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After the new Droids, what's left for Moto X?

After the new Droids, what's left for Moto X?

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Droid Maxx, Ultra, Mini
Droid Maxx, Ultra, Mini

Today, Verizon and Motorola introduced three new Droid smartphones: the Ultra, Mini, and Maxx. But if you weren't paying attention, you might have expected to a see higher-profile phone introduced: the Moto X. That phone, ostensibly the first to come out of the "New" Motorola with Google's influence, is expected to differentiate itself with some sort of customization. Yet its other leaked features, once thought to be unique to the Moto X, are all available on these new Droids. What differentiating features are left for the Moto X now that these phones have been announced? That question is getting increasingly difficult to answer.

Motorola vice president Rick Osterloh gave the rundown on the new Droids in today's rapid-fire Droid event. They have "Touchless Control," which allows you to speak to the phone without holding down a button to start your voice command. (The Moto X is always listening too, as detailed in a leaked video.) The new Droids have an "Active Display," which can show you important notification indicators while the phone is locked, lighting up only the relevant portion of the display. (On the Moto X, that same feature is apparently called Active Updates and works in the same way.) The Droids feature "Quick Capture" for the camera, accessible with a quick flick of the wrist. That camera as a new swipe based interface too. The Moto X? By now you know that it's rumored to have the selfsame flick feature and camera interface.

All four phones seem to have virtually the same software features

In fact, when it comes to software, the main points of differentiation we know about so far include mainly the aggressive Droid red theme and (most importantly) Verizon pre-loaded apps. The "Droid Zap" feature for sharing content and Motorola's "Command Center" widget will also be exclusive to the Droid line. However, there's still a chance that the Moto X will have exclusive features of its own. For evidence, you can go back to the hints that Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside dropped at the D11 conference. Woodside said that the Moto X would have some sort of contextual awareness, knowing "when it's in your pocket, when it's in your hand" and when you're driving in a car. Otherwise, the important differences between the Droids and the Moto X appear to come down to hardware and aesthetics.

Asked about these similarities, Motorola product manager Mark Oliver obviously couldn’t comment on the upcoming Moto X. However, he did say that "These phones do take everything to the next level, and I think they're absolutely compatible with Motorola's philosophy." A Motorola spokesperson at New York's event was more direct, telling The Verge that will be obvious within the first two minutes of next week's Moto X event what the differentiating features are.

Even if Motorola can successfully make the case that the Moto X is substantially different from these Droids, that doesn't solve a core challenge for Android smartphones: there are still just so many of them. Verizon is expected to carry the Moto X alongside the Droid Ultra, Droid Maxx, and Droid Mini. Which means that this Fall, Verizon customers will have not one flagship Motorola phone to choose from, but literally four of them, each subtly differentiated by screen size, battery, and branding — to say nothing of the Galaxy S4 and HTC One (assuming Verizon ever gets around to releasing it). It's not hard to guess which of these six Android phones the carrier — and its customer service representatives — will be pushing.

Verizon customers will have not one flagship Motorola phone to choose from, but literally four of them

What's left for the Moto X? Right now we know for sure that there are at least two things: the customization we've been hearing so much about and the made in the USA marketing. Both will appeal to some, but getting a customized Moto X reportedly involves ordering online and having the phone drop-shipped to your door directly from Texas. No matter how streamlined Motorola makes that process, it will be difficult to compete with both the retail presence and marketing muscle Verizon will put behind the Droid line. True, the Droids aren’t made in the US like the Moto X is, but they will in stock inside every Verizon store. Here, smartphones are still sold primarily in carrier stores and customers are more likely to believe a Droid in the hand is worth more than a Moto X in the mail.

A customer walking into a Verizon store this fall will have at least six premier Android phones to choose from. He or she will be asked to make fine distinctions between subtle screen size differences, battery capacities, and even nerdier specs. For most people, the only way to cut through that specification noise is to simply lean on the advice of a customer service representative — one who will surely be incentivized to make a "this is the Droid you’re looking for" joke over and over again. That’s assuming, of course, that the customer doesn’t do what the majority of Verizon customers did last quarter: just choose an iPhone instead.

Can the Moto X mark the end of Verizon’s Droid dominance? Unless Motorola has another trick up its sleeve, it looks like the company will once again let Verizon splatter banana on your face. The new ad that was shown at an event in Chicago said that the Droid stands for "power over pretty." If the Moto X is going to have a chance on Verizon's network, the differences will need to be more than that.

Additional reporting by Chris Ziegler and Nilay Patel.