Will the Moto X kickstart a new era of customizable smartphones?

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We adore the Lumia 1020, Nokia’s beastly camera-with-a-phone-tacked-on, and we said so in our full review last month. But we don’t just love the device because it’s the best you can get on Windows Phone, or because of its stunning 41MP shooter. We love the 1020 because its camera is so good, it’s likely to push the boundaries of mobile photography forward. It is, in other words, a game-changer – and we like game-changers.

Google’s Moto X, the first tangible product of the marriage of Google and Motorola, will release on all four U.S. national carriers before the middle of September. In our full review posted earlier this week, we called it “the Android for the average Joe,” saying that despite its relatively forgettable specs and subtle hardware design, the smartphone stands a real chance of becoming the iPhone of the Android world. That’s because it, too, is a game-changer … not in terms of hardware or features (and certainly not due to its camera), but in terms of customization.

When the MotoMaker self-design suite goes live later this month, buyers will be able to customize their own Moto X to a ridiculous extent. Our own Stephen Schenck outlined the options a few days back, but in brief: the face can be made black or white, while the back panel will be available in 18 different hues from blood red to bile green to barf brown (though they’ll probably have nicer names). Accent color options -for the volume keys and camera bezel- number seven, color-matched Sol Republic earphones are available, and customers can even choose the whether they want their wall charger in white or black.

moto-x-color-line

I’ll take one of each.

The options don’t end there, though. Moto X buyers can also opt for custom engraving on their devices’ backsides, and they can also choose to add a custom wallpaper and/or boot greeting that will appear on the phone straight out of the box. Toss in the more familiar choice of 16GB or 32GB storage levels, and you’ve got yourself one crazy assortment of options. (Early-adopters better hope they’re on AT&T, though, as the carrier has leveraged its exclusive-getting ability to lock some of these customizations to its network for the start of sales.)

Carrier meddling aside, the Moto X is certainly the most modifiable smartphone of the modern age. So will other manufacturers follow suit, fleshing out their factories to offer a similarly wide array of options? After all, this isn’t the Motorola of old, content to crank out a few Droids a year that are largely overlooked by the competition. This is a new Google-owned Moto for the new century; even the simple matter of its being Mountain View’s property is bound to keep the eyes of other OEMs sharply focused upon it.

But -and this pains me to say, for I’m an advocate of option overload- I don’t think we’re on the cusp of a smartphone-customization revolution. Here’s why.

It’s expensive

moto ft worth

The Moto X is assembled in the USA. That’s not just because Google wanted to pander to the patriots, either; it’s a necessary step if you want to put custom-built smartphones in American buyers’ hands in anything resembling a timely fashion. Motorola says it can get a custom-made Moto X to your door no more than four days after you order one. Getting anywhere close to that turnaround time using conventional (overseas) manufacturing would be impossible on the kind of scale Google is thinking here.

Thing is, it’s not cheap to build things in America (which is why most manufacturing is done elsewhere). Even though the Moto X is only being “assembled” here, it still requires a massive factory in Fort Worth, TX employing 2000 workers. That’s likely part of the reason it’s so costly relative to its components, and that’s a hurdle that’s going to be tough to clear at the retail counter considering other, more buzzworthy devices are selling for the same or less on a contract.

The competition is going the other way

Nokia Lumia 1020 Press Render

Remember when Nokia released its first few rounds of Windows Phones? It’s almost as though the company single-handedly unleashed a wave of color upon the landscape. We got the Lumia 800 in black, cyan, and white, then the Lumia 900 in black, white, cyan, and a special magenta variant. Then the Lumia 920 came out and blew everyone’s faces off with a ridiculous color assortment of red, yellow, black, white, cyan, and gray. Granted, not all of these colors were available in all regions or on all carriers, but at least they were all for sale somewhere. And when HTC decided to dive into the Windows Phone game in a big way, it offered its own suite of brightly colored variants to keep up (a move we respected more for its end result than its originality).

But look at the landscape today. Nokia’s 1020, the game-changer mentioned above and easily the most anticipated Windows Phone ever, released in just three colors: black, white, and neon yellow. The fact that I’ve come to love the latter doesn’t change the fact that I was heartbroken over the lack of options, enough to write a piece condemning the decision. The HTC 8XT, the first Windows Phone 8 device with BoomSound, comes in just one color on its native Sprint: California Blue. While it’s a lovely shade, it’s still just one option. Colorful variations on Android phones, like the Galaxy S 4 and HTC One, do eventually see the light of day, but we’re left waiting quite a while for each one to trickle out. And then there’s the iPhone, which has been offered just in black or white for years. Well, when you’re the iPhone, you can afford to be monochromatic, I guess.

Point is: the rest of the industry is busy scaling back its color options, or carefully rationing them for carrier deals. They’re not rushing to make more colors or offer more customization. Maybe that’s because …

It’s not clear that people want it

dunno

We see it in the comments all the time: people aren’t necessarily beating manufacturers’ doors down and demanding more handset color choices. Maybe that’s to be expected from an enthusiast-heavy audience like ours, who tend more toward the function-over-form type – but even out in the real world, millions of people are perfectly happy with their two-tone iPhones and “Galaxies.”

And if they’re not, they slap a case on there. No matter that we don’t think much of that solution here; phone cases are a huge industry, primarily because they let people change the look of their devices at a very low cost. And if those people get tired of looking at cobalt blue or the same old rhinestones after a while, they’re perfectly free to swap out the case for another one. Not so with a device customized at the factory, which you’re stuck with in all its multi-hued glory for the length of your contract.

"Nice choice there, Earl."

“Nice choice there, Earl.”

So maybe it’s not quite time for the crazy customization Google is pushing on the world. Maybe this initial release is a flash in the pan, and when the Moto Y (or X2, or whatever) rolls out this time next year, it’ll come in a whopping three color options. Maybe all these 2012-edition X phones will become collector’s items: the weirder the combination, the better.

But I hope not. Because in a world dominated by unimaginative slab hardware, we need someone to shake things up; we have for some time. And what better “someone” to do it than Google, the company that’s demonstrated time and again that it’s got the resources and the will to change the world – in big and small ways. While customizable smartphones may not be the most earth-shattering contribution to the zeitgeist, they’re still pretty cool. And smartphones, as powerful as they are, definitely could use some more cool.

My Moto X is going to be blue, I think.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!