What Exactly is Motorola Hiding With the X8?

on August 6, 2013
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Last week, Motorola announced their new line of Droid phones for Verizon.  Three of the features they stressed the most were “up to 32-48 hours battery life”, case configurability, and what they called the “Motorola X8 Computing System” for always-on functionality.  The X8 was by far the most confusing and mis-reported elements of the announcements, with many outlets reporting conflicting facts about the X8.  So what exactly is Motorola hiding with the X8 and why weren’t they more clear with the facts?  Let’s start with what Motorola communicated at their launch event.

During the Motorola launch event, the company characterized the technology as the “Motorola X8 Computing System”.  It fake packagewasn’t described as a chip or as an SOC, but a “system”.  This is the first time I’ve ever heard something described like this and is very confusing.  The picture of the X8 was confusing, too, which I believe shows a fake PCB or package with 8 pads, 4 on each side.  This makes the X8 look like one piece of silicon, or SOC.  Most phone makers like Apple are very clear with their descriptions and describe exactly what is inside their phones as “chips” or “SOCs”.  The word “Qualcomm” was never used during the event, either, nor was it on the Motorola website at first, which has significance as I will point out later.

The press then described the X8 exactly as Motorola presented it, which was that Motorola created their custom SOC, which would be great… if it were true.

Only after ArsTechnica ran an article entitled, “Motorola’s 8-core chip gives us a lesson in marketing-speak” did the details start to emerge.  Ars ran a benchmark which listed the Droid’s configuration, clearly showing clearly that the phone was based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4, which is commonly found in 10s of millions of smartphones around the world.  Then the press jumped on that, now referring to the X8 as based on the S4 but with two custom Motorola cores for contextual computing (sensor hub) and natural language.  Also, Motorola then added the following to their own website:

“The Motorola X8 Mobile Computing System is comprised of a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4Pro family processor (1.7GHz Dual-Core Krait CPU, Quad-Core Adreno 320 GPU), a natural language processor and a contextual computing processor.”

Why didn’t Motorola just say that it used the Qualcomm S4 at launch?  Why did they show what looks like a fake PCB/package, making it look like it was one chip with all that functionality?

Sascha Sagan’s PC Magazine interview with Motorola engineering SVP Iqbal Arshad added some extra detail but added some more confusion. Sagan reported that, “The X8’s CPU is, basically, a 28nm Qualcomm S4 Pro running at 1.7GHz. Motorola has customized the chip’s firmware, though.” That custom firmware statement is just bizarre based on my 20 years dealing with chips. Every phone manufacturer customizes firmware of a phone to a certain point, but no one modifies the base level of the Qualcomm IP.  To add a little more mystery on the two specialized chips, in the article, Arshad “declined to say where Motorola got them from, or who manufactured them.”  Again, odd.

So what is it with all this secrecy, seemingly fake PCB/package shots, and confusion?  It’s all about who gets the credit.  Having planned over 100 product launches in product and corporate marketing, I understand the pressure of “the launch”.  With Google breathing down your neck, you’d take some chances, too.  You see, Motorola wants to get most of the credit for themselves and not share any of it with Qualcomm, the secret vendor that developed the two specialized chips, or the secret vendor who manufactured them.

The problem with this approach is trust.  When phones or chips get launched, the tech press and analysts will bare with getting marketed to, but want to know the facts, too.  In fact, doing good marketing is appreciated by the press and analysts, but the facts need to come out alongside of the spin.  If not, a lack of trust starts to build.  The way the X8 was communicated projects a lack of trust, not excitement.

You may be thinking, “so if you’re so smart, Pat, how would you do it?”  Well, I would have positioned the “system” as the holistic combination of the Motorola value-adds.  I like to think of these as “the special sauce” or the “magic blue crystals that make your clothes whiter”.  The Motorola “system” would have been the two special cores and the software that made it all happen, and not try and take credit from Qualcomm.

As soon as the Droid ships, it will be torn apart by iFixIt undoubtedly and we will most likely know what is really inside, with real, not fake die shots.  Going forward, my wish is that Motorola would take credit they deserve, give credit to those who deserve it, but most of all provide the facts.