Motorola: You're only as good as your last hit

Motorola: You're only as good as your last hit

Summary: In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of consumer electronics, Motorola can't seem to find a winning formula. Turns out Google has a thing for algorithms.

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TOPICS: Mobile OS
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The London Olympics ended last night with a dizzying (and lengthy) closing ceremony of colors, sounds and pop culture. If you didn't catch it, the show was punctuated by an in-the-flesh highlights reel of Britain's best rock acts. From the Spice Girls to The Who to (what's left of) Pink Floyd, it was a staggering collection of living proof that the Brits have left an indelible mark on pop music.

Most importantly, it showed that the country has continued to foster talent in an age where the music industry is fragmenting. It is unlikely we'll ever see an act with the same world-spanning impact as those four mop-headed men from Liverpool, but singer-songwriter Jessie J, rapper Tinie Tempah and boy band One Direction are doing their duty in securing the outsized influence of 60 million people living on an island floating off the coast of continental Europe. As music tastes change, Britain continues to produce winners.

(We will, of course, see if those newer artists' careers last longer than Paul McCartney's opening ceremony rendition of "Hey, Jude." But I digress!)

The folks at Motorola Mobility should be taking notes. As with music, consumers who buy portable electronics are fickle, selectively frugal and always running off in search of the next new thing. Just when you think you've succeeded with a smash -- say, the Bee Gees and their domination of disco -- people change their tastes, destroy their mirror balls and start wearing all black.

Remember the Razr? That was Motorola's smash hit, back when cellphones were primarily used to call people and Apple made its money by manufacturing candy-colored desktop computers. A company long-known for telecom infrastructure suddenly had a consumer hit, and it grabbed every dollar it could on the way up.

But a hit does not a career make, and somewhere along the way, the phone and the computer merged, changing the direction of the industry. With the emergence of the smartphone, Motorola found its hands tied as younger, more nimble computing types ate its lunch.

It hardly went silently. The Motorola Droid smartphone was an able competitor that served as the first true household name rival to Apple's iPhone, followed by many more devices. But something didn't quite capture the imagination of the people, and money was going out the door hand over fist. Turns out there's a big difference between a one hit wonder and a hit machine, even if you're an 83-year-old act: the latter is built to sustain itself.

Today, Motorola's mobile phone business -- now "Motorola Mobility," owned by 13-year-old Google -- is moving to slim its ranks by a fifth and close a third of its offices. Google aims to "reinvent" the company by gutting it and rebuilding it with the best minds in the business: Amazon's Mark Randall on the supply chain, for example, and DARPA's Regina Dugan on R&D. The idea: if the hits are few and far between, it's time to look at what's working in the market and revamp the infrastructure to build it. 

Drop the strings section, add a few guitar riffs and call it New Wave. So to speak.

It all looks good on paper, of course, but it remains to be seen whether Motorola can really capture consumers' imaginations once again -- and sustain it. For most of its corporate existence, Motorola's bread-and-butter was selling to businesses, not consumers. Now that the Mobility group doesn't have communications equipment profits to rely on, there's no safety net. It must rebuild itself into a competitor that's nimble enough to weather neck-snapping changes in technology and taste. 

It takes a culture change to make that happen.

That is, of course, why Google was interested in Motorola in the first place -- the digital advertising giant has its own changes to make to ensure survival. Given this symbiotic relationship, perhaps the Spice Girls put it best: "If you want my future, forget my past."

Topic: Mobile OS

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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6 comments
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  • They need to stop playing around...

    If they use an S4 Quad, 8MP Backlit F2 camera, license good sound technology and use an HD screen in the Razr Maxx body they would have the perfect hardware base with an awesome body...

    Then they need to use stock Android and release the phone on more than just one carrier.

    The problem with these phone manufacturers is that they are afraid to bet big! They bet safe when they could literally destroy the competition the way the EVO did when it was first released.
    slickjim
    • Yes and no.

      Again, a hit is nice, but it's sustained success that is most concerning. HTC is the company behind the Evo, and they're in as much trouble right now.
      andrew.nusca
  • Your analogy is all wrong

    In your analogy, Motorola is the act, and Razr was the album. A better analogy would be Motorola is the LABEL, and Razr was the act that didn't know when to quit. The original Razr was great. The subsequent versions, twisted with carrier specific bands and features, were awful money losers. In your analogy, tired, drunken, one-hit wonders, replaying the same songs and doing a worse job each time.

    Second, your history is off. Razr was losing Motorola piles of money before smartphones made it to the scene. Droid is the only reason Motorola Mobility survives today. If Droid wasn't propping them up the rest of Mobility, Motorola wouldn't have been able to support the split-off in the first place. The entire division would have been shuttered.

    Third and finally, "You're only as good as your last hit" is bad business. You're only as good as your NEXT hit.
    tkejlboom
    • Motorola Mobility is NOT alive today because of Droid

      They are alive because Google was DESPERATE and wanted a patent portfolio.

      Motorola was already threatening to sue every Android OEM and Google panicked. They overpaid for the LOSING division given that Motorola Mobility is being working in the red for pretty much the last 10 years ...
      wackoae
  • Nand Lock

    Good riddance to Motorola and their evil Nand Lock. Tho' I've spent hours to do it, I can't permanently root my XT300 Spice piece of junk not so smartphone.
    That leaves us stuck with Eclair 2.1.
    So many problems with this phone's design, and dowdy OS.
    Class action lawsuits would now be deemed as against a non existent 'Person' before the law, as of Google's purchase. Motorola must have seen the curtain call coming. And Google capitalized on it.
    PreachJohn
  • Motorola, the one hit wonder

    So, it seems to me that you are saying that Motorola is a one hit wonder, but I think some of the other commenters are closer.

    My take is that Motorola is like the band Chicago ( and I like Chicago, at least the early stuff). They haven't put out a significant album in decades or had a whiff of a hit song, but they are still out there touring.

    Now, that analog does not work perfectly, because bands survive because most of us like the music of our high school and college years, and so we listen to them over and over again on LP, CD or MP3, and we go see them in concert.

    The problem for Motorola, as well as HTC and Samsung, is that they have too many products on the market. Apple makes huge profits by making only one product in each market and then selling the stuffing out of it. HTC has taken a step in the right direction by reducing their line to a few models. Motorola needs to look for their next hit, but they need to look at it the way a band would. If you need a hit, you either write a hit or you hire someone to write it for you. If you keep pushing the same cludge out the door, then you turn into Nickleback. But also, like a band, you need to make something you like, something you enjoy.

    In fact, I think that would be my advice to all of the electronics OEMs, even Dell and HP, as well as Samsung, HTC and Motorola. Try to figure out what you would like to use. What would you like in a smartphone, tablet, or PC, and make that. The one thing that comes out of Apple products is that they seem to work to a standard that isn't public opinion, though their devices are often the most popular. When you saw Steve Jobs (rest in peace) up on the stage, it always seemed like he really liked the product he was holding, like Apple was producing the device he wanted to use. And that he was willing to share his secret with you. That was and still can be a powerful way to present a product.

    Other companies need to try that.
    AudeKhatru