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

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.


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."