Google is the pinnacle of aspirational companies. It perfectly embodies how technology could be used to change the world. It helps that the founders are still running the show and are all for moonshots: Google Glass, Project Loon, driverless cars, etc.
Naivety goes hand-in-hand with aspiration and idyllic thinking. Google has been getting better in keeping their change-the-world mindset in check, but their history is still littered with examples of wanting to do things unconventionally. With the Nexus One, Google wanted to change how smartphones were sold. They wanted to sidestep the wireless carriers and sell phones directly to the consumer. That project ultimately failed, but the Nexus program lives on in making cutting edge hardware for the latest version of Android.
In 2011, Google announced their acquisition of Motorola Mobility and the deal closed a year later. The company was to stay firewalled from the rest of Google to play down accusations of favoritism among Android OEMs. Earlier today, Google announced their Motorola Mobility was going to be sold off to Lenovo for $2.91 billion.
I personally lament this sale. I see so many lost possibilities to what Motorola could have done with the financial backing and aspirational mindset of Google. Maybe if there wasn’t such a strict firewall present, more Google DNA and leadership could have made it a more successful acquisition. The Moto X is undeniably a Google product infused with that change-the-world mentality. It was the first device in the modern smartphone era to not play the specs game. Instead of going for the high-end hardware, they want for middle-end specs that are honestly good enough for most people. The choice of specs allowed for the device to be sold at a cheap off-contract price. It also allowed Motorola to focus on other differentiating features like personalization. Though the Moto X was not an outright success, it was without a doubt a device with a new outlook. Moto Maker made the smartphone personal again. There is nothing distinctive anymore about the slim profile of the iPhone or even different colored Galaxy S4s when everybody has one. With over 500 different permutations and customizations the Moto X was unique, but at the same time a bit crazy. Logistically it is crazy to make so many variants different of a phone. But, Motorla found a way by assembling those phones in the United States.
You see Google’s DNA two ways right there. The naivety to take on a challenge of making rather unique phones and bringing back manufacturing to the United States. Made in the USA was a long pipe dream of Google that dates back to the original Nexus Q. Sadly, those two things are now lost. We have to see whether Lenovo will continue the latter idea, but if not it was such a waste of potential.
We see Google’s believes in one other product: the Moto G. The phone was meant to drastically lower the price of off-contract phones while still building quality hardware. A long stated goal of Google is to get internet access to as many people around the globe and by extension getting them to use Google services. Google X's Project Loon lends credence to that goal. This strategy also has the added benefit of hurting the likes of Apple and even Samsung who sell their smartphones at exuberant off contract prices. The Moto G had the possibility of bringing smartphone usage to around the world at an affordable price and to shake up how smartphones were sold to consumers. Alas, that too is now lost with this sell off.
In retrospect, it now does appear that Google bought Motorola just for patents. Patents that were ultimately undervalued. In total, Google lost $7.1 billion with the purchase of Motorola. However, there is silver lining in that Google is keeping Motorola’s Advanced Technology group who is still on track to make the modular Project Ara a reality.
With Motorola, Lenovo gets entrance into the US smartphone market. The Motorola name which was part of the acquisition strikes more resonance (remember the original Razr) with people in the United States and abroad than Lenovo. For Google, we see a focusing of what their core values are. We see the Nexus line of devices no longer hindered by talks of shuttering in favor of Motorola-made devices. Google as a hardware maker still lives in devices such as the popular Nexus 7, Chromecast, and who knows maybe Project Ara in the future.
Google sometimes needs a blunt instrument. Equally, it sometimes needs a dagger, a scalpel wielded with precision and without remorse. There will always come a time when Google needs to pressure OEMs into doing better work. Google has found a way to stifle Samsung’s exuberant skin atop Android, but who knows what future events will arise. With Motorola, Google, firewall or not, could outcompete OEMs and force them to do work that better fits with Google’s vision of Android. We see this when the Moto X on Verizon was the first to get 4.4 KitKat and as a result other companies promised to release Android Kitkat to current devices as soon as possible. The Nexus line of devices are only effective for this purpose to a certain degree.
In less than three years Google’s Motorola brought forth some radical ideas: manufacturing in the United States, the prevalence of cheap quality smartphones around the world, and crazy ideas like making customized phones. What else could have happened, we’ll never know and that’s pretty sad.