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As a company, Motorola invented the cell phone 45 years ago, defined the age of feature-phone sleek with the RAZR, and opened the iPhone to serious competition with the Droid. But few tech brands have been on as wild of a roller coaster ride as Motorola since the company was split in two in 2011.
Motorola's sub-brand line is the most logical one of any company with a portfolio of its size. There's the entry-level E line, the midrange G line, the premium X line, and the leading-edge Z line. Each faces unique competitive factors. The E line targets a price point so low that Motorola's brand cachet -- such as it is -- has a hard time vying with lesser-known brands, particularly outside of the US. The X line has the opposite problem, trying to take on Samsung, LG, and Apple at the high end where, like HTC, Motorola is massively outspent.
That leaves the G and Z lines, which are almost diametrically opposed in their marketplace approach. The G line has been Motorola's most most successful line. It hits the right balance of design, brand, and price. But, with the G4 onward, Motorola has paid particularly close attention to two of the features that consumers say are important to them: Camera and battery life. Of course, the G isn't going to outgun a Galaxy S9 in low-light photography. But it is a strong offering for a wide range of consumer imaging scenarios. With the G6, Motorola is offering a 4,000mAh battery, one of the largest of mainstream smartphones.
The Z, on the other hand, is almost the complete opposite of the G line's mainstream-focused practicality. It is defined by its Moto Mod architecture, which I have written about time and again. Suffice it to say that, while Motorola has created the most successful and broadest reach of expansion modules, the bar has been set very low. There are a number of challenges with the general idea.
These include, for example, the question of how many Moto Mods one might reasonably need and be willing to carry around. However, the most fundamental one is that the paradox that pits functionality against demand. The more popular the functionality of a module is, the more likely there will be some way to provide it without modularity, even if it lacks a degree of integration that Moto Mods can provide. Examples include superior audio and extended battery.
But there's one other feature you can get in a Moto Z that addresses a widespread consumer pain point and for which Motorola has a best-in-class if not unique offering -- the shatterproof Force screen. If there were a way to bring this technology to the G line, it would truly propel that midrange line past anything in its price class. Today, the closest thing to wrapping the shatterproof screen around the feature set of the G is the Moto X. Unfortunately, though, the shatterproof screen's premium cost can't be baked into a relatively inexpensive phone, and Motorola's lack of competitiveness in the premium segment may have led it to skip the latest generation of the X series.
Lenovo purchased Motorola for its North American brand resonance. While the company hasn't been able to work the magic it did with the admittedly more corporate-oriented ThinkPad laptop line, the move may have been wise in retrospect with US government scrutiny on Chinese handset brands. That said, while other leading brands from the pre-iPhone era such as BlackBerry and Nokia retain strong brand recognition here in the US, they for now have supported smaller businesses with smaller product portfolios. (Indeed, HMD, the new company behind the Nokia handset brand, hasn't officially entered the US market.)
Motorola is simply not well-positioned to push as radical a proposition as modularity to a point where it helps the company. Rather, it should modernize the G line's design and find a way to have it embrace more of what consumers want in a phone today.