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Under Lenovo, Motorola is more like Google than it ever was

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Ok, Moto!

Now that we’ve had a moment to catch our breath after all the excitement surrounding the Windows 10 release, let’s rewind to the other big news of this week: the launch of Motorola’s 2015 smartphone lineup. Moto hosted three simultaneous events and launched three different phones on Tuesday, but there was one unifying vision tying them all together. And that vision, even under the ownership of new parent company Lenovo, is very much in the spirit of Motorola’s former owner, Google.

At Google I/O this year, Sundar Pichai set out Google’s internal mission as being the development of technology that works for and is accessible to everyone. That’s exactly the strategy that Motorola has been pursuing with its smartphones over the past couple of years. The Chicago-based company has been consistently undercutting its competitors’ prices and surprising us with the amount of smartphone power it can fit into the tightest of budgets. This week, the globally successful Moto G evolved with even more premium features, while the top-tier Moto X split into a pair of devices, the X Style and X Play, both of which target shoppers for flagship devices while costing a whole lot less than most Android flagships.

Motorola makes exactly the sort of Android phone that Google wants everyone to have

Particularly in the United States, the new Moto X has a chance to really disrupt the pricing and distribution of the best Android smartphones. Motorola is foregoing the usual sweetheart deals with carriers to offer the phone for $399, unlocked and ready to go on any network you want to use it on. You’ll be able to buy the phone directly from Motorola, Amazon, or Best Buy. This is what Google’s Nexus program, in its initial and most ambitious form was all about: bypassing the carriers and creating a direct relationship between the phone’s maker and its user. Now Motorola is staking its fortunes on realizing Google’s dream scenario.

Of course, neither Google nor Motorola is interested in nudging out the influence of carriers purely out of some altruistic desire for a better world. Both companies are pursuing their best self-interest, and in Motorola’s case, the motivation could be as much the result of being rebuffed in its negotiations for favorable carrier deals as anything else. It’s noteworthy that Motorola isn’t pursuing the same outsider strategy all around the globe; it’s not even doing it with the Moto G in the US. Whatever the machinations behind the scenes, however, it still takes a lot of courage for a smartphone manufacturer to dive into the scary and unknown realm of selling its flagship phone without the usual support of carrier subsidies and marketing. So far, this has mostly been the game plan for lower-profile players like OnePlus, Alcatel OneTouch, and Huawei.

Motorola is acting more like OnePlus than HTC, and that's a good thing

Motorola is taking on the sort of risk that competitors like HTC and LG haven’t been willing or able to accept. HTC continues to bend a knee to both AT&T and Verizon, giving them alternate exclusives on its latest devices and limiting its potential audience in the process. HTC also maintains, staunchly, that its Sense software on top of Android differentiates its phones and adds value for customers. Motorola, on the other hand, happily admits that Android doesn’t need any window dressing and delivers it in its pristine form, adding only small apps and utilities like Active Display. Just the way that Google would like it.

It may sound like a counterintuitive idea, but it’s arguable that Google selling Motorola is precisely the thing that made it possible for Moto to become even more Google-like in its approach to the smartphone market. In spite of a harmonious relationship when the two companies were together, Motorola’s money-losing ways did not sit well with Google and Google didn’t really have a long-term vision for building phone hardware. New Moto owner Lenovo has both the funds and the patience to rebuild the famous Motorola brand through projects that may not be immediately profitable. That’s what gives Moto the financial wiggle room that companies like HTC don’t have. Lenovo’s considerable resources act as a buffer against bullying tactics from carriers and give Moto the room to try the bold strategy that it’s embarking upon today.

Lenovo has given Motorola the resources it needs without interfering in its strategy

"Google had very little influence" over Motorola’s designs, chief designer Jim Wicks told us during Tuesday’s event, "and Lenovo has been the same." So, even with all the top-level corporate changes, Motorola itself has been relatively free to set and pursue its own course. This should come as no surprise for any close observers of Lenovo, which has already proven itself an astute custodian of historic brands through the way it’s handled the takeover of IBM’s ThinkPad business. Lenovo’s hands-off approach worked out with selling laptops, and it stands a decent chance of bearing fruit in the smartphone market as well.

All of this places a great deal of pressure on Motorola itself. The smartphone maker has drawn a line in the sand, achieved the all-important differentiation from the pack, and now it must actually deliver. Among the bold promises uttered on Tuesday, marketing VP Adrienne Hayes offered perhaps the biggest, guaranteeing that "the cameras in [Motorola’s] phones will now be best in class." That’s as tall a task as disrupting the calcified US smartphone market. But hey, better to aim high and miss than to keep trudging along the same path to gradual irrelevance.

If Google was a smartphone maker, it would be doing exactly what Motorola is doing today. Deliver pure Android. Spurn the carriers. Slash the prices. It’s bold, outrageous, and a little bit crazy. Even though it’s no longer a Google company in the official sense, Motorola is carrying on the personality of its former parent. Now more so than ever.

Verge Video: Hands-on with Motorola's new flagship phone