Like many nerds I have been waiting with bated breath the fabled release of the Moto X. The smartphone that has been touted as Android’s first real competition to Apple’s iPhone. This is due to the fact that it is the first phone that began development after Google acquired Motorola Mobile; the other recent Motorola phones began development prior to the acquisition. So the Moto X is the first Android smartphone that had both hardware and software designed under one roof. And since this has been the secret sauce for Apple, surely this would be willing combination for Google, right? Well to a degree yes but largely no. Not because it is bad phone, in fact it looks pretty great all things concerned. The fact is, it is really an incremental upgrade from what has come before even with the hardware and software designed in tandem. Apple and their iPhone is suffering the same fate, and all rumors surrounding the supposed iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C show things aren’t getting better anytime soon. The problem is we tend to hype incremental improvements as innovation when technology hits a plateau. Now admittedly I am a systems guy, I tend to see the forest and find it difficult to appreciate the details (e.g. the trees). I am looking for revolutionary technological breakthroughs in a world constrained by business and legal roadblocks. Before we go further, let’s look at the highlights of the Moto X:
- It ships with the Android Jelly Bean v4.2.2 not the latest 4.3 which admittedly just launched. And when designing hardware it is smart to run software that has been out for a while and debugged rather than running the bleeding edge. But then again, this is a phone that had both hardware and software done by the team. We will reserve judgement until we see how long it takes for the 4.3 upgrade to push out. If it is more than a few weeks, I’d be suspect of this new hardware/software integration sales pitch.
- Hands free voice activation (called Touchless Control). Never press a button and just talk to your phone a la Google Glass. You initiate an interaction by stating “Ok Google Now” and follow it with an inquiry or request such as setting a reminder. It is very much like a souped up Apple’s Siri. Unlike Siri, the Moto X doesn’t require you to press a button to initiate the interaction. But that means the Moto X is ALWAYS listening. In a post-NSA PRISM world, I am not sure how many people will appreciate this fact. And given that Siri has been pretty much a bomb, I am not sure if this hands free feature is really as killer as it is being hyped. Maybe it is a matter of poor implementation with Siri, and the Moto X version will be better. But I think most people aren’t yet comfortable with natural language conversation with their computer. This one is a toss up.
- Aesthetic Customization. In short, you will be able to customize the colors of your backcover, front cover, and bezel/buttons. Not really a huge deal from tech perspective, but Google is betting this is going to be huge in the eyes of the average consumer. Plus they get to claim “Assembled in the USA”. Here is the reality, the covers of all colors are still manufactured overseas and shipped to the USA. So too are the electronics and battery guts. When you order online someone here stateside goes to the bins, grabs the rights color combination of covers, and slaps it all together with the electronic guts. Bam. “Customized” phone for you. This may just work, people buy cases to personalize their phones all the time. But they also buy cases to protect their phones. Putting a case on a customized Moto X is kind of dumb. But here is the real doozy, the customization is only available for AT&T, at least initially. What a deal breaker. Oh and I forgot, you can customize the wallpaper and startup screen message. Again, innovation it is not.
- Quick Capture. Take your phone out, shake it a bit to launch the camera app and touch anywhere on the screen to take a picture. Now I have not had an Android phone since the Droid X2, but I have to imagine this “feature” is something an app or custom ROM could do easily for years. Innovation? Nope.
- The internal guts and screen is about average, not high end. But it still sells for $199 on contract for a 16GB model. With such specs I would expect to see this sell for $299 OFF CONTRACT. They did make some interesting design choices and the internal chip selection and architecture may in fact be the most innovative aspect of the Moto X despite how hard they are downplaying the specs over the more consumer oriented “features” marketing angle. The initial reports on battery life due to this architecture are outstanding.
So putting all this together, I don’t see how this phone is not more of the same. Google is still having to appease the wireless companies with exclusives. I can’t imagine Apple ever capitulating to AT&T or Verizon and agreeing to limit the white iPhone to a single provider. Oh and the Moto X is still subject to bloatware from the network, another thing Apple has refused to compromise on. If Google really wants to taken on Apple then they really need to sell a true, cross provider flagship phone that gives the 100% Google experience with no compromise. That would be a start for Google.
But let’s go back to my original point of bringing to market a true revolution of innovation. Why has the smartphone market plateaued? It comes down to choice and cost. So what is real innovation going to look like? Well first, it is going to more than just improving the phone itself, hardware or software. It is going to take a monumental shift in the wireless system as a whole. A change that can only be brought about by an Apple or Google (I’d dare say Microsoft or BlackBerry but they have far more distance to makeup) and not the Verizons or AT&Ts of the world. First and foremost we need a true world phone and worldwide network. One monthly price for unlimited calls, texts, and data (well unlimited data because the reality is everything should be digital, pure and simple). Anywhere and everywhere in the world.
Speaking of anywhere. Mesh networks. Mesh networks have been a difficult undertaking to get to work reliably. But they could also be key to providing much better coverage, at least in relatively dense populate areas. Mesh networks would allow you to connect to the network without directly connecting to a tower. You could, in theory, connect to a mesh of other users smartphones in order to connect to the network. This would help for users on geographical fringes get access to the network. In short, other users would act as repeaters for your network traffic to and from a tower.
Next we need to get rid of the crazy expensive data plans, and all the confusing service plans that the Verizons and AT&T have colluded on for years. There should be a single cost per phone for unlimited data (again, data including VOIP phone calls and text messages). $40 per phone per month should be the target.
So, Moto X may be the start of a revolution but it is not the harbinger of change that is needed to break the plateau that smartphone manufacturers are facing. The quicker that the Apple, Google, Microsoft, and BlackBerrys of the world realize that it is the Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and Time-Warners of the world that is killing them, the sooner both they and consumers will profit. Technology is the enemy of the middle men, and the middle men are the AT&Ts, Verizon, and Comcasts. They’ve had their run and they’ve proven unwilling to change, so it is time for them to go the way of the dinosaurs. This was a topic of discussion on this week’s STEAM Power Podcast as well.