The Moto X, Android 4.3, and why Google needs to stop keeping Motorola at an arm's length

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
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. 

The Google/Motorola Split

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. 

After seeing the new DROIDs, and the Moto X, how can anyone honestly say that Google doesn't hold sway over Motorola? The prime features of the Moto X are: Touchless Control, Active Display, and Moto Assist. 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.

What is Google scared of?

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. 

Even so, 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. 

reference: AllThingsD

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1. bugsbunny00

Posts: 2267; Member since: Jun 07, 2013

so thats why....

2. TheLolGuy

Posts: 483; Member since: Mar 05, 2013

Google has to tread carefully right now. Motorola has lost of a lot of market share on it's home ground, and had to pull out of a lot of international markets. They're focusing on the USA right now because they need to win back the home market. Once they establish a more comfortable footing I'm sure they'll expand once again to more international markets.

3. Blazers

Posts: 764; Member since: Dec 05, 2011

Screw it. Google should stop pissing in their pants around Samsung and the other wannabes, and shift into high gear. Absorb Motorola completely into Google, and focus on China and India where the bulk of mobile users are, and not just N.A.. And no more exclusives for providers. They need to think like Apple but on a more grandiose scale. And dump the Motorola name completely.

4. alltechinside

Posts: 248; Member since: Apr 21, 2013

Excellent article Michael! That explains the reasons for Google and Samsung news in the first place. I can understand why Google did that, but I think they should take the gamble and push Motorola to a Nexus like device. Like you said, Google could just give source code early to manufacturers and have non nexus and non google edition devices on the play store to prevent favouritism.

5. TheLolGuy

Posts: 483; Member since: Mar 05, 2013

When Motorola becomes profitable again and regains some market share Google might brazen up a little more. As it is right now, pissing off OEMs when Motorola is weak is not a smart idea. For now, Motorola has to earn it's own merit, and that means making profit on it's own, unsubsidized. You might think Samsung is helpless without Android, but they have a strong command of the Asian market. Since Intel is partnering with Samsung to polish Tizen to perfection, they're probably going all-in with their support. Maybe Tizen won't be successful globally, but they will threaten Android in Asia, and for that I have no doubt. Intel needs that break in the mobile chip sector, and if they can't get it through Android they will help Samsung make Tizen relevant. Samsung and Intel are two huge names that carry as much weight as Google if not more. Microsoft pissed off OEMs with the Surface. Google isn't about to make that same mistake... at least not so soon, if they plan on it.

14. gazmatic

Posts: 822; Member since: Sep 06, 2012

wobba wot nobody was pissed off by the surface it was so damn expensive that oems werent even bothered because most people wouldnt buy it at that price point google should just make motorola an in home nexus device and give the people pure android it just goes to show you that google =/= android samsung = android when people recognize galaxy more than they recognize google...

6. Zero0

Posts: 592; Member since: Jul 05, 2012

I'm going to go out and say it after skimming through the article: No. The Android team needs to treat Motorola the same way they treat HTC, LG, Sony, and Samsung. Show preference to Motorola, and they all jump ship for Windows Phone or Tizen or Ubuntu or something else. Worse yet, there's a little bit of an antitrust issue in this. Google has so much power in everything these days that giving itself an edge in the mobile hardware market would probably spur yet another investigation by the European Union, and maybe even by the US Congress.

7. alltechinside

Posts: 248; Member since: Apr 21, 2013

You should read the article. You probably missed some points that Michael said.

9. Zero0

Posts: 592; Member since: Jul 05, 2012

Read it after posting and my mind isn't changed. He says software should be released earlier to hardware companies. That started a year ago, I think, with the PDK. Don't know why they aren't using it, but giving Motorola that kind of advantage is just going to send the others drifting away. Yes, those other ecosystems aren't as developed as Android is, but Android did evolve really quickly once it got adopted by many hardware companies.

8. Mr.Mr.Upgrade

Posts: 474; Member since: Aug 30, 2011

All they had to do is update the moto x like apple update their products I would have bout it...they didn't do what important to the customers suck.. Slow updates.. No value in keeping a phone past a two year contract... The voice control on moto x is the better then Samsung gimmicks

10. Sniggly

Posts: 7305; Member since: Dec 05, 2009

Honestly, at this point Samsung knows they've built up a great deal of customer loyalty. They have a strong market position which won't be destroyed by Motorola's sales even if the Moto X is the hit of the century. I agree that Google can start giving Motorola better treatment and help them out more. After all, it's what everyone expects at this point anyway.

11. Topcat488

Posts: 1419; Member since: Sep 29, 2012

There was talk about HTC selling out just yesterday (rumor), although later denied by the ceo. That said, it's a dog eat dog industry. Google need to go 100% behind Motorola, because as yet that Moto X needs a lot more help! FAIL. And take back the next nexus edition phones from LG, and make high-spec low-priced smartphones, with Googorola!!! It's YOUR car, the other b!tches are just there for the ride.

12. Jurdiales

Posts: 138; Member since: Oct 10, 2012

I still don't like the murder of the microSD slot. Motorola has done a great job making they new phone with Stock interface, I love it, Google needs to boost Motorola or at least leave them work freely for they can boost themselves, don't put rocks on your own company's back. Let them advance. Sorry for my english.

15. gazmatic

Posts: 822; Member since: Sep 06, 2012

i need google behind moto 100% if i am ever to buy another moto again my last experience with a moto was when a friend lent me their razr m crappp phone

16. great

Posts: 85; Member since: Jan 21, 2013

samsung will be lol ...if they abandon android .

17. joonyboy

Posts: 43; Member since: Nov 11, 2010

One of the big reasons why code has always been the talking points between manufacturers and Google is because of how the market grows with the code. Although this may be a very small factor, I feel like most people would generally want to keep holding onto their phone longer if they're continually provided with the latest software. One of the main reasons why people upgrade to the next phone is because of these stalled and delayed updates (that would improve user experience) and this is what manufacturers want: to keep people buying to the next phone (aka the next software). If consumers are able to get the latest software, then that means less business with the manufacturers which goes to lower profit and market.

18. JGuinan007

Posts: 699; Member since: May 19, 2011

Moto may upgrade the moto x really fast to 4.3 but the bigger problem is getting the carriers to update the phones to 4.3 that may be 3 months later from the time moto updates and that's what will really hurt the moto x's sales.

19. suneeboy

Posts: 201; Member since: Oct 02, 2012

Solid article Michael. However, I think it is far too soon for Google to go full force with Motorola. As is the case with any merger or acquisition, there are long transition times. Also, when a company is acquired, the acquirees have a tendency to keep them as a separate brand. A recent example of this would be T-Mobile's purchase of MetroPCS. Google is probably trying to develop a long term strategy for the brand and we will see more "Googlization" of the company in the coming years. I think just taking the hardware division and dumping vanilla android in every handset is not the way to go. It wouldn't bring much value to the market, and it wouldn't make Motorola different. Remember, Motorola makes all sorts of equipment, with a huge partner being the NFL.

20. RomeoJDR

Posts: 245; Member since: Dec 09, 2011

Google definately has control as moto phones have parted ways with offering expandable storage via micro SD slot and cap the memory at 32GB (less usable). Less on board storage = more people paying monthly for cloud storage.

21. OldNorseBruin

Posts: 235; Member since: Mar 12, 2013

This article clearly explains the REAL reason, at least the more palatable reason to those of us who believe the the XPhone is way overpriced...Google is afraid to Nexus-like price that phone because they're afraid of offending Samsung. BUT , I absolutely agree with Michael; GOOGLE should NOT be afraid of eliciting Samsung's wrath...Samsung needs GOOGLE-ANDROID more than GOOGLE needs Samsung...In a protracted war between the two, GOOGLE would emerge victorious, albeit somewhat bruised.

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