Motorola monitor: what’s going on behind the scenes?

by: Matthew BensonJanuary 14, 2016
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motorola lenovo logo

Motorola, both the company and its employees, have been through a lot in the recent past. Having made numerous Android phones since the very beginning, users frequently derailed efforts in part thanks to the heavy MotoBlur skin. Eventually the company was purchased by Google wherein it reemerged as a brand new brand, giving birth to the Moto X, the Moto G, and the Moto E. Things changed when Google announced it was selling.

Lenovo’s Motorola

In the past few weeks, Lenovo’s ownership of Motorola has become a quagmire of misunderstandings and clarifications. It began when an announcement was made at CES on the 7th, that the Motorola brand would be discontinued. Our own John Dye reported the news as follows:

Moto smartphones will still be in production in the coming years, complete with their familiar M-brand symbol. However, these devices will also have Lenovo’s branding and iconography…Lenovo wants the brand recognition Motorola used to enjoy. Although Motorola fell out of the spotlights…they still enjoy a fairly decent fanbase. Lenovo, on the other hand, is a much more obscure name in the mobile industry…When they bought the company from Google, it was to bolster their presence in the mobile market.

Unfortunately this news was quickly misconstrued – partially by misleading headlines and partially by a lack of information – and misinterpreted to mean that “Lenovo is doing away with Motorola phones” or something along those lines. This prompted a formal post on Motorola’s own blog to clarify the issue the next day, with the clearer picture being painted as one that will retain the Moto brand and even “batwing” logo, but see it relegated to higher end devices while the Vibe brand takes care of the lower end of things. It was also revealed, in the past month, that between the Vibe and Moto brands, there would be no more than 15 new products hitting stores in 2016.

The latest from Motorola

The newest new news

Project Tango Lenovo logo2

News was then made again just days ago when Lenovo’s SVP, Chen Xudong, made the following points in an interview:

  1. All Moto-branded devices to launch in 2016 will come with embedded fingerprint sensors.
  2. All Moto-branded products to launch in 2016 will have screen sizes of 5 inches, or larger.
  3. Moto-branded products will see their design fine-tuned to suit the needs of customers in both the East and West.
  4. Lenovo and Moto’s UI will be merged into a brand new UI to be unveiled in 2017.

Some of this didn’t actually come off as surprising, namely the fingerprint idea. As has been pointed out before, at one point the Nexus 6 was originally going to have a fingerprint sensor, and the company itself did release the Atrix 4G some years back. And of course, there had been numerous rumors of fingerprint sensors gracing new products throughout last year when it looked like the Moto X Pure Edition (2015) was going to have one. Soon after we published our original report on the Moto rebranding, Motorola reached out to Android Authority to clarify a few things regarding the SVP’s statement on the fingerprint sensors:

Xudong was referring to products specific to the China market. We’ll share more information about our 2016 products at a later time.

We’re thankful that Motorola reached out to clarify the original statement, but there’s still more to talk about here. The second point listed above immediately raised concern, and prompted some unfortunate thinking: Given that Lenovo’s own Vibe brand will handle the lower-end segment of the market, it seemed highly unlikely there would be another Moto E. Likewise, it was also highly possible that even the Moto G itself will be discontinued, and the default “entry” level Moto line in 2016 will be something more akin to what the Moto X Play was last year.

This fear then presumably prompted a Motorola spokesperson to issue a public statement to clarify that:

“Although we are simplifying the combined Motorola and [Lenovo] portfolio, we have no plans to retire Moto G, our most successful smartphone, or Moto E.”

And so, the tech collective is now left scratching its proverbial head, trying to ascertain just what, exactly, is going on over at Motorola. Lenovo – its parent – has repeatedly stated the lower end market will be covered by its own Vibe brand. It also stated that all Moto devices in 2016 will be 5-inches or larger, and have a fingerprint sensor. Yet Motorola has stated both the Moto G and Moto E lines are safe.

Making non sense

Moto G 2015 Hands On-20

The above implication begs the question of how Motorola would even sell the Moto G and Moto E if they both have 5-inch displays, assuming they did. Would the Moto G have 2GB or RAM and an HD or full HD display at 5 inches, and the Moto E just 1GB of RAM and a qHD display at 5 inches? That would make them stand apart, but it would seemingly be little more than describing two variants of a single brand, unless the build quality was also dramatically different. But then again, these are both budget-friendly phones.

What is probably going on is that Lenovo and Motorola either don’t have their stories straight, or else there is internal confusion as to just what is going on. For reference, last summer it was reported that Lenovo was going to be dissolving its own Vibe brand and merging everything into Motorola, a story that was then clarified with a formal press release, then further reported months later that the Lemon series would become the new name for Lenovo’s products.

The end result, at least as things stand right now, is that for all the good Lenovo and Motorola’s PR statements are doing, they are conflicting and creating a very confusing and convoluted image of what the two companies are actually going to do. As ironic as such a statement sounds, in this particular case, no news at all would have arguably been a far, far better solution entirely.

Update uproar and UI changes once more

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When Motorola was part of Google, OS updates were released so quickly at times, that users might almost have been convinced they had an unbranded Nexus device. Putting aside carrier-branded products like the Verizon Droid Turbo, the Moto X Pure Edition (2014) was updated to Lollipop in lickety-split fashion. The same, unfortunately, was not true of the Moto X Pure Edition (2015), which did not see its Marshmallow update for several months after the OS update was released.

Android 6.0 marshmallow logo DSC_0126See also: Android 6.0 Marshmallow updates roundup – December 18, 2015137
Perhaps even more concerning however, Lenovo’s Motorola has been further splintering its splattering of OS updates. For example, the Moto G (2014) will see an update to Android 6.0 in South America, yet not in the United States. Likewise, countries like Brazil and India received Marshmallow for the Moto X Style long before devices in the USA or elsewhere. And all this amidst an ever-expanding line up of products that have yet to receive anything timely: the Moto X Force, the Moto X Play, the Droid Turbo, the Droid Turbo 2, etc.

A sound mind

It should be mentioned, in defense of Motorola, that sales demographics might indeed be the chief decision making metric in the piecemeal update approach. Customers in the United States typically have more disposable income than those in other parts of the world. Assuming that an overwhelming majority of Moto G (2014) sales were not in the States, and noting that the internal hardware inside the US variant of said phone is different than that in other parts of the world, it does make sense to skip the OS update.

Obviously for those users that care – and are aware – the decision is a defiant one that will surely incite anger, but logically it makes sense from a corporate point of view: there is little tangible benefit to devote significant amounts of time and resources on an update for a product that failed to attract many users in the United States.

The UI Issue

Unfortunately things are more likely to get even worse come 2017, given the earlier-mentioned comments that stated Lenovo’s Vibe UI and Motorola’s UI will be merged into a new one. Just the idea of such an endeavor is sure to enrage numerous readers, as an almost stock user experience has been one of the key areas where Motorola had managed to attract users in the past, at least judging by comments to the effect around the internet.
While it is possible that the new interface could be used exclusively with the Vibe series, if Lenovo wants a single, comprehensive brand strategy it needs to streamline its UI. Samsung, for example, runs the same TouchWiz across all its devices. The same goes with LG, HTC, Sony and so on and so forth with respect to said OEM’s skins. From a consistency standpoint, it makes very little sense for Lenovo to have one radically different UI from Motorola’s, especially if one is to believe customers can “upgrade” their digital lifestyle by moving from a Lemon/Vibe product to a Moto one.

Handset diversity

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If nothing else, 2015 saw a dramatic change to the strategy Motorola employed with its product line-up. Whereas the Google-owned company was content to release a bare minimum of devices, last year saw the Lenovo-owned version release double that. Case in point, 2015 brought forth three different Moto X “flagship” smartphones: the Moto X Style, the Moto X Play, and the Moto X Force. The situation became even further warped given that the Moto X Play – in and of itself – was hardly befitting of the “X” branding given its decidedly mid-range specs and chunky appearance, the Moto X Style eschewed an AMOLED display in favor of a standard LCD, and the Moto X Force wasn’t released until December.

That Lenovo-Motorola will release no more than 15 handsets combined means that there is ample room for both product lines, yet one can only begin to imagine what will surface given the confusing recent public statements and unusual twist that the Moto X brand had in 2015.

Component Control

moto x 2015 second opinion aa (3 of 24)

Last year’s Moto X products also raised some very puzzling questions. For one thing, it was quite peculiar that the Moto X Style opted for an LCD display despite the fact that both the original Moto X and the 2014 variant used AMOLED. This loss was further felt when the Moto X Force was announced given that said device did make use of Samsung’s panels.
Motorola needs to establish some consistency here with its product lines. While it may be a given that the size or shape will vary or change from year-to-year, at the very least the core components should not. The Moto X brand, in and of itself, stood out originally in part because of its smart use of AMOLED coupled with the Active Notification system that made good use of the organic technology as it does not require a backlight.
This became almost laughable when the Moto X Style wad announced with an LCD, given that said display technology requires that the entire display be lit (with a backlight) even if only one small portion is active. Thus, when a notification arrives and the Style is flashing on and off to signal it, there is theoretically very little difference if the screen is “off” or turned on completely given that the backlight must be activated for either instance.

Moto Maker

Moto Maker was greatly expanded in 2015, with customization options made available for the Moto G. Going even further however, the Moto 360 (2nd Edition) was also given full access to Moto Maker allowing shoppers to customize far more than the original variant, which only allowed basic changes to the color or band. Verizon’s Droid Turbo 2 was also given full access to the Moto Maker store.
While Moto Maker itself will presumably continue in 2016, the question of just how many devices will be eligible is another story, as it is if the feature will be expanded to Lenovo Vibe products.

To be cloned

The last major issue to consider here is just how long Motorola’s unique Moto Actions will be ultimately viewed as such. The original OnePlus One, for example, featured voice-controlled operation similar to that found on the Moto X. Google itself has sought to bring active notifications into Android proper, however Motorola’s hand-wave motion sensing gestures to activate the effect are still an exclusive due to the additional hardware requirements needed.

Indeed many of Motorola’s once-novel ideas have either been picked up by other OEMs, or else allowed on alternative handsets via third party apps that can simulate the same features.

A hard sell? Only time will tell.

lenovo motorola logo mwc 2015 4

If reading this piece has generated a feeling of uneasiness with respect to Motorola’s future in 2016, know that you are not alone. As can be expected, both it, and parent company Lenovo, would like to portray a sentiment of not just business-as-usual, but of a cohesive and better-than-before company. Unfortunately what is already known or can be implied or asked raises ample cause for concern.

There are conflicting reports about the nature of the Motorola brand itself, about the mid-to-low end hardware the company has become well-known for, and an unwinding OS strategy that now seems to be on the verge of outright “collapse” given plans to merge Motorola’s light skin with Lenovo’s decidedly different version of Android.

The problem here is literally one of East-meets-West as much as it is corporate integration. Lenovo represents a company that has vested interests and consumer demographics that are markedly different than those in Motorola’s original home base of the United States. This is true on so many levels, as well:

  1. The Asian market is far, far more hyper-competitive than that in the USA with Huawei, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Oppo, ZTE, OnePlus and countless other smaller brands competing for consumers with razor-thin profit margins and unbelievably low prices.
  2. Asian customers may be more likely to accept and seek out smartphones with unique, feature-intensive UI skins. Refer to any non-Nexus device made by companies like Samsung, LG, OnePlus, Xiaomi, Huawei and many others.
  3. Lenovo wanted Motorola for brand expansion and recognition. This expansion is important in Asia just as it is elsewhere.

Now add in all the traditional turmoil associated with integrating two formerly competitive companies. Redundancies and differences in strategy and product development are seemingly married for what could inevitably be a difficult first few years. This is not to say that Lenovo – and to an extent Motorola – is not prepared or more than able to overcome such challenges. Lenovo in particular, has a significant amount of experience with this business strategy in the PC market, having acquired both IBM and NEC’s computer businesses.

Still, the mobile market is not quite the same as the PC market, and unlike the PC market which has relatively few global players from China, the smartphone market had a growing number of fierce rivals all out for total domination.

  • Mickey Jones

    Excellent article. Agree with everything. I have a MXPE and the LCD screen is excellent but the choice of LCD over OLED makes no sense given hardware sensors are already in place for the Active Notification display. Seems like a last minute cost savings decision. Dumb Lenovo. Any effort to add a Lenovo skin to the UI will be even more dumb.

    The MXPE is an excellent phone at an excellent price but I wont buy another if they contine with misguided decisions. Thank goodness for Nexus.

    • Ivy.p

      Moto 360, Apple watch, Microsoft Band 2 and more is now on sale below

  • Chester

    Where are the new MM/6.0 factory images?

    • Mario Limonciello

      Motorola doesn’t update the OS that is burned in the factory but instead relies on solely OTA update to come to the latest version. This is how it has been since the OG Moto X.

  • Adam

    Awesome article, unfortunately it just made it seem like I’ll soon be looking for another brand. I got the 2015 Moto x pure and couldn’t be happier but the way lenovo wants to run things, I think its something I want no part of. Hopefully I’m wrong and they keep the UI the same and just upgrade the next pure edition but until the dust settles and the 2016 models are released I’ll start my research for my next phone

  • Jacky

    Anything else will be acceptable if Motorola just sticks to Stock Android UI and speedy updates before other OEM like it used to. If this happens, people will hardly even care about other things!

  • chris_t610

    Much like everyone else here who commented, the reason why I’m using a Motorola today is because of the Stock UI.

    If indeed Lenovo has plans of getting rid of that, then I’m better off sticking to an Android One handset.

  • 1966CAH

    Lenovo’s dodgy antics in the PC market already had my hackles up when they announced the Motorola acquisition. The ususal “Oh, we’ll be run independently and continue just like before” marketspeak was soon belied by reality. Most of the news since then has just reinforced a feeling of mistrust in the way they are steering Moto along. I loved my OG Droid, and I currently use a Moto 360 and a Nexus 6 (both of which I really love too), but I highly doubt my next purchases will rock a batwing logo as long as Lenovo is a factor.

    • Prime

      Same here, I’ll hang on to my Nexus 6 until Google releases their first in-house Nexus, which will be built with Motorola patents of course.

  • Huhster

    The writing in the this article and grammar is so bad it hurts.

  • Scr-U-gle

    So, in the absence of doubt; Motorola doesn’t exist as a company, it is a sticker used by Lenovo.

    Anything associated with Motorola is really a Lenovo watch/phone/toaster.

    Glad that’s been cleared up, I was getting a bit bored of the moroids arguing with that this isn’t the case.

  • Heil Shitler

    These Chinese people ruins everything.