The Motorola Mystery Deepens

on August 2, 2013

The Moto X is a phone.

It’s a little newer than your phone.

It will be available for sale in late August.

This is the true story of the Motorola Moto X.

–“The Amazing True Story of the Moto X,” John Herman’s Buzzfeed story in the form of a poem

Fifteen months ago, Google bought Motorola for $12.5 billion. And we are still trying to figure out why.

The flagship Moto X handset, announced Aug. 1, doesn’t do much to clarify things. It’s the first product that bears the clear stamp of Google management. And it appears to be a very nice phone, with solid specs and fully competitive with the latest offerings from Samsung, HTC, Sony, and whoever else is still in the Android phone mix.

What it isn’t is particularly disruptive. Like other flagship Android phones–the Samsung Galaxy S4, the HTC One, the Sony Experia Z–it has some distinctive features that set it aside from the pack. But at bottom, it is built from the same specs and will be sold through the same carrier channels at the same price and with the same plans as its competitors.

Its most notable features include customized colors and textures (initially available only on AT&T models), the ability to take a photo by shaking the phone, even if it is asleep, and tapping the screen, and software that listens and will respond to voice commands at any time. These seem less gimmicky than some of the features of the Galaxy S4, but they don’t feel like enough to shake Samsung’s dominance of the Android market.

In the rumor-laden run-up to the Moto X announcement, there was talk that Motorola’s expertise in sensor technology would yield some revolutionary use of the phone’s ability to sense its surrounding, for example, a phone that might automatically adjust its behavior when it realized it was in a moving car. A lot of this speculation was encouraged by the public statements of CEO Dennis Woodside. So it’s not unreasonable that we hoped for something more interesting than shake-to-shoot.

So the question remains is just what problem Motorola Mobility solves for Google. The Moto X doesn’t reduce Android fragmentation. Instead, it adds its own mildly customized user interface to the Android 4.x mix. It doesn’t answer the question of who is really in charge of the Android user experience, the OEMs, the carriers, or Google. And I have no particular reason to believe it will significantly reduce Moto’s losses, which are running at a pace of about $1 billion a year.

Maybe Google has some grand scheme for its disparate efforts whose logic will some day be revealed to us. Or maybe it really is just a unfocused collection of efforts, ranging from handsets to self-driving cars, funded by a massively profitable search advertising business. Some day we will know.