The Moto X, Android 4.3, and why Google needs to stop keeping Motorola at an arm's length
A lot has been made about the fact that Motorola's new Moto X handset is shipping with Android 4.2.2, and not Android 4.3. Of course, there have been the general jokes about how even now that Motorola is owned by Google, it still can't get the newest version of Android for its devices. And, according to Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside, that is because Motorola really is kept separate from Google. That's been the line that Google and Motorola have used time and time again, and it seems to be the truth, but it really shouldn't be.
In an interview with AllThingsD, Woodside admitted that Motorola did not get advanced copies of the Android 4.3 update, and did not see the code until Google released it after the new Nexus 7 announcement. Even though the company isn't getting preferential treatment, Woodside is confident that its devices will get updated quickly, because the company has been careful to keep the OS customizations to a minimum. Woodside also noted that 85% of devices released in the last two years have been upgraded to the latest version of Android.
All of that sounds great, but it does need a bit of context. First of all, Motorola hasn't released a ton of devices in the past two years; so, while the number 85% is impressive, it is expected that the company would be able to push those updates, especially given the massive scaling back in the hardware department. Secondly, it is very hard to believe that Motorola's decision to keep OS customizations to a minimum wasn't something that was heavily influenced by Google.
And, that's where this supposed Google/Motorola split gets silly. We're supposed to believe that Motorola is run as its own separate company with little influence from Google, and no direct connections between the two companies. But, at the same time, it is known that there is something of an employee swap available between Google and Motorola, the new CEO Dennis Woodside was put in place by Larry Page, Woodside had worked at Google for 9 years; and, most importantly, we've all seen the new Motorola devices.
Touchless Control is literally nothing more than always-on Google Now, which is something that Google showed off first at I/O as something that is coming to Chrome. Active Display is the culmination of Google's obsession with AMOLED displays, which began with the Nexus One and Android 2.3 Gingerbread back in 2010. AMOLED was featured prominently in three of the four Nexus handsets, and Gingerbread itself brought a dark-colored makeover to Android in order to offer better batter life on AMOLED displays. And, Moto Assist, as Woodside himself admits, is Motorola's attempt to follow Google's self-driving car and "to build the first self-driving phone."
The new Motorola software is being kept close to stock, because that's the best way to highlight the work that Google has done to improve the platform, and it should allow Motorola to upgrade the software faster than other companies that customize more heavily. It makes sense that Google would choose to run Motorola this way, and keep it at an arm's length; but, it really comes down to one thing: Google is scared.
Google is in a very tenuous position right now. It is at the top of the mobile world, and the latest count puts Android at somewhere around 80% of the global market. There are a number of new platforms that are coming up to challenge that crown; and, while companies like Apple, Microsoft, and BlackBerry would love to take share from Google, the real trouble for Google itself is Samsung.
Samsung sells the vast majority of the Android handsets, and the only logical reason that Google would keep Motorola at a distance is because Larry Page is afraid of pissing off Samsung by going into more direct competition. Samsung already has hedged its bets with Tizen, and a bit of Windows Phone. The theory has always been that Samsung could shift its focus and abandon Android, if it wanted. I've never really thought that was a realistic threat, because Samsung has far more to lose by leaving Android than it would have to gain. Sure, people love Samsung devices, but people have also invested quite a lot in the Android ecosystem through those Samsung devices. If someone picked up the Galaxy S 5, which was suddenly running Tizen, there would be a sizeable amount of anger.
Google doesn't want to show favoritism (or that's the theory). So, Motorola will build the products that Google wants built, focus the experience of those devices on Google products, offer the customization of hardware that users have come to expect from Android, and keep software customizations to a minimum to show off Android (rather than Sense or TouchWiz). But, Motorola won't get advanced copies of software, because that would be showing favoritism. How does this make any sense?
I understand part of the thought process. Google has its Nexus line, and now it also has the Google Edition devices to show how quickly Android updates could be if there were no customization at all to deal with. Nexus devices get the updates right away, because Google makes those updates, and obviously it has the early builds of its own code. HTC and Samsung pushed the Android 4.3 update to the Google Edition devices just over a week after the Nexus devices started getting the same update. If we are to assume that HTC and Samsung didn't get the Android 4.3 code until it was officially released, that means the minor alterations needed to work on those devices only took about a week to add.
Motorola has kept customizations low, but there are still a number of customizations to be dealt with. If Motorola were planning to have the upgrade ready soon, it seems like something that would have been mentioned during this marketing blitz. Manufacturers tend to make a point to say things like "the update will be available shortly after the device release", but Motorola hasn't done that. The best that has been said is that the upgrade is "a priority". Still, it seems that the point is to show how much more quickly software upgrades can come when the customizations are limited. Presumably, Motorola will do well in that respect.
Using Motorola to highlight more the problems with manufacturer customizations seems unnecessary. Google has the Nexus line to do this, and the gains of keeping Motorola at a distance don't seem worth what Google is giving up to do so. Let's ignore for a moment that Google could theoretically give more manufacturers early access to upgrade code as a way to speed up software updates, thus removing any calls of favoritism.
Just imagine if Google were to fully take the reins of Motorola, and use the division as a true hardware arm of Google itself with all of the benefits, including advanced access to software. Just imagine if Google said to Samsung, "We know you're good, but you have to beat us at full strength if you want to be the best." In all likelihood, a true Googrola wouldn't be able to take much of Samsung's market share, at least not globally. Motorola might make a solid push in the U.S., but around the world, other companies like HTC, Huawei, Sony, and ZTE would still offer competition, and adding Motorola to that mix wouldn't cause too much of a stir. As we know, Motorola will be making a push into emerging markets and more international markets with the DVX, which will be a low-cost device. That again is something Google has been working towards in various ways for a while now. If Google were to give the company more blatant preferential treatment, that might anger those more internationally successful manufacturers.
But, if the fear is in angering other manufacturers, why is access to code the line drawn in the sand? Motorola is already getting help from Google's marketing budget to the tune of a reported $500 million. Google is obviously already influencing hardware and software decisions at Motorola. Giving early access to code doesn't sound like the straw that would break the camel's back on this one. I'm not even asking for Nexus-like pricing for Motorola devices (which would really be an issue that would cause far more anger than anything else).
And, as stated before, even if access to code were to push manufacturers past the breaking point, what exactly are the alternatives? Going to the Windows Phone ecosystem would amount to the same, but manufacturers would trade Samsung as the king of the hill for Nokia. Jumping from Android to Tizen, Ubuntu, or Firefox may work over the very very long haul, but in the meantime, manufacturers would have to fight against the dominant platform (not to mention iOS and Windows Phone) with unproven platforms. There could also be more companies choosing to fork Android, rather than jump ship completely, but more often than not forking makes it more difficult to compete. For every success story that you find with Amazon, there are dozens of failed attempts (just ask Barnes & Noble).
Overall, Google has worked extremely hard to build good relationships with manufacturers, and there are ways to handle this that would be better all around than keeping Motorola as a "separate" division. Google can still continue the Nexus and Google Edition programs with other manufacturers. Google could add other non-Nexus or non-Google Edition devices to the Play Store if that would make it easier to sell Motorola devices directly (and not have this silly Moto Maker exclusivity with AT&T). Google could even allow manufacturers early access to code in order to speed up work on updates. All of those things would keep manufacturers happy, and we'd be able to get devices from Motorola that are more Google, which can only be a good thing.