Motorola's comeback attempt rests on software

Motorola appears to have finally gotten serious about modern phone software, building a communications hub called Motoblur to run atop Android. Is it too late?

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
4 min read

Motorola, the iconic mobile phone company once known for flashy hardware, is pinning its comeback hopes on the quality of its software.

Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha wouldn't go as far to say that Motorola is unconcerned with hardware these days, hours after unveiling the forthcoming Motorola Cliq at Mobilize 2009, but the balance has clearly changed with the introduction of Motoblur, a layer of software that sits above the Android operating system and will coordinate incoming messages and news feeds on future Motorola handsets.

Motorola co-CEO Sanjay Jha holds the Cliq Thursday, a device that Motorola designed with software first in mind. Josh Miller/CNET

"Motoblur is going to become very important to Motorola," Jha said. It's actually more than just software--Motorola is also essentially hosting an online service that will deliver Facebook updates and RSS feeds to individual phones--but it's emblematic of the shift towards software and the Internet as the main features in a modern mobile phone.

Unfortunately for Motorola, that era began more than two years ago with the launch of the iPhone, and the company has been struggling ever since. In the pre-iPhone era, Motorola was a hit with sleek phones like the Razr that turned heads, but after people started to realize what they could do with sophisticated phone software constantly connected to the Internet, the Razr became an afterthought. Motorola has struggled ever since, seriously considering getting out of the phone business altogether.

Jha declared a year ago that Motorola was going to focus on two operating systems: Android and Windows Mobile. With Windows Mobile development falling further and further behind its rivals, it has turned to Android for the Cliq, the first smartphone it has launched in some time that has a realistic chance of competing in the modern market.

Unlike the G1 and Ion--perhaps the best known Android phones at the moment--the Cliq features a Motorola-designed home page that allows users to see a flood of notifications from things like social-networking applications, news feeds, and the standard voice calls, text messages, and e-mails. It invites comparisons to Palm's WebOS and Synergy software, with users selecting different widgets from a home page to rotate in and out of Facebook, Google Maps, e-mail, or voicemail.

Motorola designed nearly all of Motoblur, and it has been in the works since 2007, according to Business Week. It struck up a partnership with Google and Android because it realized Google could do a much better job of coordinating third-party software developers and application sales than Motorola could do on its own, Jha said.

It's not just Motorola who will get to play with Motoblur, either: outside developers will also be able to get their hands on Motoblur with the eventual release of APIs for the software, Jha told Infoworld. This could potentially complicate matters with Google and Android, but Jha insisted in our interview that Motorola will be very careful not to fragment Android with incompatibilities.

Whether or not people respond to Motorola's social-networking marketing strategy with the Cliq, Motoblur will be the underpinning for a series of phones tailored to different types of users, Jha said. Motorola is betting the company--or at least the mobile division--on its own blend of software and online services spread across a series of phones, rather than trying to mimic Apple's approach in producing one phone for everyone.

Will it work? Without knowing key details like price and performance at this early date, it's hard to say whether the Cliq will be enough of a success to rekindle interest in Motorola. Jha declined to comment on pricing, indicating that decision rests with exclusive U.S. partner T-Mobile. He did hint that pricing for the Cliq would be "creative," letting it rest with that statement.

The other big question is whether Motorola is committed to the mobile business at the corporate level for the long haul. Jha said that it was, although he cautioned that things could change in the future. At the moment, it probably doesn't matter, since Motorola likely can't find a buyer for its mobile business in its current condition and will need a series of hits in order to make the property interesting to outside investors again.

Motorola's efforts on the software front over the last several years have lagged that of the competition. It could be argued that the poor software on the Rokr--an iTunes phone that was overshadowed at its own launch event in 2005--spurred Apple's development of the iPhone and the reinvention of what it means to be a smartphone.

Jha seemed confident that the company has turned a corner. "Experiences matter a lot more as we go to the mobile Internet," he said, in comparison to the flashy hardware for which Motorola had become known.

However, Motorola said essentially the same thing in 2006 and in 2007, and has nothing to show for it. Three years later, the world is now a very different place.