I started writing this editorial during Mobile World Congress in February, following a Lenovo press roundtable that was almost entirely dedicated to explaining the peculiar way the Chinese company was killing off the Motorola brand. We are still here, said Rick Osterloh, chief of the former Motorola, but we're now a division under the Lenovo umbrella, so we're adopting the parent company's name. I gave Lenovo the benefit of the doubt then, in spite of the company having nothing to announce at a time when the whole Android world was moving forward with leaps and bounds.
Well, today Rick is no longer with either the nonexistent Motorola or Lenovo, having returned to Google, we've got a set of unsatisfying new Moto G models to talk about, and I'm unparking my keyboard. It's time to admit that Lenovo's Motorola takeover is mirroring HP's disastrous acquisition of Palm.
Let's go step by step.
The world's number one PC vendor takes over a storied American mobile brand. Palm and Motorola can each lay claim to numerous mobile firsts and should rightly be considered pioneers in the development of portable smart devices. At the time ahead of their acquisitions, both were enjoying a resurgence thanks to refreshing new software and hardware designs that stood out from the rest of the market.
Motorola and Palm were two of the pioneers of mobile technology
In Palm's case, the 2009 Pre was collecting plaudits for its unique looks and functionality, feeling distinctly modern and innovative. While the iPhone and its Android rivals were still in their infancy, the Palm Pre promised to be the most direct contender for claiming the title of being the most advanced smartphone around. For Motorola, 2013's reboot with the countercyclical Moto X — smaller and more affordable than its flagship competitors — and later introductions of the market-altering Moto G and Moto E marked a zenith of public and critical approval. The company was even bold enough to assemble its phones in the United States, which engendered even more fan appreciation.
The mobile company faces existential question. Palm in 2010 and Motorola in 2014 were both enjoying upward momentum, but still needed to justify their existence. Palm was struggling to survive as a small operator in a massive and unforgiving market, while Motorola was consistently losing money for parent company Google while also posing a threat to Samsung's Android hegemony. HP and Lenovo both swooped in as the providers of escape valves, who also happened to have manufacturing expertise, global scale, and big cash reserves.
A great deal of bold innovation just needed some space and support to blossom
Some may forget it now, but two years ago Motorola was a shining beacon of awesome Android design. The company's decision to forego a custom Android skin in favor of a near-stock user experience benefited customers with its approachability and improved Motorola's speed with delivering updates. As to Palm and webOS, that software was well ahead of its time, serving as the progenitor for many of today's best and most commonly used tropes in mobile design. The card-based multitasking now offered by iOS and Android was first popularized by the webOS-powered Pre. All that either company needed was the time to develop its strengths without worrying about the finances.
The PC giant promises to be hands-off. Longtime Apple veteran Jon Rubinstein showed himself to be an astute leader at Palm, and was in the process of transforming that company into his own version of a mini Apple. His presentations adopted the Apple style, Palm's device lineup was streamlined and simplified just like Apple's, and the whole premium message was starting to find a receptive audience. What Palm needed from HP was money, and the initial indication was that it'd get exactly that. Rubinstein remained in charge and HP had "aggressive" plans to retain Palm's top leadership team.
Established management team received the dreaded vote of confidence
If that sounds familiar, it's because Lenovo sung the same tune, only even louder, when it took Motorola off Google's hands. Granted, Osterloh was appointed Motorola COO in the interim period between announcing the purchase and closing the deal with Google, but his hiring was just another sign that Motorola would continue to operate independently. Lenovo seemed to recognize that Motorola had a good thing going, and it just wanted to nurture and steward the brand and its device lineup toward success. It was certainly not going to just gobble Motorola up into its global monolith and deprive it of its uniqueness.
The PC giant changes its mind. What would Palm's smartphones be called under the new HP ownership? Palm iPAQs? HP Pres? HPalms? After much hemming, hawing, and backtracking, HP eventually decided that its own branding was more valuable to put on webOS devices, and so it discarded Palm's glorious name. If there's any blessing to the subsequent shambles that were the HP TouchPad and Pre 3, it's that at least they didn't sully the Palm brand any further.
Integrations are harder when paired with indecision
Lenovo is retreading HP's footsteps with admirable diligence. Reversing the initial promise to leave Motorola to be its own business, the Chinese parent company has been on a mission to sideline the Motorola name, which culminated in a rather sneaky announcement in the midst of January's CES news maelstrom. It was the seasonal equivalent of getting bad news out on a Friday evening. And Lenovo should be embarrassed about obliterating the Motorola brand, given that its own smartphones have never risen to any greater esteem than being usable. Like the HP Pre, We now have Lenovo Motos — both sound like blasphemous splicings that just don't belong together.
Instead of accelerating, everything slows to a standstill. Being the world's biggest PC vendor, as HP was in 2010 and Lenovo is today, involves a lot of bureaucracy and middle management. Being the world's best smartphone manufacturer, on the other hand, requires thinking and moving faster than anyone else. Palm recognized this in its announcement of the HP deal, with Jon Rubinstein expressing his hope that HP would be "the perfect partner to rapidly accelerate the growth of webOS." The exact opposite happened for the two companies. They clashed with the realities of integrating two alien cultures into one cohesive team, and it took many months to come up with a coherent vision for their collaborative operations.
Moto's competitive edge has been dulled by the grind of Lenovo's assimilation
Lenovo and Motorola are going through the exact same pains of integration. When Osterloh and company weren't defending their abandonment of the Motorola name at MWC, they were asking for time to get back up to speed in the wake of their reorganization. This is the one aspect that should have been entirely predictable: global companies of massive scale can't simply plug in small teams and expect them to operate smoothly from the start. Lenovo still says that it's handing leadership of its mobile division to the former Motorola crew, but combining the strengths of the two has proven a challenge, which has in turn affected development efforts.
There's no doubt, looking at the new Moto G range for 2016, that the former Motorola now lags its competition. Chinese rivals have surpassed Moto phones in the industrial design stakes, and the general quality of Android software has improved to the point where the purer Moto experience isn't all that big of a selling point. Will the new Moto G phones be decent? Sure. They just won't be competitive.
A new flagship Moto X could dispel some of my misgivings by being once again distinctive and class-leading in some particularly appealing way — but apparently even that is now in question. And either way, it wouldn't change the underlying dynamics of a company that seems to have lost its competitive edge, dulled by the grind of Lenovo's assimilation.