cautiously, perhaps to avoid creating sympathy for Google.
Maybe in a week Google and the Chinese government will have come up with a neat, face-saving resolution to the whole problem. But even in that best-case scenario, Google's image as a supplier to the mobile industry has been damaged. The company has shown that its search business is more important to it (and more top-of-mind) than its mobile OS. Mobile operators outside of China won't care about this, but the handset vendors will. Some of them are based in China, and almost all manufacture there and sell into that market. Who's to say that Google won't end up in another dispute in China in another year? Add in Google's decision to start making its own phones in competition with licensees, and it now looks like a much less reliable OS supplier than it was six months ago.
To a Chinese phone company, relying on Android must now feel extremely uncomfortable. I bet Samsung went ballistic in private; it is completely intolerant of a supplier who's interested in anything other than making Samsung rich. I'd expect Samsung to put more emphasis on its other OS options in the future. And somewhere at Motorola, a harried executive is probably rolling his or her eyes and starting work on evaluating alternative smartphone operating systems, yet again.
The question is what alternative they'd choose. There's speculation that the LiMO alliance may be strengthened (link), and I could picture Chinese officials eventually trying to create a home-grown OS standard, just as they did in 3G (link). But the most straightforward alternative is Symbian, and I suspect it may get a quiet second look in many places -- although for the handset companies, that would feel like fleeing a tiger and a bear in order to hug an anaconda.