For the first time since Motorola became a division of Google, the smartphone manufacturer released new devices yesterday at an event in New York City. It seemed like a typical device launch at first. A band (Aussie transplants “The Kin”) warmed up a crowd of bored-looking tech journalists who had trudged across Manhattan from Nokia’s Lumia 920 launch. Then Google chairmen and former CEO Erik Schmidt stepped to the stage, and it became clear that this was the start of a new era.
Schmidt: "To play in this ecosystem, we had to buy Motorola."
Schmidt proved to be the real warm-up act. He declared that smartphones have gone beyond phones and computers. To Schmidt, today’s smartphones are pocket-size supercomputers. And their core is Android.
1.3 million Android devices come online every day. Nearly 70,000 of them are tablets, an area that Schmidt admitted Android fell behind in relation to the competition (Apple’s iPad, which he did not mention by name). The installed base of Android devices is pushing 500 million, with 480 million active Androids in circulation. It is an ecosystem, Schmidt said, that went beyond anything Google had ever imagined.
Numbers and rhetoric are not a surprising mix coming from Schmidt, whose job description requires him to be one of the biggest Android cheerleaders on the planet. But he was not talking in circles. Android had become so big, he explained, that in order to be a legitimate contender, Google had to buy Motorola.
Motorola announced three new devices at the event. The Droid Razr HD, the Droid Razr Maxx HD and the Droid Razr M. If you are familiar with the Razr and the Maxx, you won't find much to be surprised about in the new devices except increased battery life, screen resolution, and several software improvements. The phones look the same, have Kevlar back plates and are generally kind of dull. Even the Razr M, which probably has the highest ceiling in terms of market share, is ordinary. It is a compact phone with a screen that extends all the way to the edges of the device, so it feels the size of an iPhone 4S but has a larger 4.3-inch screen. The Razr M is available for pre-order today and will cost $99 on contract through Verizon next week.
There is nothing groundbreaking about the three Razr devices. They are a refresh for the holiday season, something Motorola likely already had in the works before the Google acquisition became official earlier this year. The Razr M is designed to conquer the top of the mid-level smartphone market and battle Apple’s iPhone when it is announced next week. With a long screen and a 1.5 GHz processor and 2000 mAh (milliampere-hour) battery, it can hold its own from a specifications perspective.
The New Motorola?
Dennis Woodside, the manufacturer's new Google-chosen CEO, said multiple times during the presentation, “the new Motorola starts today.” In some ways that is true. In several ways it is not.
The “new” Motorola cannot really start with these Razr phones. They are too much like what the company released last year, the same phones that faded away behind products from HTC, Samsung and Apple. The real story will begin with the next series of devices the company releases, likely early- to mid-2013, when Google and its R&D team will have had a chance to dig into Motorola’s technology and try to pull out something truly innovative.
Woodside made three distinct points about Motorola and Google’s objectives that bear on the company's future:
Google is obsessed with speed. It has always held the belief that the faster people can navigate the Web, the more money it will be able to make from its core advertising placements. This translates to smartphones in several ways. Foremost, 4G LTE is significantly faster than 3G, and Verizon is known to have the broadest LTE rollout in the U.S. Woodside showed several slides showing that people use their smartphones more on LTE than 3G networks, stating that a LTE smartphone is just more useful than a 3G one. That is not hyperbole. When a device proves itself fast and reliable, it becomes a bigger aspect of a person’s life. Google’s job is to outfit its own mobile services (such as maps, YouTube, Gmail, Google+, Talk and the Play store) to take advantage of that speed.
The Droid Razr Maxx has a 2500mAh battery. (Nokia patted itself on the back with the Lumia 920 for having a 2000mAh battery.) Better battery life also speaks to Google’s core plans. The longer a smartphone lasts without the need to charge, the more people will use it and the more likely they will use the services Google has built into Android. Speed and battery life might appear to be purely technical matters, but they play a role in changing consumer behavior. Through Motorola (and Android), Google is trying to effect behavioral shifts that will benefit its other divisions.
We are only just beginning to glimpse Google's plans for Motorola and Android. All Motorola phones that can be upgraded to the latest version of Android (version 4.1 Jelly Bean) will get the update by the end of 2012. If a Motorola Android user’s device cannot be upgraded, Google will supply a $100 coupon to buy a new Motorola device.
But updates are only part of the story. The Razr devices will be the first smartphones to ship with the Chrome For Android browser. Chrome is what ties together much of the Android mobile experience, and it will become smarter the more people use it. Marty Cooper, the Motorola engineer that created the first cellphone back in the early 1970s, said after the event that smartphones will move toward what he said are called “smart actions.” That is, devices will be tailored to the needs, wants and habits of particular users. The ability to sign into Chrome and have one Web presence across a PC, tablet and smartphone is the beginning of smart actions and a direction that Google will continue to push with Android.
Overall, Google has the opportunity to mold Motorola into the mobile hardware arm of its Web-based properties. For the last couple of years, Google has been trying to create one unique identity for people on the Web, through Google+ and its profiles, as well as its variety of services. The new Razr smartphones represent the beginning of that mission, and while this new crop of devices may not inspire, they sow the seeds of something deeper and more influential.