The Moto X and Google’s new Nexus Strategy

While this year’s Google I/O disappointed with the lack of hardware announcements, Friday’s reveal of the Moto X may have unleashed the Nexus 4 successor many have been waiting for. The Moto X will be Motorola’s first multi carrier smartphone and there is certainly much to differentiate it from its own Verizon offerings and its competition. Is it the most amazing smartphone that will shove Samsung off its plateau? Not a chance. But its an interesting look at the new direction of Motorola and a new strategy for Google.

Introducing the Motorola Nexus Not-Nexus

Motorola teased this phone as being “designed by you,” and that tag line was bound to make the end product disappointing. The customization they’ll be offering is little more than ascetic. It’ll come in a bevy of pastel colors (shown to the right), will be engraved for the owner, and Motorola’s engineers will pre-load your wallpaper for you. Not exactly earth shattering, but with a rumored price point of as little as $199 off contract, this device suddenly seems much more interesting. Such a price point and it’s probably no-contract status puts the phone squarely in Nexus 4 territory.

The problem is, it’s not a Nexus. Or at least it’s not branded as such. There have been plenty of leaked pictures all over the web about this phone, including a shot (below) of it running an un-skinned version of Android. Even a leaked picture of a certain prominent individual associated with Google happily chatting on the device. But there is not a single piece of branding showing it’s a Nexus or even a Google device. There is only that tiny little batwing-style “M” to show you that it’s not the Nokia Lumia 420.

So what’s the deal with this guy? I firmly believe that we are seeing the next stage in evolution of the Nexus phone. You see, whenever Google released a new Nexus device, it always took the stage away from the OEMs. In fact, Motorola was the most recent victim of this case in point. Even though the Galaxy Nexus was a fairly terrible phone with awful battery life and with inconsistent updates, there’s no doubt that plenty of people bought it on Verizon instead of the Motorola Droid RAZR or even the RAZR MAXX. Why? Because it’s a friggin Nexus, that’s why. The promise and allure of an un-skinned Google-approved experience is very strong, even today. Despite the fact that many reviews, even from customers, said that innovative features like Smart Actions helped to push the phone above the pack, but these features still require a rebuild of Android and therefore will entail a bit of slowness.

But I digress. My point in bringing up those two phones is that the RAZR and RAZR MAXX, as good as they were, certainly suffered due to the preferential treatment given to the Samsung built Nexus lineup, even if Galaxy Nexus ended up being a dud anyway. We saw the first stage of this movement away from Nexus competition when the Nexus 4 came out. It was heavily leaked prior to it’s release as well, but turned everyone’s eyebrows every time LG was mentioned. Only when that $299 price point was announced did it make any sense. Of course, LG is the little brother living in the shadow of big bad bro Samsung, who better to bring the un-skinned glory of straight-Android to the budget market than a company well known for selling their “Optimal” wears in T-Mobile and Metro-PCS shops?

Constitution vs. Strength

Well, those in the know will understand that the Nexus 4, while mostly well received, deserved that LG branding. While it didn’t have the issues that plagued the Galaxy Nexus, it also wasn’t the best built phone in the world. It had a terrible camera, an awful cheap plasticky case, a lack of the then more standard LTE antenna, awful battery life despite the lack of the power hungry LTE connection, and even featured some build quality issues. What you got, though, was a fairly decent phone with a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor, a 4.7″ 720p display, and that wonderful un-skinned flavor of Jelly Bean. Oh and by the way, it’s $299 without a contract. Good deal? Well….considering the shortfalls, not for everyone.

Here’s where Motorola comes in. Despite the fact that Motorola hasn’t been doing very well in the sales sheets since the glory days of the Droid and Droid X, Motorola has consistently been able to deliver in one category. Build quality. Every single Motorola Android phone ever made is built like a tank with innovative materials (Kevlar? Brillant!). Despite the Moto X’s rumored $199 price point, it is still being promised to be as “tough as steel.” What better successor to the cheapo Nexus 4 then a high-quality, albeit lower specced, Motorola Nexus 5? While Samsung is gallanting around the Galaxy while HTC chases with the One, LG and Motorola need some love too, right?

Well, perhaps. I don’t think this phone will be replacing the Nexus 4 though. At least it doesn’t have the specs to do so. Expect a mildly disappointing dual-core processor and a smaller-than-Nexus-4-but-still-720p display, but it will have next gen 802.11ac wireless and LTE support. But hey, those are the trade-offs to get a phone for $200 that doesn’t want to explode in your pocket, amiright?

What’s really confusing, though, is Motorola’s CEO stating that the Moto X will compete side by side with the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5. While a $200 not-on-contract price point will sell well, I don’t think this phone is even remotely attacking the same category as those two phones.

Oh By The Way, More Motorola PhonesDroid-ultra-503x460

Yes, there is even more evidence towards my conspiracy theory against the Nexus branding. While Motorola made a big deal about the Moto X releasing first on Verizon and later on ATT and Sprint, Verizon is actually getting some more conventional smartphones from Moto as well. A few droid branded phones have been outed, including a Droid Ultra, a Droid Ultra MAXX, and a Droid Mini. Obviously the MAXX version will be a larger battery version. The Droid Ultra, though, is believed to be the replacement for the RAZR line-up, with the Droid Mini replacing the RAZR M. Not much is known of these phones, but I would bet that they will feature large 1080p screens and will include the same steel core and Kevlar backing as their predicessors. Lest you think these phones will be budget too, the rumored price is $199 on-contract with the MAXX fetching a $50-$100 premium over the Ultra.

So the confusing point for me is, why release three phones, covering the three spectrums of typical U.S. pricing ($299 = superphone, $199 = flagship, $50-$100 = mid-range) and yet still release a $200 budget carrier-unlocked phone on three major U.S. carriers? The reason is that Moto wants some of that Nexus action. And kudos to them for trying.

One Phone To Rule Them All

I have a feeling that there have been some backroom talks with Motorola and LG. Motorola saw the writing on the wall. They wanted a bit of that Nexus action that they lost out on last round and they see, just as Google does, how Samsung has completely taken over the Android market. HTC’s trying to fight in the high-end category, but failing. Google wants the future of Android to be built by a multitude of OEMs and options, not just Samsung, and maneuvering with low-cost phones and un-skinned versions of Android is most likely the best way to do that. The future of Nexus is not in redonculously large and overpowered superphones, but in well built mid-range phones that are “good enough” and promote the diversity of Google’s services and customization. Furthermore, the future of Nexus is in multiple brands with a Google experience on hardware that showcases what the OEM brings to the table. Moto brings tanks and tough as steel. HTC brings beauty. Samsung brings large and productive. LG brings bang for buck.

At least that’s what Android needs to survive. Google may and probably will release a Nexus 5. There’s even rumors that LG will be producing it again (groan). But I think the future of Nexus is in moves like what Motorola is taking with the Moto X. If Google doesn’t push OEMs in that direction, Android will be controlled by Samsung, and if Samsung’s work with Tizen is any example, they could care less about Android.

 

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