For the better part of this year, Motorola’s Moto X has caused quite a stir.
Months of rumors and leaks talking about customizable hardware led to an unbelievable amount of hype for what actually turned out to be a rather modest smartphone – a conservative, humble flagship from Motorola.
The widespread hype quickly died once the Moto X was made official. Its specifications were, comparatively, unimpressive. And it’s one, major feature – user-definable color combinations via Moto Maker – was limited to AT&T out of the gate.
No less, the Moto X has received praise from virtually all who have used it. Despite its meager specifications, it has been the recipient of surprisingly positive reviews. And many have called the Moto X one of the best smartphones of the year – myself and Michael Fisher included.
The Moto X is symbolic, more than anything. It’s meant to show how Motorola is going against the grain. It’s a mental context switch for the company (one many of its competitors could also stand to make): user experience and polish over excessive, poorly optimized specifications which actually matter very little in the end. And the result is a fantastic smartphone capable of appealing to the mass market.
However, the Moto X is now over three months old, and despite all the praise and love Motorola’s disruptive handset originally received, its actual market performance has been less-than-stellar. During the last quarter, Strategy Analytics reported Motorola only sold around 500,000 units. That’s about one-twentieth the number of Galaxy S 4 units Samsung moved in approximately half the time.
Comparing these two launches isn’t exactly fair, though. The Moto X was not launched internationally, due to the assembly process, which took place in a factory in Texas to cut down on the latency between the time consumers ordered a customized Moto X and the date in which they received it, a target of only four days. The Galaxy S 4, on the other hand, was launched in blitzkrieg fashion, spanning nearly the entire globe in a matter of weeks. The Moto X is a first-generation product. The Galaxy S 4 is a fourth-generation model, launched on the heels of the Galaxy S III, one of the most popular smartphones … ever.
But the fact still remains. The Moto X has only been a small success – one that’s less about the profits and more about Motorola driving a fine point home.
The Moto G is a nice start: not a successor to the Moto X, but an extension of its principle, a true budget Android phone which doesn’t immediately make us turn up our noses. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Based on how great the Moto X turned out to be, we’re now curious to see if the Moto G is also an example of decent internals which lead to a great user experience. The Android and Motorola Lumia 520, if you will.
If marketed properly, this meek smartphone could put Motorola back on the map, particularly in prepaid and emerging markets.
Budget phones, however, is not Motorola’s endgame. Upending the market, on the other hand, is.
Enter Project Ara.
We’ve all read about it by now. It’s Motorola’s take on the age-old modular, build your own smartphone concept. Motorola isn’t the first company to take a stab at this seemingly amazing idea. Synapse-Phones, a 2010 German startup which aimed to popularize the idea of truly customizable Android smartphones began and fizzled within a year’s time.
Phonebloks seemingly brought the concept back into the mainstream earlier this year. Now Phonebloks and Motorola will be spearheading the immense undertaking together.
What does any of this mean for the Moto X, though?
In the near future, nothing. In fact, it’s the other way around. We should be asking: what does the Moto X mean for Project Ara? The answer to that is much more meaningful. Tilt your head a certain way and the Moto X can be seen as a dry run for the logistical nightmare selling a modular smartphone will be.
Let’s come down out of the clouds and get back in touch with reality for a moment, though. Project Ara could take years to come to fruition. And even then, it’s a long shot.
The message Motorola wanted to deliver with the Moto X, however, was heard loud and clear, at least by the tech enthusiasts and the media. People want a personalized smartphone, and a solid experience doesn’t require the best specifications or an $800 price tag. Although we can argue Motorola made a mistake by signing an exclusivity deal with AT&T, the whole ordeal wasn’t an total flop.
Looking back, the Moto X may only be a tiny ripple in mobile history. But successes aren’t built overnight. Just as we said the Lumia 1020 wouldn’t be the phone to save Windows Phone and catapult it into the limelight, it is the building blocks – the foundation – for the next generation of Windows Phones and innovative hardware. Likewise, the Moto X is a rock solid foundation for Motorola and Android in 2014.
Don’t expect the Moto X successor (Moto X2?) to be a superphone or some modular, customizable smartphone from the future. Expect it to be an iterative step with minor hardware bumps over the current model. Expect the vast majority of the improvements to be in the form of software optimization, hardware utilization, and extended Moto Maker functionality. Expect the next Motorola flagship to be a template for how Google wants its partner manufacturers to push Android forward and differentiate through topnotch user experience, rather than hundreds of bloated features which are helpful for one-off use cases.
We spent all this time wondering why Google would want to keep the Motorola brand around if it wasn’t going to use the company for its Nexus lineup, why it would continue to lose money on a company slipping out of relevancy in the mainstream mobile market.
The answer is now right in front of us, written in bold lettering on the wall.
The Moto X was updated to KitKat in a matter of weeks, just as quickly as some Nexus models, despite the customized software and carrier branding. It’s list of specifications looks disappointing beside other flagship models, yet it has no trouble keeping pace. And although it would be a stretch to consider it a budget phone, it delivers one of the best Android experiences for a fraction of the price of other companies’ high-end smartphones.
The Moto X may not be the baddest smartphone around, and its successor certainly will not be either. But Motorola’s work and the Moto X successor are two of the few things I cannot wait to see next year.