In giving the thumbs-up to Google's acquisition of Motorola, regulators in China stipulated that Google must make Android free and open for five years, a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed with CNET today.
The stipulation would seem to be designed to keep Google from denying Motorola's handset competitors access to the mobile operating system, or from giving Motorola an advantage of some sort -- such as integration between its handsets and Android that's tighter than connections between rival phones and the OS.
From the beginning, Google has taken an open approach with Android, making it free and available to any hardware manufacturer -- a strategy that's helped to quickly make Android the No. 1 mobile OS globally.
"Many hardware partners have contributed to Android's success and we look forward to continuing our work with all of them on an equal basis to deliver outstanding user experiences," Google CEO Larry Page said during a conference call last August, at the time the intended acquisition was announced. "We built Android as an open-source platform and it will stay that way."
Still, despite the offering of such olive branches, and despite Android's great success as an open OS, Motorola rivals may well have been nervous. "Any way (Google) tries to couch this, there's no doubt Motorola is the most favored player," Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg told CNET's Roger Cheng in August. "If I'm a third-party vendor, I have some real concerns here."
That's in part because it could have at least crossed Google's mind to integrate its software and services more tightly with the Motorola hardware, following Apple's end-to-end approach with its own hardware and services.
Apple uses the sale of its iPhones and iPads to drive sales of iTunes, the App store, iCloud, and other offerings. Google, of course, has its own services -- Google Drive, Google+, and so on -- and a Google-focused Android device could further push subscribers to them. Ultimately, it's these services that are the money-makers for Google. Fragmentation of Android is another concern, and a dominant, tightly integrated Android handset might help to address that.
What, then, would rival phone makers do? There aren't many alternatives to Android. Windows Phone might become a more attractive option, but then, Microsoft has a cozy relationship with Nokia, so it could be deja vu all over again. Here's what CNET's Maggie Reardon had to say back in August, in a discussion of the merger's possible impact on consumers:
What is likely to happen is that HTC, LG, Sony Ericsson, and Samsung will remain Android partners, but they may have to find new ways to differentiate their products from Motorola's more Google-centric hardware. This may mean that HTC offers more advancements for its Sense software, which rides on top of the Android software. And Samsung may develop more TouchWiz customizations.
For consumers this could either be a good thing or a bad thing. If executed well, it will offer consumers more variety in device capabilities as well as look and feel. But if it's not executed well, it could just mean more fragmentation in the Android ecosystem.
Reardon also wrote that the merger would probably lead to more-advanced devices from Google, a good thing for consumers.
With the stipulation from China's regulators (which was reported earlier today by several media outlets), all this may have become moot. And if Google is to be believed, it may not have been an issue anyway.
A company representative told CNET today that Google's "stance since we agreed to acquire Motorola has not changed and we look forward to closing the deal."
So, had it crossed Google's mind to tie Android tightly to Motorola handsets? We might have to wait five years to find out. And who knows what the landscape will look like then?
We have an e-mail out to Motorola for comment and will update this post if we hear back.