Editorial: Google, Microsoft and the incredible shifting mobile landscape

In two years, we'll mark the thirtieth anniversary of the first commercially available cellphone -- built by Motorola, incidentally. Given this week's big news from Google, and other big events that we can only presume are yet to come, those two years may also prove to be some of the most interesting yet for the mobile industry.

One of the more telling things about Google's acquisition announcement on Monday was the response from Motorola's competitors (and Google's partners). Immediately following the news, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, HTC and LG all came out to praise Google's commitment to "defending Android," which presumably also means that they remain committed to using Android. What's more, as Google itself has made explicitly clear recently, it's not just defending Android as any company would defend its own product, but defending it against what it's described as "hostile" and "organized" threat from Apple and Microsoft (and, to a lesser extent, Oracle).

That increasingly hostile footing and a further-bolstered Google (assuming the acquisition goes through) also now creates some clearer lines and an entirely new dynamic between the major players in the mobile industry. Google and Microsoft are now taking similar approaches by licensing out their operating system to others while also having a hand in hardware development (by proxy with Nokia in the case of Microsoft). Neither are about to go as completely independent as Apple has, of course, but they both seem to have decided that it's no longer enough to just focus on software and leave manufacturers entirely to their own devices.

That leaves RIM and HP who, like Apple, are each trying to go it alone with their own hardware and mobile operating system -- although HP is apparently open to the idea of licensing webOS if it has any takers (an option that seems to be getting less and less likely). The question now is will they succeed by staying out of the fray, or will they be forced to join it and choose sides?

Given its current lackluster market share with Windows Phone, one might be tempted to lump Microsoft in with HP and RIM as companies struggling to keep up with the seeming dominance of Google and Apple, but it's Microsoft. It has the resources required to compete (through acquisitions if necessary) and, though no one has really noticed much until recently, it has managed to position Windows Phone as the only real alternative to Android for phone manufacturers (at least those looking for a relatively safe bet).

That's backed up by projections from the likes of Gartner, whose most recent forecast suggests that Google will be holding steady with close 50 percent of the worldwide smartphone market by 2015, while Microsoft will be in second with nearly 20 percent, and Apple will be in third with about 17 percent. By then, Symbian is projected to have all but vanished, RIM will have continued its slow decline to rest at 11 percent, and HP is simply lumped in with "other operating systems," which totals just 3.3 percent. The current state of the US market is laid out in the Nielsen chart at the top of this article.

But, as Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility has made dramatically clear, unexpected events can happen to drastically alter such projections. In this case, there's no guaranteed change in market share considering Motorola was already committed to Android -- but what if it was Microsoft making the acquisition? It's now become apparent that Microsoft was interested in Motorola as well, and we can only presume that it's at least considering some other options now that it's off the table.

RIM is the company that's most talked about as a potential target and, in some ways, it would be a good fit with Microsoft. Like RIM, Microsoft has historically catered to both consumers and enterprise customers and, with its Nokia partnership, it also has the same global reach that RIM always points to as one of its key strengths. But it's difficult to see why Microsoft would buy RIM only to scrap its OS and rely on the company as another Windows Phone manufacturer -- having both BBM and Skype built into Windows Phone hardly seems worth the exorbitant cost, and Microsoft isn't exactly desperate for RIM's patents either.

Considering Nokia is already in its back pocket, a more sensible acquisition from Microsoft's perspective would seemingly be a company like HTC -- although it would be an even pricier proposition than RIM, or an outright purchase of Nokia for that matter. An HTC building only Windows Phones would give Microsoft an immediate boost (entirely at the expense of Android) and, combined with Nokia, it could be the incentive needed for other companies to give some more serious consideration to Windows Phone. It'd also probably come in handy by the time Microsoft finally enters the tablet market in earnest. Then again, those very advantages could also mean some considerably more difficult regulatory hurdles than Google faces with Motorola.

Even without an acquisition, however, HTC -- not to mention LG and Samsung -- may well have more reason to reconsider their current approach to Android and Windows Phone now that Google is a competitor in addition to a partner (despite the companies' recent statements to the contrary). And that's to say nothing of HP, which surely must be asking itself some tough questions these days, and even smaller players like Dell, who may decide it's better to pick a team than stay on the fence.

We've already seen the mobile landscape shrink considerably when Nokia sided with Microsoft, and with RIM and HP now increasingly being pushed to the sidelines, it seems likely that we'll soon be looking at a new big three -- Google, Microsoft, and Apple -- occupying almost the entire playing field. And if that plays out with smartphones, it's difficult to see how tablets don't follow.

Of course, two years is a long time in this business, and far too long to be making any definitive predictions. Just look back at 2009, when RIM was still dominating the smartphone market, Android was barely a blip, and tablets were by and large nothing more than Windows laptops with a stylus instead of a keyboard.