Motorola Mobility, by the numbers and comparison, is relatively insignificant. The Moto X, which is one of the most innovative and eye-catching handset from the maker in several years, had only mustered 500,000 sales by mid-November, nearly three months after its release.
That number has certainly changed a lot since November, thanks in large part to the $150 off promotions, followed by the permanent price drop. But even with all the press love and buzz around this phone, Motorola failed to sell a fraction of the number of Galaxy S 4s – a now-aging phone – in the same time frame.
Blame that on what you will – global availability, brand awareness, or popularity.
However, if you set aside numbers and hard data, Motorola is a formidable force only getting started. Why or how? The obvious: it’s backed by Google, which has virtually bottomless pockets and it has more years of experience and knowledge in the field than any other mobile company.
Somewhat less obvious is that Motorola has made major waves with two seemingly modest smartphones, the Moto X and Moto G. We’ve covered both extensively and despite their mediocre list of specifications, both provide a smooth, polished experience. In fact, the Moto X is my personal daily driver and the phone I recommend to most people who are currently in the market for a new phone. The user experience is simply that good.
And that’s what makes Motorola so dangerous for its competition. It not only has a knowledge of and clear focus on user experience, it has the capacity to provide a superior experience on multiple levels. What other Android makers have deemed virtually impossible, Motorola has effectively done: great performance on minimal hardware, minimalist differentiation, and rapid firmware updates despite wireless providers.
The first of those three things is something we’ve covered completely. The specifications on the Moto X and Moto G are a marked step down from other companies’ flagships, but it can perform on a similar level. That includes day to day performance in mundane tasks as well as gaming. The Moto G had its issues from time to time on Jelly Bean, but since being updated to KitKat, we imagine that may have changed.
By minimalist differentiation, I’m referring to the software customizations companies feel compelled to load their devices with. Samsung crams every last feature in its smartphones, and completely changes the user interface from top to bottom. Literally every last visual element of Android is changed in the transition from AOSP to TouchWiz, and it’s not always for good reason.
HTC also makes its fair share of changes, though its feature set is far more sparse. BlinkFeed takes the place of one home screen with a social reader. The application drawer is entirely different, with a weather preview at the top and sorting options. And other various changes can be found throughout the operating system.
LG, Sony, Huawei, ZTE, and other manufacturers all spread their own take on Android from top to bottom, front to back. The result is noticeably slower turnaround times on major firmware updates. OEMs wait for AOSP to arrive, modify it to work on their hardware with their specific drivers, and the begin to apply the visual changes we’re used to seeing.
Motorola’s latest UI cut out virtually all the unnecessary UI bloat. At the surface, it looks like a pure stock version of Android. But Motorola has added tons of valuable features without drastically changing how everything looks. Trusted Devices, Motorola Assist, Touchless Control, and Active Display are, even as tiny as they may seem, enough to put the device over the top and differentiate it from the competition. Unlike eye scrolling and head-tilt controls in TouchWiz, these are features I actually use each and every day, not features for the sake of features.
This bare minimum attitude allows Motorola to churn out updates more quickly than any other OEM currently can (or does). The Moto X first received its KitKat in the second half of November, just three weeks after KitKat was made official, beating some Nexus and Google Play edition devices to the most recent update. And the Moto G, which launched earlier than expected, shipped with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. It was said to be receiving Jelly Bean as early as January, but its KitKat update actually rolled out a mere eight days after I completed the review, on December 19.
Updates, performance, and value proposition are all part of the user experience equation, and somehow it all clicks for Motorola now.
Further, Google doesn’t mind throwing around a little cash and seeing what works. It’s in a position to experiment and funnel its own knowledge of users and their desires into Motorola.
That should be frightening for any and all competitors. Although the sales aren’t there yet, the brand recognition and history are. Get a few people talking about a hot product, and the humble (re)beginning for Motorola could turn into a seriously compelling success story.
As long as Motorola keeps raising the bar and marching to its own beat, I see a bright future for a once-deflated company. And its current trajectory is something other OEMs should be keeping an eye on, for the sake of their own self-preservation.