Motorola announced the highly anticipated Moto X, its first smartphone designed from the ground up since Google acquired Motorola Mobility in 2011.
The mid-range device will focus on customisation, offering a total of 504 different combinations by offering the following choices:
- 2 colour choices for the front (black and white)
- 18 back panels
- 2 storage options (16 GB or 32 GB)
- 7 accent colours (the ring around the camera lens, hardware buttons etc.)
Custom engravings will also be available.
Motorola showcased an "always-listening" feature running in the background on an additional processor core and notifications displayed on the lock screen.
The handset will launch in August in the US, for $199 on a two year contract on the five major US carriers. Initially, customisations will only be available on AT&T.
The specifications of the Moto X do not match the flagships of the competition, in fact the specs are closer to last year's Nexus 4. However, an exclusive focus on specs is not Motorola's main goal. Rather, the company is trying to differentiate itself in a crowded market dominated by Samsung and Apple by bringing back the assembly to the United States and promising the delivery of a personally designed handset in 4-5 days.
Bringing the production closer to the consumer is the key enabler for the type of customisation Motorola aims to offer. Smartphone cases are being used as fashion accessories and Motorola saw an opportunity to offer a greater level of differentiation. Nokia has used bright colours to differentiate its handsets but has seen mixed results, mostly due to the Windows Phone platform that is struggling to gain traction globally. HTC and Samsung also offer different colours of their flagship devices, usually exclusively to select operators. Motorola has chosen to allow consumers to truly customise the look of their devices not just by single colours but also subtle accents like the power and volume buttons and camera lens ring. This strategy is similar to Dell's heavy customisation strategy that helped it become the world's largest PC manufacturer in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In terms of software features, Motorola's always listening feature will polarise consumers. The more tech savvy consumers will appreciate the use cases, while others might find it suspect and an invasion of privacy, particularly in the context of recent revelations of widespread government digital surveillance programmes.
The user interface resembles that from Google Glass by trying to make the experience entirely hands-free. By doing so, Motorola might try to make the Moto X the companion device to Google Glass and it could help Google refine the voice commands ahead of the main Google Glass launch. The new lock screen notification system based on its accelerometer will prove useful and will no doubt help save battery.
While Motorola's decision to provide a time-limited exclusivity to AT&T for customisation may seem rushed, it is not. Motorola has become the sole provider of Verizon's DROID brand, and it needed something to ensure support from AT&T, the second biggest carrier in the US. By offering exclusivity it has a better chance of AT&T will promote and support the Moto X. Motorola's strategy is to focus on defending the North American market, with no release date for Europe confirmed.
Google's influence is clear in Motorola's new handset with its close ties to the Google Glass voice-based interface. However, Google is trying to walk a fine line to not alienate other handset manufacturers. The Moto X will ship with Android 4.2.2 rather than the newly announced Android 4.3 which powers the current crop of Nexus devices that were manufactured by LG, Asus, and Samsung. A Google Play Edition of the Moto X will be announced in the future further proving the separation between Google and Motorola. By launching a mid-range phone rather than a flagship and limiting the release to select markets Google can limit disturbing HTC and Sony who are aiming to capture the high-end. What remains to be seen is how much Google will invest in marketing the device and if the Google brand features heavily in that effort.