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On Call: Mourning Motorola (again)

Many people are upset about HP ditching WebOS, but CNET's Kent German is more distressed that a company like Motorola is bidding farewell to the cell phone.

Kent German/CNET

In case you didn't hear, last week was a busy one in the tech world. First, Google announced its intention to acquire Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion and then just three days later, HP said it was ending development for the WebOS mobile operating system and WebOS devices.

Both developments left a lot of people gobsmacked, but it was the HP news that appeared to hit the hardest. Some folks were upset that they couldn't get their hands on a $99 HP TouchPad, but more saw the value of WebOS and hated to see HP cast it aside like a Milli Vanilli cassette. CNET's Bonnie Cha, an early advocate of the OS since the Palm Pre, was particularly upset. As she said in her column last week, "It was just a beautiful and sophisticated OS."

No more Moto
I don't like HP's decision, either, but my experience with WebOS was more limited than Bonnie's. So even though I enjoyed the platform, I can't, in good faith, get all that riled up. Motorola, however, is a different story. If Google's bid is successful and the Motorola brand disappears from cell phones forever (I realize that scenario is not guaranteed at this point), then I will be sad. And if you're a cell phone geek, you should be sad, too.

But before I get into why I'll be all misty-eyed, I hope you'll that agree to a few rules for the comments section. You can list Motorola's missteps and sins over the year at length. On the whole, I'll agree with you, but those mistakes still don't take away from the company's accomplishments. What's more, remember that schadenfreude isn't a virtue.

You're also free to make comparisons between Motorola and other companies, since fierce competition and Moto's response (or lack thereof) is absolutely relevant. Yet, if you dance on Moto's grave while proclaiming the iPhone as the only cell phone of value in the entire world, then I'll have to tune you out completely. Without Motorola's pioneering work 40 years ago, after all, Apple's device wouldn't exist today.

Experience matters
I realize that I've said some of this before, but Motorola pretty much built the cell phone as we know it. Though a fancy smartphone like the Photon 4G may barely resemble a simple handset like the V180, when you tear away the high-end features and get down to the basics of how they make a call, they really aren't that much different. Both devices run on a cellular infrastructure that Motorola (along with Bell Labs and others) helped create, and both can be traced back to Martin Cooper, a former Motorola vice president and division manager.

Before retiring from the company in 1995, Cooper accomplished quite a bit. Not only did he lead the team that developed the first commercially available cell phone (so not a car phone), the Dynatac 8000x, but also he used a Dynatac prototype to make the first public demonstration of the technology in New York City in 1973. Sure, it would be years before the technology disseminated to the public--the first call between two paying cellular customers was made a decade later on a Dynatac--but Motorola deserves much of the credit for creating an entire industry and a worldwide sensation.

Don't forget the phones
To modern eyes used to thin, shiny handsets, the Dynatac is indeed clunky. But considering it weighed 2.5 pounds and cost almost $4,000 (don't get me started on the related service fees), it was unwieldy even for its time. Fortunately, Motorola kept up the innovation in the subsequent years with models like the hugely popular StarTac (one of the first flip phones), the reliable V60 and V120, the daring V70, and Nextel's entire line of rugged iDEN devices. Another successful model, the V600, served me well as the third cell phone I ever owned.

Yet, it wasn't until 2004 when Moto (seriously) struck gold again with the Razr V3. It was an absolute sensation by all accounts and started the thin-phone revolution. People may have not camped out for it like they did for the iPhone, but I do remember Cingular stores with lines down the block. Yet, with success came complacency. Moto spent too long riding the Razr train and it began to lose its way as Apple made its move and the rise of the smartphone began. With the exception of the Q, we didn't see much that thrilled us over the next few years. The Rokr E1 was a total failure, for example, and the Evoke evoked only rage when I took it for a spin.

After some time, though, the company regained its footing by getting Android right early with Verizon's Droid. Though it wasn't the first Android phone, it was a great device that did much to bring Google's platform into the mainstream. And though occasionally I was troubled by things he said, like that weird focus on software and the brief obsession with Motoblur, I thought that CEO Sanjay Jha was on the right track. He spun off Moto's phone business and pulled off an awesome stay at CES 2011 by introducing the Atrix, the Xoom, and the still-unreleased Droid Bionic. In late January I predicted that the company was roaring back, but in retrospect that may have been premature. We've continued to see a few quality phones like the Triumph and the Droid X2, but Moto showed up quietly at Mobile World Congress in February and had an even sleepier tour at CTIA the next month. So here we are at another dip in the roller coaster.

In the end
If Google's buyout goes through (there are a couple of hurdles), it will take a while before we discover Google's true intentions. Maybe it wants to get in the hardware business or maybe it just was shopping for a bunch of patents. Honestly, I'm still bewildered by the whole thing.

Perhaps Google will continue to churn out Motorola-like devices, even if they carry a different name and logo. I suppose that's some consolation, but there will be real impacts on consumers. I never like to see choice removed from the marketplace, especially when that choice gave as much as Motorola did. Analysts, of course, will continue to point to the real issues as to why Moto agreed to the nuptials in the first place, but to me it looks like the company just lost interest in the phone business. And if true, that's the biggest shame of all.