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Mobile in chaos

By Mike Elgan, Computerworld on Sep 19, 2011
Mike Elgan About the author

Mike Elgan, Computerworld

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com

The mobile computing industry has just gone crazy. HP, which has long been a leader in mobile computing, has announced that it will stop selling laptops, tablets and smartphones. Meanwhile, Fusion Garage, which is the least-successful tablet maker ever, is getting back into the tablet business. And Google, which has avoided selling handsets save for one brief failed attempt, is buying Motorola Mobility. And everyone in the industry, it seems, is suing everyone else.

The root cause of all this turmoil is Apple. While the mobile industry is becoming increasingly central to all computing, and is being woven into our lives like never before, Apple is the only company making real money at it. And it’s driving everyone crazy. Here is what’s happening.

HP quits: HP announced plans to spin off its PC unit as a separate company. It will stop making hardware for devices purchased as part of the acquisition of Palm Computing, and will most likely license the webOS platform software to other companies.

Fusion Garage won’t quit: One of the most epic mobile computing fails in recent years was the CrunchPad fiasco. Blogger Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, started a project in 2008 to create a cheap web-based touch tablet that would be called the CrunchPad. He worked with Singapore-based design studio Fusion Garage on the project.

As the project got nearer to completion, Fusion Garage somehow fired Arrington from his own project and launched the device under the brand name JooJoo. The tablet was a piece of junk, and failed in the market. So that’s the last we’ll be hearing about Fusion Garage, right?

Wrong. The company announced that it would re-launch a newer, improved version of the tablet to be called the Grid10. The only reason this launch is making news is because of the controversy around and failure of its last attempt.

Google becomes a rival: There are two kinds of mobile software platform companies. There are companies like Microsoft that make the software and cultivate developers and OEMs to support the environment. But, companies like Apple that don’t license their software but instead use that software only for their own hardware.

Google wants it both ways. The company announced that it has agreed to purchase Motorola for $12.5 billion.

While the deal was motivated primarily by Google’s desire to fortify its patent portfolio, the purchase puts Google in a strange and unprecedented relationship with both itself and its OEM partners. In effect, Google becomes both partner and competitor to current Android-based handset makers. And Google becomes its own partner. Motorola will continue making Android-based phones and tablets.

Everyone sues like crazy: Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble, Foxonn and Inventec. Oracle is suing Google. Sony is suing LG. Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, HTC and Kodak are all suing Apple, and Apple is suing them all back except Kodak.

And thanks to lawsuits, Microsoft is making more money from Android than Google is. The company licenses technology in Android that Microsoft claims to have invented to Amazon and HTC.

Patent trolls have emerged that do nothing but buy and sell patents — and sue companies that violate inventions they had no hand in inventing.

Apple’s success in mobile has made the company the first or second most valuable company in the entire world.

Apple makes big profits from hardware, from its own software and from other people’s software. Nearly three-quarters of its revenue come from mobile devices launched in the past decade.

The bottom line is that mobile computing has never been hotter or more profitable. But only one company is making almost all the money. And it’s driving everyone crazy. 

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