By Stephen Schenck | August 28, 2013 8:06 PM
You might not know it from how often we complain about them, but by and large, smartphone launches go off without a hitch. Maybe the price isn’t where we’d like it to be, or we hold a grudge about some unnecessary carrier exclusivity, but most of the time the phones show up right when promised, ready for us to buy.
Motorola’s Moto X started going up for sale last week, and while the phone itself is a dream come true (and if you haven’t noticed yet, we seriously can’t help ourselves from continuing to gush over it), the way things got started with its custom Moto Maker build utility left a hell of a lot to be desired. Let’s take a look at want went wrong, and why it’s all such an embarrassment for Motorola.
Backing up a moment, what have been some other launches in recent memory that hit their own rough patches? There was that business with the HTC One, where reported issues with getting together all the UltraPixel camera components it needed ended up pushing the launch back a little. Before that, we had that incredibly frustrating situation with the Nexus 4, where Google seemed completely overwhelmed by customer demand and never had enough handsets to go around.
While each of those incidents were blemishes on the companies involved, neither really rises to the level of this Moto X misstep in my eyes. With the One, carriers simply announced the dates when they’d ultimately get the phone; they may have been later than we initially hoped for, but when the time came, the One was ultimately available for purchase. With the Nexus 4, LG was eventually able to get production up to snuff once Google had a better idea of the level of interest it was seeing, but even from the beginning, the phone was ultimately delivered as promised – just not in the quantities we hoped for.
The big difference between those failings and some of what we’re facing for the Moto X is that both HTC and Google ultimately delivered what they intended to. With the Moto X, we’re seeing Motorola making compromises that fly directly in the face of previous statements made about the phone. It isn’t so much that it’s having to change its story, but that it was never compelled to say such things in the first place – if you’re going to go out of your way to boast about a device pre-launch, you had better be damn sure that you can deliver.
Where, exactly, are we talking about Motorola failing here? The first sign that something was going amiss were early reports from tech writers about issues getting their custom Moto X handsets printed with a personal message; we had no issue with our Moto Maker experience, and received a phone with the message we chose, but apparently we were the exception, and the feature has since been scrubbed from Moto Maker.
This was a key part of the customization process, and promoted in official Moto X announcements from Motorola. Now that Moto Maker is live, there’s no apology, nor even an explanation for the option’s absence, but only a brief mention that the company would “also be adding digital printing in the future” at the tail end of a blog post, like it was just common knowledge at that point. That’s not a very cool way to treat your users.
What about those shipping delays? Motorola made a big deal about how its new US plant would enable it to get even the most heavily customized Moto X handsets out to customers in four days or less. Instead, we’re now seeing delays going back seven or eight days.
To be fair, Motorola gave that four day figure with the stipulation that it was contingent on part availability, but is that really why we’re seeing delays now? It’s entirely possible, but it feels more likely that Motorola simply can’t turn around custom handsets fast enough to meet this early demand, than that it’s already having trouble sourcing materials for these phones. Regardless of the cause of the delay, it’s ridiculous that Motorola hadn’t made a point to prepare itself for the deluge of orders it would see, and ready itself to get through the phone’s retail launch without coming up short on that four-day promise.
Why did Google get a pass but Motorola doesn’t? Google never made the Nexus 4′s ship time an issue when promoting the phone.
Maybe the biggest disappointment was the way the Moto Maker ordering process functioned out of the gate. As I wrote about at the time, while AT&T was more than happy to sell you the Moto X online or in stores, ordering a custom model wasn’t as straightforward as it needed to be. Instead of smoothly integrating the Moto Maker process into AT&T’s ordering system, or giving users an opportunity to set up the needed AT&T account at the end of the customization process, shoppers were instead forced to head to a brick-and-mortar AT&T retail location to set up service and purchase the phone, and were given a scratch-off card revealing a code needed to use Moto Maker.
That’s so hare-brained, I barely know where to begin. Thankfully, this week has seen things get a much-needed makeover, and the smooth ordering process we dreamed for is now in place. What I want to know is why the hell Motorola ever came through with that half-broken site when it did, and didn’t make sure it had a fully functional Moto Maker ready to go a couple days prior to launch. After all, it’s not like we’re seeing evidence of big, difficult-to-surmount problems that get worked out after weeks of effort – stuff like this just makes Motorola look like it started selling phones last week.
And don’t kid yourself: this custom phone business (at least how Motorola is doing it) may be “new”, but it sure isn’t “difficult.” Matching a black or white front with the proper color accents and backpiece may involve handling delicate electronics, but it’s fundamentally no different from Amazon picking the right books off the shelves and putting them in the same box for us. It’s not like Motorola’s building fully bespoke models here – this is standard assembly line, order fulfillment stuff.
I don’t think I can blame any one part of Motorola here. There are clear issues with management and PR, and there very well could be supply chain problems I just can’t see from this vantage. Ultimately, I don’t think any this is going to have a lasting negative effect on Moto X sales, and especially once ship times drop and that custom message option reemerges, customers will quickly forget this mess. As for me, on the other hand, I think I’ll be paying a lot closer attention to future Motorola launches, hoping to see if it’s learned at all from this sorry showing.