Since Motorola was acquired by Google
, there have been constant questions about how close the two companies would become. Google has maintained a "firewall
" between the companies, and has essentially run Motorola separately. Google gives Motorola no inside tracks on software builds or Android plans, but that doesn't mean that Google doesn't have influence, and doesn't directly affect Motorola's decisions.
It is obvious from Motorola's new round of devices that Google has a heavy influence, because Motorola's big marketing tag line when launching new devices highlights the fact that it only does minimal additions to Google Android. But, the influence is not allowed to be more overt than that, because otherwise Google will risk not only alienating Android hardware partners, but will risk attracting unwanted antitrust attention
from the U.S. Justice Department.
Even so, Motorola is taking a tack to follow the Google way. Many have been clamoring for a Motorola Nexus ever since Google acquired the company, but aside from the price tag on the Moto X, almost everything about the device falls in line with the Nexus ethos. And, even more than that, the new Motorola devices are carrying the torch of the Nexus brand much farther than any Nexus has before.
The Nexus tradition
As I've talked about before, the Nexus brand
of devices was created for three specific reasons (although the scope of the Nexus vision has changed somewhat). Originally, Google only wanted the Nexus brand to accomplish three things:
- To showcase Google Android - not "pure" Android, but Google Android and the features and functionality that Google envisioned as the future of the platform.
- To be a developer reference device - easily unlockable, easily rooted, and always running the latest version of Android
- To highlight the fact that manufacturer customization was the number one issue in why Android updates were so slow to be pushed out.
At the time when the Nexus One was first released, the term "fragmentation" was still used incessantly, and as such there was a widespread misconception about who was to blame for the problems of Android. The term "fragmentation" made it sound like it was Google's fault that updates were slow, and there were frequent stories that came out claiming that Google was moving too quickly with Android updates for the manufacturers to keep up.
There were also inane calls for Google to "lock down" Android and not allow the manufacturer customization, even though that would have effectively cut off a big selling point of the platform. Remember, at the time, Android was kind of ugly. We can all admit that now, right? As much as we all may have complained about Samsung TouchWiz, and HTC Sense (because they did legitimately overdo it with the visual flare), Android before Ice Cream Sandwich was simply not a good looking platform. It was functional, and always easy to customize, but the base system just looked utilitarian. Android 1.5 through 2.3 were the gawky teenage years, and with Android 4.0 puberty finished and brought the hotness.
Since then, the Nexus brand has kept to those same three tenets, and has also added in the lower unlocked pricing. This move was intended to have two benefits: first, it would make the developer reference device cheaper for developers, and also widen the consumer scope of the device. Widening the consumer scope would help to make more visible #3 from above and show how fast updates can be when there's no manufacturer customization.
Unfortunately, that message never really got the attention that Google hoped for a couple of reasons. The first trouble was that despite Google proving that manufacturer customization was a problem, manufacturers were not scaling back the custom skins. Sure the visuals in TouchWiz and Sense have become a bit more subdued, but the level of customization and bloat has tended to increase (at least from Samsung). The other problem was that the message fell a little flat, because of course Google could push updates faster, it had the code the entire time. Manufacturers still had to wait for the finished code to be released by Google before starting work on updates. It doesn't really help your case when you're using an unfair advantage, but that brings us back to Motorola.
Motorola: the manufacturer proxy
The major benefit of keeping Motorola as a separate company is that it can't be seen to have that same unfair advantage that Google has. Motorola doesn't get the Android code until the same time as other manufacturers, so the playing field has been leveled in that regard. Of course, Motorola has completely abandoned Moto Blur (which we're all eternally grateful for), and only has a few additions to Google Android on its devices. And, to make things even faster, the additions to Motorola devices are mostly found in the Play Store including Touchless Control
, Motorola Camera, and Motorola Spotlight
. This means that they aren't as deeply integrated into the system as other customizations like Active Notifications, so the development process can be streamlined. Rather than dealing with integrating the code, the updated app is simply added to the system update package.
All of this minimizes the time it takes Motorola to push out an update, as proven by the fact that the Android 4.4 KitKat update began rolling out to the Verizon Moto X yesterday
. There has been a bit of backlash about this because the Moto X update began rolling out before the Nexus 4 started seeing KitKat (which happened today
). But, that alone feels suspicious to me. Yes, there was a bug fix needed for the Nexus 4 update, and Google was likely holding back the KitKat update for that reason, but I wouldn't be surprised if Google also delayed a bit and waited until Motorola got its first update out the door as well. Everything about the way Motorola is handling its devices is pushing for speedy updates, but there is no good reason for Motorola to beat Google to the punch, unless Google let it happen.
Regardless of that, Motorola has pushed out the update extremely fast. The only other manufacturer that has been as fast on a system upgrade has been Asus, which is another company that kept customization to a minimum at first. Although, Asus customization has been getting more intense, and that has been slowing down its updates. Motorola was able to push out its first update just under three weeks after Google first announced the KitKat, which is astonishing.
Although, it should be noted that Google does release unfinished code to hardware partners before the official announcement, so Motorola, Samsung, HTC, and others did get the code before the Halloween reveal. But, the proper update can't really be built until the official code release. Still, the even more astonishing fact i
s that Verizon was the first carrier to offer the Moto X KitKat update. It is unclear when Verizon began testing
the Moto X KitKat update, but there wasn't any news about it until the day before the update began rolling out.
Verizon has been notoriously slow when it comes to approving updates. It doesn't seem to be an issue related to manufacturer customization either, because the Verizon Galaxy Nexus was the poster-child for how slow Verizon was at pushing updates. So, it's hard to say that it was Motorola's minimal customizations that helped out on that front, but whatever the company did, it worked extremely well.
In the end, Motorola could end up propagating the message far more than the Nexus line ever could: customization has side effects beyond what the casual consumer thinks about. Most casual consumers like the added functionality in devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4, but don't consider the downside too much. At most, a casual consumer will likely notice that they have almost no usable storage space because of all the TouchWiz additions on the device, and maybe notice some lag (although most wrongly tend to blame that lag on Android rather than Samsung). Many casual users don't even know or care what version of the software they are using unless a particular app doesn't work because of that.
But, Motorola is making that information more visible, because it is pushing all Google all the time. You won't hear the term "Google experience" more anywhere else than from Motorola employees (and tech bloggers). Google almost never uses the phrase anymore. The Nexus 5 didn't even get a proper announcement event, Google simply put it up in the store. It's looking like the same may happen with the Nexus 10. The Nexus 7 is the most successful Google device in the casual consumer market, so that still gets a big reveal. But, Google has basically let Motorola take over in getting out the message: updates can be fast, but it is up to the manufacturers to do it right.
img source: Droid Life