Why Motorola Bought 280 North

Andy Rubin (Google) and Dr. Sanjay K. Jha (Motorola) join Om Malik on stage at Mobilize 2009 in San Francisco.

Motorola (s MOT) is buying 280 North, a tiny software and web applications start-up started by ex-Apple employees, for $20 million. The company makes a web application framework called Cappuccino that allows anyone to build desktop-quality applications for the web. A good example is their 280 Slides offering, which allows users to create and view presentations on the web.

The acquisition is a pointer toward Motorola’s future plans, when its handset business (along with some other hardware product lines) is spun off into an independent company, Motorola Mobility. It is also Motorola’s attempt to capture the Apple (s AAPL) magic.

The newly-independent Motorola is looking to build a series of converged devices that range from smartphones to Android-powered (s GOOG) tablets to a newer kind of set-top boxes, but more importantly, a series of experiences based on that. In other words Motorola wants to go from being in the metal-bending business for carriers and cable companies to becoming a company with software and services based on that hardware: just like Apple.

Motorola’s desire to build its own software and services experiences only exacerbates the internal tensions in the Android (s goog) ecosystem. Most handset makers — HTC, Samsung, Motorola and Sony Ericsson — are looking for an edge over others, at a time when carriers and Google are exercising more control over Android. In a superb piece of analysis, The dirty little secret about Google Android, Jason Hiner points to the ineffectiveness of the Open Handset Alliance and other problems.

By some reports, the Open Handset Alliance is in now [sic] shambles. Members such as HTC have gone off and added lots of their own software and customizations to their Android devices without contributing any code back to the Alliance. Motorola and Samsung have begun taking the same approach. The collaborative spirit is gone — if it ever existed at all. And, Google is proving to be a poor shepherd for the wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing that make up the telecoms and the handset makers in the Alliance.

Motorola, which has bet the farm on Android, needs to differentiate more aggressively via software and services, or it runs the risk of being lost in the sea of Android phones that are emerging every day. What it needs is unique and better Android user experiences. So far, any attempts to build a UI and interesting new apps haven’t come to fruition.  The company recently shut down its push service, Blur, because of poor usage and a bad user experience.

What Motorola needs is folks with true web and social networking skills to develop interfaces based on what it already has: a solid push infrastructure. The 280 North team helps add fresh blood to Motorola and gives the phone maker access to talented programmers, who can in turn help the company build on top of Android OS.  This “acq-hire” type deal is definitely a good one for its investors, who invested $250,000 in the company. The investment came from Lowercase Capital, Y Combinator and other angels.

Of course, now Motorola has to overcome its culture and retain the team it’s paid good money for!

Related from GigaOM Pro: The Mobile Overview, Q2 201o