Moto X: Can Google deliver the Android-supercharger it promised - and does it need to?

Moto X: Can Google deliver the Android-supercharger it promised - and does it need to?

Summary: Motorola's new flagship device has analysts asking why Google is putting effort into the Moto X when Android is doing nicely without it?

TOPICS: Smartphones, Google

Back in August 2011 when Google first revealed its plan to buy Motorola Mobility, it promised the acquisition would "supercharge the entire Android ecosystem". And close to two years later, Motorola is on the brink of unveiling its new flagship smartphone, the Moto X: is it a concrete attempt to deliver on that promise, or something else entirely?

The company has touted the Moto X as the first smartphone "designed, engineered and assembled" in the US (although this doesn't mention where the components are being made). Motorola argues that this can give it an advantage over its rivals by bringing engineers and designers together to innovate faster (Apple's iPhone is, of course, "Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China", as the back of every device tells you).

Motorola also claims the Moto X will be the "first smartphone that you can design yourself" although this is thought to mean that buyers can choose colours and engravings rather than have any say over the internals. Motorola said by the end of the summer it expects to have more than 2000 new employees in Fort Worth, Texas working on its new hero device.

The Moto X will be formally unveiled at an event in New York later this week, but already Google has been trying to build momentum by drip feeding out some details — and Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt using the phone at an event.

At the D11 conference in May, Motorola chief executive Dennis Woodside also gave an overview of some the features of the new device.

"Motorola has always been really good at managing the power on the device. Motorola's also been really good at managing ultra low-power sensors, the gyroscope and the accelerometer and keeping those on all the time so that the device knows different use states: it knows that it's in my pocket right now, it knows when I take it out of my pocket that I might want to do something — I might want to take a picture. It anticipates my needs," he said.

"Imagine you are in the car the device will know whether its on or off that it's travelling at 60 miles an hour and it's going to act differently so you can interact with it safely."

Google's Motorola history

Google announced its plan to buy Motorola Mobility for $12.5bn back in August 2011 (the deal closed in May 2012), with the search giant's CEO, Larry Page, claiming that the acquisition would "supercharge the Android ecosystem" and enhance competition in mobile computing.

"This guy is building exactly what you think he is. Designed by you. Assembled in the USA," says Motorola in a tweet promoting the Moto X.

At the time, Google was keen to reassure other handset makers that the Google-created Android operating system would remain open. Andy Rubin, senior vice president of mobile at Google, said: "Our vision for Android is unchanged and Google remains firmly committed to Android as an open platform and a vibrant open source community. We will continue to work with all of our valued Android partners to develop and distribute innovative Android-powered devices."

But, for all the executive emphasis on the handset business, most industry watchers saw the deal being mostly about getting hold of Motorola's mobile technology patent portfolio (including 17,000 patents and 7,500 patent applications) to help Google secure Android against a number of legal spats, with the mobile handset business essentially just a bonus.

Since the acquisition Google has sold off Motorola's set-top box unit and manufacturing facilities, and has seemed underwhelmed by the hardware roadmap it had bought — any fear of upsetting other Android licencees appears to have been overstated, thanks to Motorola's lack of headline- or sales-generating devices.

In March, Google chief financial officer Patrick Pichette said Google had inherited an 18-month legacy product pipeline which it had to "drain" before it can launch anything "wow" or up to the standard expected for Google products.

And it looks like Motorola is in need of wow: according to figures from ComScore, in May this year Motorola was the brand of choice for just 7.8 percent of US smartphone subscribers, down from 8.4 percent in February, and down from 12 percent back in May 2012 when the Google acquisition closed. In contrast, Apple has 39.2 percent of the market, and Samsung 23 percent — market share made up mostly of Android devices.

In light of that, it's hard to see why Google would want (via Motorola) to build its own mobile hardware. While Microsoft was forced to step in and build its own hardware in the shape of the Surface tablet because it was frustrated by the lack of innovation from its partners, the Android ecosystem is vibrant and Samsung (in particular) is delivering plenty of excitement with its Galaxy S4.

What next?

So why is Google putting effort into the Moto X when Android is doing quite nicely without it?

According to Tony Cripps, principal analyst for devices and platforms at researchers Ovum, while Android is the market leader at the moment, having Motorola on side gives Google a hedge against any of its other handset partners choosing another operating system.

"While Android remains a strategically important piece of the Google offering they will look to protect that as much as they can, and if driving that through their own inhouse hardware company is an option they will do it."

It may seem a distant threat given Samsung's success with Android devices, but who wants all their eggs in one basket? While Samsung, which accounts for almost half of all Android handsets sold, is doing very nicely from Google's operating system, it still makes sense to guard against a defection: the mobile industry has seen high-profile switches before, and Samsung has been flirting with rival OS Tizen. An Android rejection may not happen soon, but Google isn't about to let itself be taken by surprise.

Indeed, Google is well known for playing the long game when it comes to technology, which means the success or failure of one handset is less relevant — as Larry Page said when the Motorola acquisition closed: "It's a well known fact that people tend to overestimate the impact technology will have in the short term, but underestimate its significance in the longer term. Many users coming online today may never use a desktop machine, and the impact of that transition will be profound."

Topics: Smartphones, Google

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  • Oh good: Moto betting on AI & its UX talents

    “Motorola has always been really good at managing the power on the device.”

    OTOH, Motorola has sometimes been pretty awful in making the power useful. Some sources cite Moto's ROKR as the point where Jobs realized that Apple should put out the huge investment and effort to get into phones, the ROKR was so clumsy.
  • since google is well funded by its ad business

    it frees them up to focus on the long term. Larry can evolve these great new products slowly and often in the open, like glass- the opposite of apple. They can care about the 'greater good' more than a lot of companies. They don't need to be as focused on immediate results to the bottom line and can afford to try some innovative things with long term goals in mind. This is the sort of company I would want to work for. Do you think google cared about how much the chromebook pixel sold? No, it was to show off their design skills and build their reputation. Other companies can't be bothering with this sort of thing. They are just focused on the stock performance and quarterly report. Apple can't release anything but a major new massively successful, innovative product at this point, or their stock will tank. I think they are backed into a corner. Sure, another refresh of iOS and the iphone/ipad but how much longer can that go on by itself.

    You have to ask what gets steve ballmer out of bed in the morning, when the company is just so still purely about the bottom line, nickle and diming me, and they have so huge coffers already. They already 'won' years ago, ten times over. They really have nowhere to go but down at this point. You don't feel like its about the products, its just $$$ and they might as well be making generic 'widgets' for all ballmer cares - just a 'used car' salesman.
    • "They can care about the 'greater good' more than a lot of companies"

      Have some more Kool-Aid.

      MS also develops "in the open." I remember running Windows 8 months before it launched, and am running a preview of 8.1 right now.

      The major difference between MS, who "nickles and dimes me" is that they tell me what the costs are up front. Google spies on me and never reveals the true cost to me of the business they conduct. But make no mistake, it costs me...real the form of higher prices on the products I buy and which were advertised through Google.
      x I'm tc
      • Seriously?

        Right, and you would have paid less because you would have bought that product without being aware of it since it was not advertised! Companies aren't flocking to place ads with Google out of love. They are doing it because advertising with Google sells their products. And it does because before Google came along, you had to see advertisements of products that you may not need. With Google's mining, you are getting relevant ads. I prefer that. If you are concerned, feel free to opt out and you will get served ads the traditional way. The other reason is that Google ads are unobtrusive and don't have a lot of animations and doesn't make me disable javascript to those sites to turn it off.
        • Sure

          What they do do is tinker search results do basically the highest bidder gets the first result and so on. This is far from the early days of Google where search results were based on consumer popularity. There are better search engines out there, some run by ex-Google employees. Ones that don't mine your personal data.
          • This is a blatant lie that has been fought and proven in courtrooms

            " is tinker search results do basically the highest bidder gets the first result and so on."

            so just shut up !
      • Google = MS

        They both nickld and dime their users. They just do it differently and Google makes users look the other way with their bread and circuses act (eg. Google glass, driverless cars, etc)
        • What you mean is...

 and pony show.
      • Oh Please.

        The spy on me crap. Google provides a useful service in exchange for the right to place ads in front of your eyeballs. Is there anybody who doesn't know their business model?

        The haters are just upset that the public actually prefers this model to paying for software.
        • Re: Oh Please.

          keithz80: "Google provides a useful service in exchange for the right to place ads in front of your eyeballs. Is there anybody who doesn't know their business model?”

          I’m sure there are a vast number of people who have absolutely no idea of the extent to which Google *could* and may well be tracking users.

          keithz80: "The haters are just upset that the public actually prefers this model to paying for software.”

          1) Being “a hater” sounds like a bad thing, but sometimes hate is good. I hate the political sound-bite. I hate words like “awesome” and “epic” and “haters.” I hate many things that (possibly) have their origins in the undiscriminating “POW! POP! BANG! ZING!” of ad-land.

          2) As a “hater” of ad-supported software and services, I’m not sure whether the “public” have chosen ad-support. (You assume assume a lot about economics and taste that’s probably wrong.)

          As I mentioned in another post, wherever I have a choice between zero dollar, ad-supported software and pay-up-front, ad-free soft software, I choose the pay-up-front version.

          Keithz80: "the public actually prefers (the ad-supported) model”

          This member of the public disagrees. Do you have any stats to support your claim? What about comparisons of paid verses ad-supported purchases of (say) Apps in the Apple App Store? It would be nice to have *some* data to work with!

          Ad-supported services can have serious side effects. Look at body dysmorphia in male and female teens. This is a serious health issue that can be blamed, at least partly, on the unrealistic bodies shown in ads and ad-supported TV programs.

          If you compare an ad-free copy of a TV show made for a US ad-supported broadcaster with an episode made for the BBC (which has no ads) or US subscription channel then the latter two are clearly superior. Ad-supported TV must constantly introduce tension to stop people from wandering away during the ad breaks. Ad-supported TV programs doubtless rate better when they can be understood by someone walking in half way through, which encourages utterly predictable scripts that require no attention or though by viewers. Product placement in ad-supported programs is becoming the funniest part of many bleak programs: it may be possible to write good dialog about the auto-parking feature of some brand of car , but I haven’t seen it done.

          Advertising has damaged broadcast TV so seriously that it’s no surprise people are moving to pay-TV.

          Ads in software and services aren’t currently so intrusive that they’ve made the internet an unusable and worthless service, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to find that (say) half of all internet traffic is wasted on JPGs and MPGs and text devoted to advertising, that I have no interest in. However indirectly, I’m paying for advertising and I do not want it.

          Not so long ago, many people were putting up with email spam rates in excess of 95% If it hadn’t been for government regulation and spam filters, advertisers could easily have made the whole email concept useless.

          If internet advertising were banned tomorrow, I’d disagree with the decision on principle; But I’m not sure how many years it would take me to write a complaint to my democratic representative about the ban.
    • salesman

      From all the car salesman, used and new: every occupation is what you make of it. I sell cars, I'm a single Dad, and consider myself honest, respectable, and truly provide an invaluable service to my customers. Whatever you do for a living Dr Wong, I hope you can same the same.
    • Thanks doc

      Given that lengthy argument I guess Samsung us really screwed then. After all, all they release is their own version of other people's products. That goes for the rest of the brainless OEMs too.
    • Caring about the 'greater good’? Or just taking advertising to new realms?

      This is ridiculous.

      I agree that Google are involved with an interesting variety of projects, from small ARM-based operating systems (Android) to the large-scale parallel programming model of MapReduce / Hadoop.

      However, I don’t accept that Google’s large and stable ad-revenues allow their workers to potter around, like paid students in a never-ending, well-funded, blue-sky, graduate course.

      Google see the web as a stage for ads and tightly-focussed advertising (especially if auctioned in real-time as suggested by global.philospher) needs a lot of computer power. Empirically-based advertising, where different combinations of ads and consumers are tested for sales efficacy, need massive resources.

      So Google seems to have a very rational, very financial interest in all levels of computing - from phones to super-computers. (This line of reasoning might even explain why MapReduce is good for many statistical calculations, but a bit of a disaster for finite element and implicit finite difference methods for PDEs, molecular dynamics simulations etc. I’m not sure where real-time ad auctions would fit, as MapReduce is notoriously bad for real-time calculations.)

      "Do you think google cared about how much the chromebook pixel sold? No, it was to show off their design skills and build their reputation."

      The ChromeBook wasn’t cheap. Mightn’t its development have been the result of a software engineer realising that Chrome OS could be cobbled together, at minimal expense, from bits raided from Google’s code base? (The hardware didn’t require much innovation, that I could see.)

      I’m sure that the Google software and hardware engineers put a lot of care and work into the ChromeBook’s design, but that doesn’t mean that Google were any less concerned with making a profit from it, than Apple was with the iPhone/iPad or even Microsoft with the Surface (Pro anyway).

      I’d concede that Google are taking advertising to hitherto unexplored scales and precision targeting, and that this needs a lot of new technology.

      The problem is that I hate ads. In the Apple store, I never use a zero dollar, ad-supported app, if there is a paid, ad-free alternative. (My dislike of ads is perfectly reasonable, but this isn’t the place to explain it.)
  • Hard to See? Only If Taking Google at Face Value

    “In light of that, it's hard to see why Google would want (via Motorola) to build its own mobile hardware.”

    Now that Google actually owns (the parts they didn't sell off or lay off), it's moot. They take a stab at competing in a way that Moto was not able to do as a free-standing firm (it was losing market share AND was unprofitable when Google picked it up), or they rewrite their rationalization /PR spin.

    If the X flops—a dev I know expects a buggy UX and carrier antipathy at best—we'll see whether Google doubles down or starves the unit until it doesn't matter.
    • Googles first phone?

      I don't follow the phone tech very closely. It sounds as if you are saying this will be Googles first attempt at android.
      Two years ago I purchased a Samsung III GT15800 from Overstock for $149.00 when everyone else sold them for $500.00 here in the US. Apparently, it came from overseas (factory set for Celsius) and I assumed it was their going on to the newer and better. Google was built into this and I really like this phone, so maybe Google has some experience under their belt for androids.
  • Surprisingly Good Article

    I for one, am looking forward to the Moto X..
    Depending on what it is really like (and cost) I may or may not buy one (I skipped the Nexus 4 - no LTE).
    Long term realistic thinking; a surprise from a big company in this day and age.
    • Bought into the hype

      Looking fowars to it when you know nothing about it - except you may be able to order screen size, colour, engraving and memory configuration...really? need to order that!!!!
      • you're a waste of time

        why can't someone be looking forward to something that hasn't been released yet? people look forward to the new version of iOS before it's announced
        people look forward to the new version of windows before it's details are announced. why can't this fellow look forward to the moto x before it's announced.. seriously.. you need to take your hatred of other people that is literally made of nothing other than sheer ignorance and just go away.. you are a poison that is doing no good here.
        • Are you sure?

          People *can* look forward to these new bits of tech...But I really wouldn’t want to talk to anyone that vapid, on any sort of phone.

          (I didn’t camp out or pay more for my iPhone. It was the same price as a Samsung in a monthly bundle and - since I had to choose one or the other – I picked the one that suited me best.)
  • Better or worse?

    Made in the USA sounds good, however I thought they always had been. Hmmmmm. I had an older Motorola flip phone nearly a decade ago. I accidently tossed it into the washing machine and did not discovered it until it was soaked. OH NO ! Took a hair dryer to it and let it dry out and no problem. Still worked. SO, I am a Motorola fan in many respects - but will it still be as well as it used to and will the Moto X sill have that wonderful long battery power no else seems to have? THAT is my question.