Motorola used to be great. And no, I’m not talking about the company’s Motorola RAZR heyday — I’m talking about a much more recent period of greatness. Earlier this decade, under the blessing and curse that was Google ownership, Motorola set out to redefine the Android phone. With its Moto E, Moto G, and Moto X, the company presented a clear vision for products that would meet customers’ needs and, better yet, brought thoughtful design decisions that captivated many, including me…
Before I can explain why Motorola’s newest phones (and most of their phones since their acquisition by Lenovo) very nearly make me sob, you have to understand some background.
My perspective on Android phones is admittedly a bit outside the Android mainstream. I tend to be very choosy about which third-party Android phones I keep in my pockets. I rarely have any desire to use even the best of Samsung’s phones as my personal daily device, and I find companies like OnePlus and Essential — though relatively small in market share — to be some of the only Android OEMs doing things more right than wrong. Oh, and this will get me ousted from the proverbial Android island: Like many Googlers, I actually have an appreciation and fondness for the iPhone.
At this point I’m probably beating a dead horse. In short, I think Google and its Pixel phones are far enough above the Android competition that I tend to stick to them exclusively, and it’s not just fanboyism — I think they’re genuinely better as a complete package. They might not check all the feature boxes, they might not always have the best industrial design, and they may not even have the best software sometimes. But as complete packages, the Pixels just don’t have much competition in my eyes.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If anyone outside of my tech circles asks which Android phone they should buy, I will exclusively mention the Pixel as their one and only choice. If resistant, I will shamelessly recommend the iPhone. Feel free to disagree, but that’s where I stand, even in 2018.
But why do I mention the Pixels, my distaste for Samsung’s flagships, and my tolerance of the iPhone, here, in this piece about how I dread the announcement of new Motorola phones?
Because Moto used to mean something. Similar to how I feel about the Pixel, Motorola was one of those Android OEMs that I looked to for a device with the fewest number of compromises and best overall experience. It was one of the few makers that I actually got excited to see what they had in store. I looked forward to their phone announcements as much as I currently look forward to Google’s “Made by Google” events and any Apple fan looks forward to their fall iPhone event.
In many ways, the early days of this Google-owned Motorola was a preview run for Osterloh leading the team that brought us the Pixel, and I see those parallels as no coincidence. Indeed, everything I’m saying now about the Pixel and how great I find it to be, I can say about the first few Moto E, Moto G, and Moto X models. They were a bright spot in the cluttered world of unfriendly and ugly and unintuitive Android phones. They were phones that I could unequivocally recommend to mom and dad and grandma and sister and cousin-in-law.
The handshake of doom
Sadly, that excitement dwindled into a microcosm of its former self a couple years ago and has since died even more. Today’s launch of four phones that are the epitome of bland, uninspired, boringness has solidified that unfortunate demise. And that fall from holding a high level of admiration in my eyes started exactly when I thought it might. I genuinely hoped it wouldn’t begin on this dreaded day, but in hindsight, it definitely did. That day was the day that Google sold Motorola to Lenovo.
The latest Moto G and Moto E lineups are almost unrecognizable. It used to be clear what each brand meant and what kind of customer each brand was for. Very generally speaking, the Moto E line was the most affordable with a Snapdragon 2 series SoC and priced around $100, the Moto G line was about double that price with beefier specs, better hardware, and a Snapdragon 4 series SoC, and the Moto X line was double of that price, had clearly the best hardware, and even better specs.
Basically, the Moto G was for anyone that wanted a “good enough” phone and didn’t mind a plastic build — but from a hardware and software perspective the device was still a joy to use. The Moto E obviously fit in as the “budget” device that let you get a Moto phone with Moto software at the lowest price point possible. And the Moto X, which we all remember as being the obvious best of the three, went all out. Custom (!) premium hardware. Great specs. Awesome software. The whole nine.
That lineup made it really easy to know exactly what you were getting, and it made it easy to recommend the phones to family and friends as well. Admittedly, it didn’t lead to the most profitable company ever known to man, but the brand and product philosophy was something I could get behind and — I think — something that might have had legs. For a while I considered the Moto E the best $100 phone you could buy, the Moto G the best $200 phone you could buy, and the Moto X one of the best phones you could buy, period. Now, the entire Moto lineup is a mess of bland designs, lackluster performance, unreliable software updates, and crappy overall experiences.
I think the easiest way to illustrate one of my points is play a fun game I call “Can you tell the Moto E, G, and X apart anymore?” Spoiler alert: No, you can’t.
And yes, I’m well aware that Motorola’s lineup has diversified a bit since the ye ol’ days of the E, G, and X. Indeed, the new de facto flagship of the Motorola lineup isn’t the X at all, since the famed X has actually been killed off entirely. Now, it’s all about the Z, which tends to have better specs and still supports Moto Mods (although there’s no telling how much longer that will last).
But actually, the “diversity” of the Moto line is another strike against Lenovo’s strategy in my eyes. It feels like they’re just grasping at straws trying to make this dying brand as profitable as possible (who can blame them?), and in doing so they’re just launching as many models as they can to see what sticks. Last August, we laid out Motorola’s insanely cluttered lineup, and things haven’t really gotten any better. Today alone, they launched three different Moto G6 models. Good luck figuring out the difference between them yourself, much less explaining it to someone else.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Motorola has done a few things since its Lenovo acquisition that I didn’t hate. One of those things, actually, was the Moto Z line. I was and still am very impressed by the Moto Z platform and the Moto Mods — it’s the best take on smartphone modularity we’ve seen yet. But for one, we’ve heard that the Z was actually one of the few remaining leftover projects from the Osterloh era, and two, it doesn’t look like normal consumers are really all that interested in the idea.
I guess it goes without saying that Motorola’s future doesn’t look that bright. Sure, many of their phones are still pretty decent values-per-dollar, but I think the chances of Motorola ever being able to take on the likes of LG and HTC, much less Samsung, have long passed. Motorola phones are basically uninspired, blank, boring, Lenovo phones with a shiny M on the back at this point. I haven’t recommended a Motorola phone to anyone in years, and I don’t see that changing soon. (I personally find the Z to be cool tech, but even I wouldn’t use it as a daily driver.)
I get sad when I see Motorola release new, boring phones because they just had a lot of potential at one point. Moto X was such a great phone — good enough for Google to model a Nexus device after. But I guess the plan all along was for Google to let the Motorola brand go, keep those precious patents, and try to take on the world themselves. That’s fun to watch, and I’m glad we at least have that as Moto slowly becomes irrelevant and more and more a shell of its former self.