Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Generally speaking, companies committed to consolidating ever more power under their corporate identity do not blithely toss away provinces of their empires. True, this may happen as a result of legal action such as the enforcement of anti-trust regulations, and by a similar token some companies may sell off a given possession if there is an opportunity to make a sizable profit. Yet, when a company sells off a holding at a loss (perhaps even a sizable loss) it is usually either a sign of financial desperation, or a shrewd move undertaken when a company concludes that it has already obtained what it wanted.
The latter is what is at work in Google’s decision to sell Motorola Mobility to Lenovo. When Google initially purchased Motorola Mobility (for an amount in the range of $12 billion) it seemed as though Google wanted to take a more competitive position in the smart phone market, but two years later it is clear that the market has become saturated as the lackluster performance of the Moto X demonstrates (this saturation includes other smart phones offered by Google like the Nexus). Granted, Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility was never really about smart phones, instead the purchase had been about bolstering Google’s mighty trove of patents (the better to fight competitors with), and those patents? Well…
Google may be selling Motorola Mobility, but (according to the New York Times) it will be keeping nearly 90% of the patents it obtained. Which is another way of saying that Google is not really taking much of a loss by selling Motorola Mobility for less than $3 billion. Google initially purchased Motorola Mobility for its patents and its keeping most of the patents, so Google not only got its money’s worth from the initial purchase, it got more than its money’s worth and so now it can sell off the part they were never particularly interested in for some loose change.
From an overly simple standpoint (“Google has sold off Motorola Mobility”) this may appear to be a cause for some celebration amongst those who are increasingly wary of the blob like all consuming expansion of Google. Yet this sale is less a blow to a monopoly than a calculated move to better assure the future of a monopoly. After all, Motorola Mobility will still be churning out smart phones and those smart phones will still run on the Android operating system (which is owned by Google). What this means is that Google may no longer be the company behind the brand logo on the back of the device, but Google will still be embedded within the machine.
With its own Nexus devices and the acquisition of Motorola Mobility, Google was a somewhat latecomer to the smart phone brouhaha (even as they approached it going “Mwahaha!”). But to consider Google’s actions of late is to get a sense that Google is determined that they will not lose out in the next technological wave. From Google’s foray into wearable tech in the form of Google Glass, to the company’s recent purchase of the “smart home” technology company Nest, to the initiatives involving self-driving cars, to the still eyebrow raising acquisition of robotics firms – it is clear that Google is thinking through its next steps towards dominance and the company has concluded that fighting for the smart phone (device) market is a distraction. Furthermore, Google already has a significant hold on the smart phones media-eco-system thanks to the Android operating system, and it is a grip which is growing firmer as Google’s chief competitor in the operating system battle (Apple’s iOS) seems to be slipping [the iOS stronghold remains the US, but this is being steadily chipped away at by Android]). In short: Google can see that the trend lines are running in favor of its operating system, so it hardly needs another smart phone manufacturer to shore up its controlling position.
This is not about a ship and there are no icebergs in sight. This is simply the rearranging of fancy chairs in the boardroom.
Focusing on Motorola Mobility and the specific devices that it produces is something of a distraction in considerations of our technological society as it risks putting the emphasis on given devices instead of on the larger socio-economic structures behind the given devices. To say that Moto X did not sell well and as a result Google is getting rid of Motorola Mobility is to put the focus on the wrong, or at the very least on the misleading, point. To put this in some more context it is worth considering what Raymond Williams described thusly:
“Some people spoke of the new machines as gadgets, but they were always much more than this. They were the applied technology of a set of emphases and responses within the determining limits and pressures of industrial capitalist society.” (21)
Granted, in the above quotation, Williams was speaking about a variety of “machines” ranging from improvements in private transformation to television (he was writing in 1974); however, his larger point remains helpful when considering the case of Google selling off Motorola Mobility. It acts as a reminder that “new machines” are representatives of a larger social system, and to focus too heavily on the device (as such) is to forget the social/economic system from whence a given device arises.
Therefore we can see that these happenings around Motorola Mobility are not about “gadgets.” It is about, and always was about, the “much more” represented by the trove of patents that Google wanted and which Google is still keeping. Furthermore these “new machines” were themselves an extension of the larger logic (“limits and pressures”) of society, and as a result the demands of “industrial capitalist society” still win out in the end. These “new machines” were just an opportunity for Google to strengthen its position and now that Google’s position has been enhanced (again – patents) Google can toss away the “gadgets” while the factors that led to this performance remain unchanged. Google knows that it is easy to sell people “gadgets” but the company’s continued success has been based on its canny recognition of “emphases and responses” behind the scenes.
Sometimes the best way to maintain control is to give the illusion of relinquishing it. Google’s tentacles may no longer be gripping Motorola Mobility, but the marks from its suckers will not be vanishing.
Williams, Raymond. Television. Routledge Classics, 2003.
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