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Can Google's 'new Motorola' break free of Verizon?

Can Google's 'new Motorola' break free of Verizon?


Motorola has always been controlled by Google and Verizon — but can Google change the balance of power?

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Gallery Photo: Droid RAZR M hands-on pictures
Gallery Photo: Droid RAZR M hands-on pictures

At the outset of Motorola's "On Display" event last week, new CEO Dennis Woodside declared the arrival of a "new Motorola." That's not exactly true yet, though. It's only been three short months since Google officially completed its acquisition of Motorola, and the Droid RAZR HD, RAZR Maxx HD, and RAZR M were certainly in the works long before that. But beyond the devices, Google's vision of a future "new Motorola" failed to address the most important part of Motorola's recent past: Verizon.

Motorola has been overly dependent on Verizon's business ever since the launch of the original Droid. At the time, both Verizon and Google were hoping to stop the onslaught of the iPhone on AT&T, without much success: Verizon originally bet on RIM's BlackBerry Storm to predictably disappointing results, and Google had yet to catch fire with Android in any real way. The original Droid, developed by Motorola in deep collaboration with Google, changed the fortunes of all three companies, and turned Android into a market force to be reckoned with. But the real collaboration was between Google and Verizon: in return for Verizon agreeing to push Android as the main competitor to the iPhone, Google radically softened its stance on net neutrality.

The "new Motorola" just shines a spotlight on the puppet strings that were always there

Verizon's marketing muscle, thrown behind the original Droid and Droids since, has buttressed Motorola and was the driving force behind whatever modest success the company had before being acquired by Google. With little apology to Motorola's phones on other US carriers, it's clear that the Droid brand — controlled by Verizon — drives Motorola's business and, more importantly, its business decisions. And if Motorola was a bit of a puppet before, the "new Motorola" just shines a spotlight on the strings that were always there.

The decision to launch two different flagship models of the Droid RAZR HD instead of just one speaks volumes. As we noted in our hands-on, the Droid RAZR HD and Droid RAZR Maxx HD are very difficult to tell apart. They're virtually indistinguishable unless you can feel their weight or examine them directly in your hands. Why create two models instead of, say, splitting the difference and making one? According to Motorola's VP of Global Product Development, Iqbal Arshad, the goal was to segment the market:

We debate these things to death. We worry about every millimeter, every gram, every milliamp per hour in the device. The initial design goal for RAZR HD was to make sure that consumers can use the phone all day with a large screen and with all the features that we're offering on the device, and we accomplished that. Having said that, there's always a segment of users [...] who are traveling and using the device a bit more than the eighty percent of the people who use [smartphones].

The original Droid RAZR Maxx was proof that Verizon and Motorola could drive sales by offering a more expensive option with a bigger battery. It's not surprising at all that the two would team up to repeat that success. Yet targeting for two price points instead of offering one iconic phone with singular and clear branding isn't good for Motorola — it's good for ensuring Verizon has its various price categories covered for the holiday season.

Arshad also told us that the "new Motorola" was committed to more rapid software updates for its Android devices. Motorola said at the event that "most" devices released since 2011 would be upgraded, but Arshad couldn't say which devices would make the cut. The company is still evaluating which devices will be able to be upgraded and its messaging since then has been equally vague. The good news is that the company will offer $100 towards a new device for users who are stuck with devices that won't be upgraded, which is a nice goodwill offering to potentially frustrated consumers.

Google's commitment to upgrades is misdirection

Still, the commitment to upgrades is misdirection. That $100 voucher is just proof that Google's previous commitment to updating Android devices for 18 months has completely fizzled, and even the three new Droid RAZR phones Motorola announced will not ship with Android 4.1, but Android 4.0. Asked what specifically was causing the delay, Arshad said that it's more about making sure that Jelly Bean works with the specific chipsets in the phones and not necessarily to the notorious carrier approval process — although Motorola is working to "streamline" that system. But the simple fact remains: neither Google's flagship Galaxy Nexus nor the new devices from its subsidiary Motorola are running Google's latest software on Verizon's network, and they won't until Verizon says they can.

There's nothing "new" about that.

A truly new Motorola would push for all of its phones to be unlocked

There's more evidence for the push and pull between Google and Verizon in Motorola's plan to offer unsubsidized "Developer Editions" of its phones with unlocked bootloaders that are easier for developers to work on. Carriers like Verizon lock phones for several reasons: it reduces the risk of a rogue phone on the network, reduces the likelihood of returns, and generally grants carriers more control of your phone.

Motorola's plan splits the difference between what Verizon wants from its devices and what a technology company like Google wants to see in the market. An unlocked bootloader is nerdy feature that touches deeply on a fundamental issue with modern computers: is an end user free to modify a smartphone's core software without undue restrictions from the carriers?

Motorola's solution is forward progress and it should be commended — but only a little. After all, most US customers won't ever buy an unsubsidized phone, and that lets both Motorola and Verizon off the hook when it comes to true consumer freedom. A truly new Motorola would push for all of its phones to be unlocked — not kowtow to Verizon's demands to control the consumer experience.

Does Google want Motorola to build Droids or build Android?

Ultimately, Google's promise of a "new Motorola" is the company saying it understands all of the problems in the Android market and offering real solutions: speedy upgrades, unlocked phones, and a promise to actually care about customers. But saying and doing are very different things, and the choices evident in last week's event indicate that Motorola is still too focused on making Verizon happy, not trying to produce the best Android phones. More simply, it's the difference between building Droids and building Android.

The real question is which of those goals is more important to Google.