It is a hugely competitive smartphone world. There are over 180 smartphone makers, although we only see the bigger brands in Australia. Motorola Mobility, a US icon now owned by Lenovo, knows that legends are made moving forward. That is how it must differentiate itself.
Motorola is in a resurgence. It believes the brand will soon be back in the top five global smartphone companies. You can read more of how Moto got its mojo back here. But Motorola believes that despite the huge amount of innovation it has shown, the real mark is what it does moving forward.
Motorola – Legends are made moving forward
GadgetGuy spoke at length with Chicago-based Dan Dery Vice President Global Products about the smartphones’ future. French-born Dery has an Engineering Degree in Network and Telecommunications, and a Master’s in Advanced Computer Science. For most of his working life, he has been a strategic thinker working with Philips Mobile Phones, Alcatel, Motorola and now Lenovo.
His brief was simple – what is the future of the smartphone? His answers were thoughtful, frank, and multi-faceted so forgive any paraphrasing.
The two most significant messages were
Smartphone future development is directly related to what people will pay for the device
Given point one, Motorola’s immediate future direction is to unlock/unleash the value in the hardware. It will do this via its My UX companion to Pure Android – offering the best experience on each hardware platform.
More boring glass slabs
Motorola has been active in developing new formats – Razr Flip and the Edge. But the Android glass slab (my terminology – not Moto’s) is the most cost-effective way to deliver all required smartphone features.
The more you pay, the more features you get. Things like larger OLED screens, more memory and storage, 5G, more processing power, larger megapixel, multi-sensor cameras, longer battery life, faster charging… It is not unlike cars where you can get all necessary features in an affordable base model. Then the sky is the limit on options.
That is why more than 180 smartphone makers can cobble together a device using generic screens, processors, ram, batteries, and Android. It is easy to make a smartphone – not far removed from the halcyon days of Windows on Whitebox computers. But there is no real innovation apart from what the SoC maker adds to future chips, or Google adds to Android.
What did I learn? Until people pay for more features and functionality, smartphones will remain largely as is. Some larger companies like Motorola are forging the way with new experimental designs.
The major limitation of current smartphones is the display size
“What would you do if display size was not a limitation?” Dery asks.
The display size 5-7″ limits what you can do on a glass slab. Mobile websites display in single columns, use smaller fonts, and multitasking is difficult. So, as it needs to fit in your pocket, displays have reached the maximum practical size.
Foldable, flip and rollable screens help, but you could do so much more if you had more screen real estate.
Sure, you could separate the screen from the phone (a black box in your pocket). But you then run into issues with independent power and electronics for both devices.
Motorola has announced that on certain Android 11 phones it will support Android on a Desktop (monitor). Samsung has been doing this with DeX (Desktop EXperience) that has morphed over a few years from dedicated USB-C/HDMI cradle to wireless screen casting.
Motorola started toying with that idea over a decade ago and released the Artrix.
But like all new tech, the costs were out of reach for most. Dery says business will be the first to embrace Android on a desktop as it adds screen real estate. It will also reduce the number of computing devices.
Consumers have fewer use cases. Technology now exists with USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 or later (that supports Display Port Alternate Mode for video and audio). It is also possible to use the home Wi-Fi network and Chrome or Miracast.
And a final comment on Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR). We saw a lot of action using the smartphone as a screen, but the tech was not advanced enough. It’s evolution slowed due to very limited adoption and use cases.
What did I learn? The smartphone is a building block for a larger ecosystem. Ultimately that could replace all computing devices and attach to peripherals as well.
Is Android up to this vision of extended computing?
Dery made it clear that Android has met all smartphone needs to date. Its 80% market share dictates it will continue to evolve with user needs.
But he also said that Apple’s Mac move to ARM chips brings its desktop computing into a homogenous computing environment. The same programs will run on Mac, iPad, iPhone and any i-Device. Apple currently has about 15% smartphone market share and 7% of the desktop market. The move may make iOS a more serious future contender.
And he reminded us that Windows has over 80% of the desktop market. It can already do everything that an extended computing environment needs. Windows and Android will move closer together.
But the wild card says Dery, is cloud and edge computing where the smartphone does not have to be as smart. That requires ubiquitous high-speed mobile data. The promise is there with 5G (but not the sub-6Ghz we have in Australia). When mmWave becomes the standard (and that could take a decade), it won’t be unusual to have 10Gbps or more download speeds. Australian fixed-line NBN at present is 100Mbps, and some users can get 1Gbps speeds.
When asked about mobile data costs, he said that many countries have far lower rates. It is an issue that Australia must address when 5G handsets reach ‘scale’.
Danny Adamopolous, General Manager, APAC for Mature Markets adds,
“We are about to hit critical mass for 5G. New chipsets like the Qualcomm SD870 and SD888 5G now allow mid-tier/mid-premium devices to support 5G. We’ll be an OEM that will take this new platform to the moto g family. In Australia, there’s sufficient network coverage now that people will start to see value in 5G.”
What did I learn? The smartphone’s future depends on having low-cost, full, high-speed, internet in your pocket.
What about ARM chips from Qualcomm, MediaTek et al.?
We use chips from several ARM foundries. Qualcomm has an advanced roadmap and 5G research that suits a range of models from mid-market to premium prices. MediaTek has its Dimensity series offering strong lower-cost competition.
What did I learn? There is no stigma in buying a non-Qualcomm chip – it depends on the features you need and the price you will pay.
What is the Is killer app that will drive 5G?
Dery says for the consumer there are none yet. It may come from telehealth, remote working, diagnostics, smart devices/cars, the video streaming industry etc.
At present, we have ‘balance’ between smartphone capabilities and network capabilities.
But he says 5G will eventually replace 4G as component cost gaps narrow. It’s a bit like 4K spelling the death of 1080p once the TV sets cost the same.
“The fact remains is that there are use cases for 5G, even though many might not see it yet. Regardless of what industry you’re in, as 5G coverage increases in Australia, you’ll start to see the need for it increase as well. It is all about taking advantage of the efficiency, speed and automation 5G provides.”
What did I learn? 5G is coming whether we need it or not. Apps will begin to expect the higher bandwidth creating a digital 4G/5G divide.
Moto mod’s snap-on accessories were the most innovative thinking in a long time. They enabled a Moto Z user to expand outside the smartphone’s capabilities. The Hasselblad 10X Optical Zoom gave a feature that is only just beginning to appear on periscope camera smartphones. Snap-on battery banks, Qi charging, pico projectors, 360° camera, gamepad, sound boost speakers, photo printers and more gave users so much flexibility.
But technology with BT 5 (or later), Wi-Fi 6, NFC and more means that the niche these filled so well now can be disassociated from a particular phone.
You will see an increasing range of Android peripherals that will use USB-C or wireless connections. That is all part of the expanding smartphone ecosystem.
What did I learn? More devices will work with smartphones; similar to how USB enabled Windows to support a huge range of peripherals.
Will we see a replaceable battery again?
No, and we are strong supporters of the right to repair movement making manuals and parts available to repairers. We also look to simplify construction and deconstruction to replace batteries and screens. Unlike some brands, we don’t factor high repair profits or planned obsolescence into the balance sheet.
Battery technology has been moving at a snail’s pace for too long. It is beginning to move ahead with greater density (more energy per cubic centimetre), faster-charging tolerance, new shapes and new components that resist things like a thermal runaway.
The battery is sealed inside to protect it and allow for as much water resistance as possible. We also ensure that the battery quality (number of full recharge cycles) meets the user’s reasonable expectation and price. Naturally, more recharge cycles are best for power users, and they pay for the privilege.
We are also looking at better charging methods. Qi wireless may become proximity wireless (no need to place it on a charging pad) and faster topping up. But all these come at a cost.
What did I learn? Obliquely, smartphone components must match both the price paid and a reasonably expected lifespan.
The world is getting older – What is Motorola doing for the baby boomers and beyond?
I prefer to say that some people have no interest in how the technology works. They consider everything techy just a bit too hard.
Then there are people like you that live and breath tech and want to tweak everything.
It is up to each smartphone maker to add their take on accessibility, under friendliness, complexities etc. We are going down the AI road to make smartphones easier to use for all ages.
That is where My UX comes from. It sits beside Pure Android. It is not a launcher or an overlay, making Motorola devices easy to update. But it allows us to add user experiences tailored to all age groups from a child to an older adult.
My UX uses Motorola developed AI that is the difference between the phone being intuitive to your needs (and making itself more indispensable) and Android where you may need to complete several manual steps to achieve the same things.
For example, if the weather app predicts rain, the phone may remind you to take an umbrella. Or if your battery generally runs out each day at a similar time, it reminds you to top up before you go out.
We view My UX as our blank slate to add value to Android and give a better user experience.
What did I learn? On-board or edge AI is a key element that will differentiate between brands. We have no way to measure that yet.
Smartphones have become megapixel camera phones
We invented the Moto Mod Hasselblad 10X True Zoom back when no other smartphones could give you a true 10X optical zoom and a proper Zenon flash.
Today, you should not think that megapixels (MP) are the sole measure of a good camera. Google’s Pixel shows that a single sensor can achieve almost the same camera results as a phone costing much more. Google’s use of AI and its experience in classifying Google Photos – computational photography – allows the phone to give you the most acceptable images.
We feel that camera phones should be more about quality optics, lenses, sensors and a good balance with AI processing power to produce an image that you think is great.
For example, pixel binning means the image is a composite of the best pixels in a shots bracket. EIS is not optical image stabilisation but dynamic cropping from a larger MP image. Night mode brightens the photo at the expense of colour accuracy or noise.
Some brands do camera AI very well – we are one of those. Some lower-cost brands just use the Google Android Camera app and basic SoC AI.
What did I learn? Remember Moore’s Law – Technology doubles about every two years and the cost of same is halved. Features in flagships eventually flow down to mass-market devices. Most innovation is at the flagship level.
Privacy is a core issue at Motorola
Motorola takes a very conservative view about collecting just the data it needs to perform the services. We have a reason for every piece of telemetry we collect, and we do not sell your data. Nor do we use proprietary boot loaders or supply a suite of non-Google apps that could be spyware.
Some brands factor in payments from apps that are not removable and can harvest personal information about the user. Apart from the necessary system and Motorola apps, you have full control over installed apps.
And we all use Google Android, so Google knows all about us.
Every phone user should practice healthy paranoia and read end-user licence agreements/privacy terms. Above all ensure that apps have just the permissions they needs to do the job.
What did I learn? If the product is free; the product is you.
Motorola – final words
Smartphones are commodities. All ‘levels’ use similar components and compete by making the lowest cost handset and then largely sell on price.
The only way to add value is by better service, privacy, testing, certification, and user experience.
As a US-based company, we reflect Western values and user experiences. Motorola’s AI development is in sympathy with those values.
Our entry-level e-series is as low as we can go, still call it a Motorola and deliver a pure Android experience.
Our g-series is the staple of business and consumer users. It is a fleet phone that gives great value and reliability – that won’t change. Although we may introduce more niche g models to cover different consumer markets
Edge has shown that we can compete in the upper mid-range and 5G. The brand can range from flagship with the Qualcomm SD888 and down into an SD870 Lite product.
Razr is an aspirational phone. Sure, we want to sell lots but as the price shows it costs to innovate.
We will have foldable, rollable and more ways to address user’s pain points. But for now, we want to focus on unleashing the power locked up in an Android handset. We want to create new use cases and above all, increase usability.