Mixed Signals is a new regular column from Tech Advisor exploring the state of the smartphone today.
Motorola is now 92 years old and throughout its life the company has done everything from helping to beam Neil Armstrong’s iconic “one small step…” quote back to Earth, to turning the very concept of a mobile phone into a reality.
The company has remained at the fore of modern communication and its technology has found its way into the hands of millions the world over. Despite iconic industry-changing products, like the DynaTAC and the RAZR, however, Motorola’s transition into the smartphone age has proven to a challenging one, and one it looks to still be struggling with.
While the company’s phones have remained part of the conversation, there’s something missing from the releases we’re seeing today, compared to the head-turning products from their back catalogue.
Motorola isn’t alone in this struggle, of course, it’s one of a handful of legendary mobile brands that have found it far harder to innovate and stay relevant in the modern smartphone landscape, and is arguably one of the few in that camp that still manages to operate as its own business (admittedly now under Lenovo’s ownership), while other heritage names have been reduced to little more than an exercise in licensing.
The BlackBerry, for example, looks to have a shot at resurfacing in 2021, but the product that OnwardMobility is set to release will likely be a far cry from the influential behemoths brought to market by RIM back in the company’s heyday. Nokia handsets too, live on, but only really in name, with HMD Global’s portfolio of feature phones and smartphones serving a purpose but not exciting or impressing in the same way the “indestructible” 3310 or star of the silver screen – the original 8110 – ever did.
It’s important to acknowledge that Motorola has had successes in the smartphone space; being early to the Android market with the popular Droid/Milestone line, offering incredible value with its Moto G family and innovating with the modular Moto Z collection. But over time, the subsequent generations of these products have all been outpriced and outmanoeuvred, namely by more aggressive competition from Chinese rivals like Xiaomi, expanding onto the global stage.
The newly-announced Motorola Edge 20 Series serves as the second generation of what could be considered the company’s “return” to the flagship phone space but also suggests that it’s struggling to keep step with users’ expectations.
The top-end Edge 20 Pro, for example, will undoubtedly deliver a well-rounded experience, sporting Motorola’s characteristically clean Android user interface, peppered with meaningful additions and showcasing the company’s first-ever periscopic telephoto snapper on one of its phones. However, the price/performance balance feels misaligned when compared to the competition.
The company came under fire for initially only committing to only one Android OS update on last year’s Motorola Edge devices (which topped out at just shy of US$1000) and for a brief moment, it looked as though history was about to repeat itself with this year’s trio of Edge 20 devices; the company was quick to correct itself, however, and has promised two years of OS and security updates for these latest devices.
Motorola doesn’t make bad phones but it’s lost its spark and its devices lack confidence. Regaining that starts with getting the fundamentals right, fundamentals set by the fiercest competitors.
I believe the company has the ability to create iconic phones once again but to get there, it first needs to reach even footing with the brands that currently threaten its existence, which in and of itself is no mean feat.
It would have to start releasing devices that undercut on price, defy expectations on features and performance, and commit to software support for at least three years; undoubtedly a tall order but one that companies like Motorola have managed before.
Beyond that? The company’s history paints a picture of innovation and creativity that it needs to rediscover, and should it manage to, we – as mobile fans – expect some truly great things to sport the iconic batwing logo going forward.