Mr Moto falling

Motorola faces its toughest year in recent times. The problems go deeper than poor products

It created the two-way radio. It flew to the moon with Apollo and delivered for all mankind that birth cry of global mass communication. It powered the first wave of the mobile-phone revolution. Now, Motorola is in eclipse.

New chief executive Greg Brown has the regrettable task of announcing terrible figures, delayed products and a bleak future. As tradition demands, he is offering up a bloody restructuring aimed at slicing half-a-billion dollars in costs.

The reorganisation shouldn't be about cutting costs alone, even though investors will be looking at the headline figures. The company is hamstrung by its structure. Fiefdoms around the planet are in internal competition for status and resources, and senior management is unable to control them.

As Sony and Intel have demonstrated, running a global company as a coalition of warring tribes can produce genius — and meltdown. To make it work, the leadership needs to have all the elements of a successful medieval emperor: extremely clear strategy, exceptional political acumen and decisiveness that borders on the ruthless.

These are not attributes that come to mind when Motorola is mentioned. Instead, we see all the signs of confusion and internal dissent: multiple parallel development efforts that go nowhere; unexpected success producing reactive, tactical moves devoid of long-term thinking; and product lines that are bafflingly out of synch with the marketplace.

We've been here before: most famously, when success in analogue mobile phones in the US blinded the company to the digital revolution going on in the rest of the world. That time, GSM's decade-long growth phase gave the company its chance to fail and come back with a reduced share of a much bigger market. There is no such luxury now.

If Brown wants to be running a recognisable Motorola in 2009, he must demonstrate that R&D is now disciplined, focused and committed to producing exceptional results. He must do this by sticking to a coherent roadmap of products that will make sense in 2009, commercially and technologically. And he must make everyone inside the company realise what has been obvious from the outside for some time. This is it. There will be no second chance.

Motorola still has the talent and the resources to return to glory. Brown's greatest task will be to keep that belief burning brightly enough throughout the company to take on the challenges he must publicly set. If he does not, the brand that transmitted Armstrong's giant leap will end up as so many American names have before: a badge on Chinese boxes. It — and we — deserve better.

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