Moto X is Motorola's chance to break free of the middle

The ugly duckling in Google's technology portfolio risks doubling down on a strategy to be just OK

When Google first bought Motorola Mobility a couple years ago for $12.5 billion, the industry assumed it would use the historic mobile phone producer to take over the Android market, ensuring that Android devices ran the pure Android user interface and eliminated the awkward skins and all-over-the-map quality marking many Android makers. Instead, Google basically chased out Motorola's key employees, shut down its 3LM security group, and teamed with Motorola rivals to produce a series of mediocre Nexus smartphones and Nexus tablets under the Google brand.

The industry has been scratching its head over Google's rationale for buying Motorola and all but eviscerating it at a cost of more billions of dollars. Maybe its patent portfolio was worth the money, so why keep the hardware? Having a manufacturer on hand to use as a weapon against Samsung if ever needed seems too pricey a stick. As a foundation for innovation, the Motorola purchase was also puzzling, given Motorola's history of so-so phones punctuated occasionally by hits like the StarTAC and the original Razr. Most of the time, Motorola focused on middling products that it would milk far too long.

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Google's own Nexus products have also been middling, so neither Google not Motorola Android devices have gained much adoption, turning Android into a Samsung-dominated platform. But as part of the company's newfound discipline under CEO Larry Page, there have been signs this year that Google would aim higher. When rumors appeared this winter of the "X" effort to create a new generation of smartphones, the punditry started to believe that Google had decided to destroy Motorola to save it, putting the inventor of the car radio through a wrenching reeducation to lead us to a marvel that would reveal itself later this year.

Moto X looks to be more of the same, just like the new Droids
On Thursday, Motorola will unveil the Moto X. Already, many details have leaked -- in what appears to be a coordinated effort by Motorola, given the level of detail and images. Unless this is a huge head fake being perpetrated on the rumormongering Web media, the Moto X unfortunately looks to be, once again, a squarely run-of-the-mill product -- more like a Google Nexus than an Apple iPhone 5, HTC One, or Samsung Galaxy S 4.

The only leaked feature that seems partially interesting is the new Camera app and its minimalist user interface, which promises to simplify picture-taking, especially when you snap a series of images. The purported use of Magic Glass -- a strengthened version of Corning's widely used Gorilla Glass -- that will wrap around the edges (according to one report) may give the Moto X some manufacturing bragging rights as well, though it won't matter much to users.

Last week, Motorola unveiled a series of updates to its mediocre, and poorly selling, Droid Razr lineup -- now rechristened just Droid and sold only by Verizon Wireless -- that uses what appears to be the same Camera app as in the Moto X. The new Droids are as milquetoast as the old Droid Razrs -- decent devices but nothing to brag about -- with a reworked Kevlar skin that's apparently the biggest hardware change. Oh, you'll also be able to order the color of Kevlar you want. That's made some pundits very happy, even though user-changeable color backs have been offered on other Android smartphones for some time.

One model, the Droid Maxx, promises two-day battery life, which is what its Droid Razr Maxx predecessor also claimed. Rumors suggest the Moto X's battery should now last a full day -- which the iPhone has locked up for years, but all-day battery life is less common in the Android world. It would be a good thing if the Moto X achieves that feat.

The Moto X is reputed to do better in surviving a fall than other smartphones, but we won't know that until we get to drop a few. And it will be made in Texas, Motorola's manufacturing center for many years until everything got sent to China.

Are you still awake? Incrementalism is so soporific.

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