Motorola's Android devices: Past, present, and future

Google's acquisition of Motorola might be all about the patents, but what does it mean for Moto's handset business?

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
4 min read

The Motorola Droid help put Android on the map. Josh Miller/CNET

In a move that surprised almost everyone, Google announced this morning that it has agreed to acquire Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. The acquisition makes sense in numerous ways and buys Google some protection in the mounting patent wars. That said, it also leaves a number of questions open, one being: how will it affect Moto's handset business?

Before we tackle that question, though, we thought it would be good to take a look back at some of the highs and lows of Motorola's Android devices from the past and present, and then see what the company stands to gain or lose in the Google acquisition.

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At Motorola, a history of embracing, then rejecting, consumer spotlight

Motorola's first Android handset was the Cliq, which debuted in October 2009. At that time, HTC already had a couple of devices on the market, and Samsung had also just introduced the Moment, so one way Moto differentiated itself from the competition was with its Motoblur software. The customer user interface offered an always-on experience by tapping into your social networks, e-mail, and contacts list to provide you with constant updates via widgets. It was certainly a fresh take on the Android experience, but it was also overwhelming and obtrusive and remains one of the more polarizing Android skins today.

However, it was Moto's second Android handset that really put the company, and Android as a whole, on the map. Thanks to some clever advertising from Verizon Wireless, the Motorola Droid got people to see what Android could do and made it a formidable competitor to the iPhone. The commercial showed that Android allowed for customization, open development, and running of simultaneous apps. It also highlighted the Droid's physical keyboard, user-replaceable battery, and 5-megapixel camera.

The message was heard and strong sales followed, as well as successors and variations on the Droid like the Droid X. All the while, Motorola was also tackling the entry- to mid-level market and taking some risks with its designs.

There was the Motorola Backflip for AT&T, the carrier's first Android device, with its flip-out keyboard and backtrack trackpad. AT&T also got the Flipout, which featured a compact design and swiveling keyboard, while T-Mobile got the hip-to-be-square Motorola Charm. All certainly stood out in a world of expensive, slab, touch-screen devices, but those unique designs also brought about usability issues. Some models also suffered from poor performance and update woes, which didn't do Motorola any favors, but you had to give the company credit for trying new things.

Motorola Android phones (photos)

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Unfortunately, it feels like that innovative spirit has recently faded a bit. As we just noted, Motorola has been quite successful with its Droid and Droid X lines and it continues to build on the series with models like the Droid 3 and Droid X2. However, there's very little variation in design, and the number of enhancements are often limited. For example, the Droid 3 brings the latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread software, a dual-core processor, and a better camera, but leaves out 4G support and a front-facing camera, making one question whether it's worth the upgrade.

Yet, there are also glimpses of hope. The Motorola Atrix 4G introduced the idea of expanding the capabilities of smartphones through accessories, and most recently, the Photon 4G went back to the basics and showed once again that Motorola can make a solidly built and powerful Android device.

So, with today's announcement, where does Motorola's handset business go from here? For the immediate future, it looks like it will be business as usual, not only for Moto but also for HTC, Samsung, LG, and other Android OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers). Google CEO Larry Page said in a blog post this morning, "Motorola will remain a licensee of Android and Android will remain open. We will run Motorola as a separate business. Many hardware partners have contributed to Android's success and we look forward to continuing to work with all of them to deliver outstanding user experiences."

However, you have to wonder what impact today's announcement will have down the line. Sure, some say its all about the patents, but does Google really want in on the hardware business? Will we see Motorola phones get access to Android updates before other OEMs? Will Motoblur survive? What do you guys think?