If you look closely at the most successful company in tech today, it is Apple. And they are in this position for a major reason. They are completely vertically integrated. They own the OS, the hardware and the ecosystem. And although they don’t manufacture their own chips, the IP in their chips are homegrown and designed to meet the needs of their advancements in OS and hardware designs. The result of this vertical integration is that they have complete control of their future.
Another company that is pretty much vertically integrated is Samsung. They do their own design, their own chips, and in their case they even do their own screens and manufacture their own products. Their only weak link is with the OS since they are licensing Android for their smartphones and tablets. However, they are about to launch their own cloud services and take even more control of their destiny by tying all of their products together to cloud based applications and servers. And as you know, they have gained great ground in smartphones and while still struggling against Apple in tablets, they have become more aggressive in looking at alternative operating systems to Android and could soon deemphasize their use of Android in favor of their own OS solution to guarantee even tighter vertical integration in the future.
But there are two companies today that at the moment have very little control of their future because of their lack of vertical integration and that is Google and Microsoft. And without out being vertically integrated, their prospects of wide spread success in the future in my viewpoint is highly questionable.
The Vertical-ization Trend
Ironically, at the moment, Google is actually in a better place than Microsoft to develop a vertically integrated strategy but Google is in denial about how important this is to their future at the moment. In their case, they own the software OS and a lot of the services layer but have little control of the hardware and the marketing needed to guarantee that Android will be successful in the future. In fact, if you read a lot of the recent posts about Android, you see numerous reports that suggest that Android is in trouble and losing ground, especially in tablets.
Today, Google has to completely rely on their Android hardware partners to drive Androids success. While this has been OK with smartphones, their partner’s performance in advancing Android in tablets has been dismal. Now to be fair, a lot of this is Google’s fault in the way they have handled the various versions of Android and the uneven, if not disastrous way they handle upgrades and OEM relationships.
But Google is about to have an even bigger problem on their hand when it comes to partners. To date, Android has been the only game in town when it comes to alternative operating systems for smartphones and tablets. But that is about to change. With Microsoft now entering the market with Windows based operating systems for smartphones and tablets, these vendors now have a solid alternative to Android. And pretty much every one of them will be doing a Windows Tablet. And with doing a Windows Tablet comes major marketing dollars from Microsoft as well as huge industry interest for this tablet platform since it includes backward compatibility with existing Windows Apps.
This means that Google has even less control of their partners push for any Android tablets and this probably translates into Android tablets in general losing steam. Sure, Amazon will continue to use Android and in a sense advance Android in tablets. But their version of Android is their own amalgamation of the Android OS and their own special tweaks and in no way really advances Android itself in the market.
Now, when Google is asked about their Motorola purchase, they say it was for the patents and they plan to treat Motorola just as if it is another Android vendor and not give them any preferential treatment. Well, if you buy that, then I have bridge in NYC that I want to sell you very cheap! I believe Google knew full well that at some point Android could become really challenged and that their vendors could desert them. So the Motorola purchase was insurance. At first they could just gleam value from the patents and hope that this alone was worth the price. However, having Motorola in their backpocket that would let them become vertically integrated at the turn of a switch was the real goal of this acquisition.
Now, in my opinion, it is not a question of “if” they make Motorola their hardware arm. It is a matter of when and I believe that this will happen this summer. Put yourself in their position. By the fall, all of their key Android vendors will also be backing Windows 8 and you can be sure that this will be the beginning of these vendors de-emphasizing their Android products. Google better be ready to pick up the ball with Motorola by then or their ability to control their own destiny will take a real hit given the momentum that will come in Windows 8 tablets this fall.
More Acquisitions Will Happen to Go Vertical
A week before Google bought Motorola, my son Ben wrote an article in Tech.pinions arguing that Google should buy Motorola if they wanted to control their destiny. Although Google continues to deny that it will make Motorola its hardware ARM, both us believe that Google has no choice if they want to see Android succeed for their own purposes.
Related Column: Why Google Should Buy Motorola
So what about Microsoft and this issue of vertical integration? Aren’t they also completely beholden to their OEM partner’s to carry out their OS dreams and must trust them to be successful in hardware if Windows 8 on tablets and Windows Phone are to be big winners? Absolutely. Their model of using vendors for Windows 8 on desktop and laptops is intact and will succeed on its own. And perhaps even with tablets this will be the case since Windows 8 backward compatibility will be a big driver for these products and all PC OEMs will use this to extend their reach in tablets. But where Microsoft is very vulnerable is in smartphones since they pretty much are relying on Nokia to make Windows Phone–and beyond–succeed in these devices. Early this year, I wrote an article in Tech.pinions saying that Microsoft “will” buy Nokia and reasoned that in the end, when it comes to smartphones, Microsoft is so late in the game that ultimately they need to control its hardware destiny.
Related Column: Why Microsoft Will Buy Nokia
With the news last week that Nokia lost $1.9 billion last quarter and rumors of bankruptcy swirling around them, I am more convinced then ever that Microsoft will buy at least Nokia’s handset business. Although Nokia officials have denounced reports of bankruptcy, if they have another bad quarter their long-term position in the market could be even more questionable. In the end, Microsoft will have to be at least vertically integrated when it comes to smartphones if they want to guarantee the ultimate success of Windows phones.
Take a close look at why Apple is successful and you will see that their vertical integration allows them control their entire ecosystem and as a result, be master of their destiny. I don’t see any way for Google or Microsoft to ultimately control the success of Android in tablets and Windows Phone/8/9 on smartphones and tablets without becoming vertically integrated in these areas. If they do not do this, Apple will continue to eat their lunch and leave them in the dust.