OMG! Google's Andy Rubin worries Samsung may become a threat

Will a company like Google, which has called the shots for most of its (relatively) young history, need to redefine its relationship with the biggest Android maker of them all?

Visitors look at new Samsung devices during the first day of the Mobile World Congress 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. Getty Images
Andy Rubin, who heads up Google's enormously successful Android business, can read a company's business strategy as well as anyone out there. So it's hardly a thunderbolt when we hear that Rubin frets about the day when Samung becomes so dominant that it becomes a threat.

In a Wall Street Journal post coinciding with the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona this week, an unnamed source dishes about a Google event last fall where Rubin was said to allude to the potential for trouble with Samsung sometime in the future. That's why Google acquired Motorola Mobility "as a kind of insurance policy," or hedge, against a company like Samsung gaining too big a footprint in the Android community, Rubin reportedly said.

Sounds about right. I suppose the bigger shock would be if Rubin had been oblivious to any of this. Samsung's emergence the last few years ranks as one of the more remarkable stories in the technology business. It wasn't so long ago that this was little more than a big OEM (original equipment manufacturer) supplier. Now it's the world's biggest maker of Android-based hardware.

Give the Googlers credit for knowing their history -- and maybe that will help them prevent repeating it. The names change, but this is all part of a familiar business story line. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who battled against Microsoft when he worked for Sun Microsystems and Novell, watched how the once-close relationship between Microsoft and its biggest customer, IBM, frayed and turned contentious during the years-long rivalry between Windows and OS/2. There's nothing so far to suggest that Google and Samsung are fated to head down a similar road, but as the WSJ's nicely written narrative makes clear, this is getting complicated.

For now -- and probably the near future -- Google and Samsung remain partners. Samsung accounted for about 200 million more Android smartphones than the nearest Android-device manufacturer, and that gives Samsung leverage. With that heft also comes the power to demand better pricing, earlier access to technology, and other terms and conditions. For now, Google may be able to live with all that, especially given that both companies have a common rival in the form of Apple.

However, this relationship will require a lot of TLC to manage, especially if the current trends accelerate (and based so far on what's coming out of Barcelona, there's nothing to suggest that any would-be challengers are close to offering the sort of show-stoppers which might slow Samsung's momentum). For a company like Google, which has been able to call the shots for most of its (relatively) young history, I suppose it's a good problem to have -- the flip side of success. But it also may be a harbinger suggesting that the topdog-underdog relationship between Google and Samsung is fated to get redefined.

 

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