Is Verizon's Droid franchise losing its cool factor?

Once the preeminent brand in Android, the Droid brand has taken a backseat to flagship phones like the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S4. Verizon hopes to get its mojo back with Droid Ultra.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
4 min read
The Droid Ultra family of phones. Roger Cheng/CNET

These are the Droids Verizon's been looking for -- but does anyone care?

Verizon Wireless and Motorola Mobility on Tuesday unveiled the latest smartphones in the Droid family, the Droid Ultra, extra-battery-packing Droid Maxx, and compact Droid Mini .

The devices feature fancy specifications and the bells and whistles of a flagship smartphone, but that may not be enough to ensure success. As the market has gravitated toward universally available franchises such as the iPhone and Galaxy S line-up, carrier-exclusive families such as Droid have seemingly lost their cachet.

"Samsung has totally overrun the Droid brand," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. "All of the cool factor that was once Droid now belongs to the Galaxy brand."

Verizon, for its part, believes the Droid franchise is alive and thriving. Marketing executive Jeff Dietel said the Droid base of customers continues to grow, and each phone has topped expectations (he wouldn't say what those expectations were). He said there remains a place for Droid phones that stand out from the rest of the pack.

'It needs to matter," Dietel told CNET on Tuesday. "It can't just be another model number."

"There are millions of users that are happy with it and loyal to the Droid brand," said Rick Osterloh, head of product management for Motorola in an interview with CNET. "Droid is a formula that works very well."

The new Droid Maxx packs power for days
Watch this: Hands-on: The new Droid Maxx and Droid Ultra

The original Motorola Droid, backed by the full marketing force of Verizon Wireless, helped propel the popularity of Google's Android ecosystem. It was also seen as the gold standard for Android and Verizon phones, and each subsequent Droid device was treated as a flagship product.

Even to this day, many consumers say Droid when they mean Android, a testament to Verizon's promotional muscle.

"The pull of the Droid brand has certainly diminished from its peak, but it still means 'Android' for many mainstream consumers in the U.S.," said Avi Greengart, who covers consumer electronic devices for Current Analysis.

Indeed, the last few Droid products have seen little more than modest success. Motorola's Droid Razr family from last year was launched and quickly forgotten, despite offering a solid lineup of products. Verizon's flagship smartphone for the holidays, the HTC Droid DNA, failed to pull HTC out of its nosedive.

Dietel acknowledged that Verizon had looked at the pace of product introduction, and promised that the carrier would work to extend the longevity of the Droid Ultra family. While he wouldn't comment on Verizon's planned marketing spend for the devices, he said "it would exemplify what Droid stands for," and focus both on the hardware features and exclusive software bells and whistles of the device.

Still, the smartphone landscape has changed since the first Droid was introduced. While the early Droids were necessary to spark interest in Android devices, they became less important as Verizon tacked on the Droid name to a number of different phones.

"Over time Verizon diluted the brand by using (Droid) with different vendors at different price points and in my view making harder for the users to understand what it stood for," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.

CNET earlier reported that Verizon has locked up Motorola as the exclusive Droid partner starting with the Droid Ultra family. With only one vendor partner, Verizon can maintain a tighter rein on the quality and number of Droid products in its lineup.

The Droid does have to contend with tough odds in the face of established franchises. The iPhone and Galaxy S family of phones, which are widely available on multiple carriers, have dominated sales.

The Droid Maxx and Droid Mini. Brian Bennett/CNET

The current Droid Ultra family of smartphones may also be running an outdated version of Android by the time it hits stores. A new version of Android, believed to be version 4.3, is expected to be unveiled at a Google event tomorrow. Motorola is also expected to unveil its own "true" flagship phone, the Moto X, on August 1.

Osterloh promised a speedy deliver of the latest version of Android, but wouldn't say just how quickly they would arrive.

It's not just Verizon Wireless and Droid. Sprint had seen a decent amount of success with HTC and its Evo brand, but HTC opted to skip an Evo update this year in favor of bringing out the HTC One to as many carriers as possible. AT&T has a number of "hero" flagship products it touts, but a majority of its smartphone sales remain iPhone.

Ultimately, it goes back to the broader industry shift away from exclusives, and the waning influence of carriers on handset sales. While carriers like Verizon and AT&T certainly can affect sales with their massive distribution outlet, they can no longer create an instant hit like before. Instead, consumers increasingly prefer to choose between vendors and phones rather than carriers and exclusivity.

IDC analyst Ramon Llamas considers it a "major coup" that Samsung didn't get pigeonholed into a Droid phone.

"Imagine if the first Galaxy smartphone went Droid, and we might be seeing an entirely different landscape for both Samsung and Verizon," he said.