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

Motorola's new flagship device has analysts asking why Google is putting effort into the Moto X when Android is doing nicely without it?
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

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."

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