What can customers expect from the Lenovo-Motorola deal?

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On January 30th, just one day after the surprise announcement of their impending union, I received what superstitious people would call a “bad omen” regarding the Lenovo Motorola deal.

The previous afternoon, I’d been wrapping up a pretty typical January week at Pocketnow; the botched Galaxy Gear + Nexus 5 experiment had already been transferred to the more-capable Joe Levi, so I was busy working on the AT&T G Flex unboxing and the smartphone guessing game posts, and willing the post-CES funk to dissipate so I could get some new devices in the review booth. Then Lenovo announced it was buying Motorola, and the whole world turned upside down – much as it did back in 2011 when Motorola found itself in the news thanks to another buyer.

After about an hour’s thought, I’d sort of come around to the idea. My patriotic side was sad to see the transfer of a once-vaunted American brand to a non-American interest, and my practical side was concerned about the loss of focus the purchase could represent. My contrarian side, though, was as usual louder than both of those, and I managed to make a solid (if superficial) case for why a Lenovo-Motorola combination might just work.

Then my roommate came home with his brand-new Lenovo computer in tow, and this happened:


The aforementioned omen.

The Twittersphere’s reaction to my friend’s defective machine was the usual mix of snark and helpful advice; the former included a lot of Motorola-related sass, while the latter comprised thoughtful conjecture (a defective display cable was the leading speculation) and eventually, even a concerned tweet from Lenovo itself – a gesture I appreciated. My friend ended up sending his notebook back to the company for replacement.

The incident would have been unremarkable at any other time – but here, less than 24 hours after the announcement of the Motorola purchase, it sparked the obvious question: what kind of service can future Motorola customers expect from the brand’s new parent? What kind of post-sale support will the company offer after the acquisition, from service and repair to Android updates? I decided to try to find out – and I learned that the answer isn’t yet easy to find.

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As I mentioned in the editorial referenced above, Lenovo’s mobile presence in the United States is nil. Instead, it’s more closely associated with corporate notebook computers thanks to the company’s 2005 acquisition of the ThinkPad line from IBM, whose brand Lenovo replaced with its own in 2007. Some of the mobile hardware Lenovo has recently shown off actually looks pretty nice, but the brand’s absence from most American retail channels means those devices haven’t gotten a lot of press coverage (while we planned to visit Lenovo at CES, those plans fell through due to a scheduling conflict – and yes, we regret that now).

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Yesterday, despite the fact that mere days had passed since the acquisition was announced, we reached out to Lenovo for comment on the company’s future support plans. Lenovo’s PR firm graciously offered to look into the matter for us, but the company wasn’t able to respond with a statement by press time – no surprise, given the amount of activity happening over there. So we broadened our search to include the company’s customers. And what we found was a group of people largely satisfied with their products.

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Gary Fernbach is the IT Manager at J. Kings Food Service Professionals, Inc., a leading broadline food distributor in Long Island, NY. In addition to fielding a variety of Motorola smartphones, the company also equips some of its employees with notebook computers from Lenovo’s ThinkPad line.  “We’ve been very satisfied with [Lenovo’s] hardware support,” he says. “We’ve been doing business with them a long time, and we haven’t had any problems.”

In this case, “a long time” means over nine years – back to the days when the ThinkPads still wore IBM badges. Of the switch from IBM to Lenovo, Fernbach says “we didn’t really see any big difference on the support or anything … they’ve always been really solid products. They take a beating.”

TopView_T430s_cropThe honeymoon hasn’t been flawless; Fernbach admits to some frustration when the company switched keyboard styles a while back – a change received so angrily by some longtime ThinkPad users that Lenovo had to publicly defend the change on its blog. But in terms of support, Fernbach is quite satisfied.

And check out that blog for a second. Sure, it’s an in-house publication made to make the company look good, but even those come in various quality levels – and this one is really quite well done. The tone is light and informal, the design open and welcoming, and the content engaging. There’s even a sense of community thanks the contributions of so-called Lenovo Advocates, non-employee insiders who author the occasional guest post. Those who enjoyed Google’s “brightening” of the Motorola brand should find little to complain about here.

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Fernbach’s positive impressions were echoed by another contact of ours, an IT management employee at a Global Fortune 100 company who asked us not to identify him or his employer. Like J. Kings, this company’s history with Lenovo also stretches back to the IBM days, but unlike Kings, the company broke ties with Lenovo after the latter released the T60 notebook computer, shortly after the IBM-Lenovo changeover. “It was a piece of shit,” our contact said, explaining that the product’s cheaper components and inferior overall design led to his company abandoning Lenovo for competitors shortly after the T60’s release.

Not a good sign, the Motorola hopefuls in the house are thinking. But remember, this was back in 2006: Lenovo has had eight years to get it right since then. Indeed, our contact’s employer recently returned to Lenovo products after a long and disappointing stint with rival brands, and the results have so far been positive: “[Lenovo has] gone back to the IBM keyboard, the machines are ergonomic, they’re built for business … they went back to what works.”

We asked what he thinks that means for Motorola.

“I think if Lenovo does that with the phones – if they don’t go in and try to push their culture and try to cut some costs to make up for the acquisition … I think they’ll be all right.”

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So, how well will Lenovo support its Motorola customers after the acquisition closes? We don’t know. No one does. It’s far too early to answer this question – but it’s not too early to ask it, nor too soon to start looking for signs. And based on what we can glean from the examples above, nothing seems to spell doomsday for Lenovo – especially if you take Gary Fernbach’s word for it:

“As far as tech support, I think I’d rather have Lenovo’s than Motorola’s.”

The quote is a bit of a stretch: Fernbach is talking about Lenovo’s in-house customer service versus the Motorola “authorized resellers” he has to deal with, and he’s talking about the enterprise world, not the consumer one. But it’s still notable, I think, that in the mind of at least one IT professional, Lenovo’s customer support is on par with Motorola’s. And that should soothe the nerves of at least a few Motorola fans out there.

Update 2/5/2014: Lenovo has responded with a statement regarding its future plans. See below.

Google and Lenovo will continue to work together to provide the best overall Android experience to consumers, from an integrated hardware and software perspective. As one of the largest providers of Android-based phones globally, Lenovo will acquire a team with deep Android & software engineering capabilities and a hardware team with a proven track record of innovation. Lenovo will continue to preserve, protect, and support Motorola’s products with integrity.

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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!