Motorola are doing everything right
The iconic brand fell out of favour, but has risen as a bastion of the budget market and the Google way
There was a time when a Motorola phone was something of a status symbol among the fashion conscious. In the long-ago times before the modern age of smartphones, feature phones could call, text and take pictures. They also played Snake!
Over the years features were added; having a phone that could download and rock a polyphonic version of Bomfunk MC’s Freestyler was the epitome of cool at one point when I was at school.
After that you could store your own .mp3s on memory cards and eventually cameras appeared that didn’t make everyone look like a pixelated Donkey Kong. If you were lucky you might even have had a rudimentary data services connection dependent on the plan you paid for with your network.
In this world there was little to differentiate phones by raw specifications, so it was mostly down to design and advertising that got one in your hands after leaving the store.
This was where Motorola excelled against the competition; Sony Ericsson were generally feature-filled and cool but expensive, Nokia were reliable but boring and everyone else (Siemens, Panasonic, Samsung) just seemed to be ticking boxes.
Motorola were fun. They were accessible and enjoyable. They arguably dominated both the clamshell and flip-phone eras and once the impossibly thin Razr was unleashed on the world, they became sexy.
Whether or not they financially won out against Nokia’s onslaught of releases could be debated from month to month sales and is really a moot point. The Finnish company was constantly trying to recreate the widespread appeal of the early 32/3310, whereas Motorola just kept making cool happen.
The ‘Hello Moto’ slogan was instantly recognisable and even briefly became part of the everyday lexicon in the same way as ‘Wassup!‘ or other advertising driven sound bites.
Motorola did everything required to put a phone in the hands of every demographic from teenagers to grandparents.
This isn’t surprising when you remember that Motorola were a company at the dawn of mobile infrastructure. Much of Motorola’s own technology underpinned the very existence of early mobile networks. In short they always had the hardware and ability to produce the most functional devices. They were then able to invest time in producing the best consumer products.
Late to the smart party
The second half of the 00’s and the rise of the modern smartphone saw a considerable drop in Motorola’s consumer fortunes. Whilst their other departments continued to operate successfully, the mobile handset division failed to innovate and keep up with the consumer trends.
When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007 and kickstarted a surge in consumer popularity for a previously niche category, Motorola were as late in responding as everyone else.
By the time Google released a ready made operating system to challenge iOS and Motorola found their feet again in 2009, there were new and improved players in the game. HTC had already placed themselves as manufacturers of high quality devices and Samsung were laying the groundwork for a war with Apple that they continue to fight.
The DROID range saw some commercial success in the USA although deals in place meant sales were restricted through particular carriers. Rebranded as the Milestone this handset didn’t fare well in other markets such as the UK.
Throughout the following few years Motorola released decent handsets that were continuously middle-of-the-road yet never stole any limelight from the ‘flagship’ devices. The Flipout, Atrix and Defy are all examples of well received smartphones with interesting hooks that unfortunately sold poorly.
A Google Company
Eventually Motorola split in early 2011, continuing as the enterprise focussed Motorola Solutions and spinning off the mobile division into the autonomous Motorola Mobility. The new Mobility was responsible for some of the handsets mentioned earlier and later that year Google picked up the company for a whopping $12.5 billion.
The jury’s out on whether Google got their money’s worth but what can’t be denied is they turned the floundering phone manufacturer fortunes around.
The first Google influenced device out of the door was the Moto X which was received to critical acclaim across the board. Issues with supply in the USA aside, the Moto X was a success, enough for Motorola to briefly make the handset available in Europe to supplement their wider range.
Made to last. Priced for all.
First of all they seem quite basic on the surface; the designs are simple and other than the X’s ‘always listening’ voice-recognition, almost nothing in the way of added features or software tweaks for enhanced user experience or whatever else the marketing team want to call it.
Secondly, Motorola pushed the limits of price to breaking point on all 3 phones, whilst including a practically pure Android installation. Each handset is currently unmatched for price and specification, with Android 4.4 KitKat running either as standard or via update.
With Google’s influence there is almost no customisation of Android either, so this range of devices gets updates very quickly and remain an example to the rest of the industry.
In the last 6 months, when asked, I’ve personally advised a number of friends and family to pick up a Moto G almost without pause. I’ve also seen some of my acquaintances extolling the value for money it offers without any of my usual interference. My keen eye for all things phone has also spotted a number ‘in the wild’ when out and about.
Even without the expensive, glossy marketing campaigns of times past, it looks like Motorola are again capturing the imagination of a good number of consumers.
Lettin ’em go to Lenovo
So what’s next for Motorola? Earlier this year, Google sold the company off to the Chinese manufacturer Lenovo. Well known in the personal computing space, Lenovo will surely be looking to break into Western mobile markets the same way as they have done with notebooks. To do that they will need more than their relatively unknown mobile offerings so far.
Google must have got their worth out of Motorola to deem the sale to Lenovo good business. Maybe Motorola Mobility’s much speculated-upon patent portfolio has been put to enough work. Or perhaps part of Google’s plan was simply to get some high-quality handsets out there, if only to show their sometimes uncomfortable bedfellows such as Samsung how they want things done when it comes to Android.
We will continue to see Google’s influence at Motorola continue this year. The Moto G 4G has already updated one of last year’s runaway successes to applause and there may yet be more to come from this generation and lifecycle before Lenovo’s projects are begun.
Lenovo as a brand are already synonymous with delivering respectable performance at a consumer friendly price. Just browse your local PC World and a number of laptops on the shelf will not only bear their name, but also be walking out the door in the arms of parents and students in droves.
The new Motorola business model established by the Moto G and E in particular are exactly what has made Lenovo successful in notebooks. If they handle Motorola properly, we could well continue to see a range of capable Motorola smartphones breaking the boundaries of expected price.
Considering the industry consensus is Lenovo got Motorola for a very good price, they may also be willing to pump a bit more money into the company to increase advertising budgets or manufacturing numbers.
If this happens then the times when everyone and his mate had a Motorola could very easily be coming back soon enough.