A Droid Apart: Motorola's Rick Osterloh on Google, Moto, and More

The last five years have been full of reinvention for Motorola; it's gone from being kind of a dinosaur, to launching the super-popular Droid line, to being swallowed up by Google, to making some of the best, easiest-to-use smartphones out there. It's been quite a roller-coaster.

Yesterday at CES, I had a chance to sit down with Rick Osterloh, Senior Vice President of Product at Motorola Mobility, and he shed some light on Motorola's relationship with Google and Verizon, and gave us some hints at what we might see in the future.

GIZ: You guys came from—just a few years ago—having tons of products, really spread out. Now it seems like you're doing one or two devices a year plus Verizon Droid stuff. Tell me about how that strategy shifted.

RO: It's been our view since we've been part of Google, that we wanted to focus on a handful of really, really good products and nail those for consumers. And so in the past the company would ship 40 or so products a year, now we're down to just a handful and we want to make that handful truly exceptional. That's our strategy.

GIZ: How has the reception been?

RO: It's been great. 2013 was a huge year for us. A lot changed. We went from being in what the market might think was a dormant state to a total transformation where we launched two really successful franchises, Moto X and Moto G. Those came out really in the last 5 months. You saw them and I know you wrote some good things about these. And thank you. We were fortunate enough to win 32 sort of "Best of" lists between the two devices. We are super proud of that.

I think the first step for us has always been to create really great global franchises. And so we've done that with Moto X and Moto G. We've seen great sales trajectory on both devices, very strong growth, and a lot of positive consumer sentiment on them. So we're really happy with how it's gone. Our brand is now in a position where more people are becoming interested and aware of the brand, so a couple interesting things there: Our brand awareness and our brand consideration have grown about 30-percent since we introduced these two products, and that's a big, important change for us. So we're really happy. We've come a long way in just a few months, although we've been working on it for a lot more than a few months. The world's seen it for a few months. And we're really excited about what this year has in store.

GIZ: I think there's a lot of confusion and speculation about how your relationship with Google works. So, how does it work?

RO: We're clearly a part of Google, but we operate independently from the Android team. And we've done that from the first day of the acquisition and we'll continue to do that. It's just important for the ecosystem. And that'll persist. Our focus is trying to bring the mobile internet to millions of people, and that's what we're all about. We're trying to give them great mobile technology that doesn't compromise, is high quality, gives them lots of choices, and is great value for money. And that's kind of our mission. The Android team, we think, does great work. We're the only OEM that's solely focused on Android, and so that helps a lot. When we have a focused portfolio and a focus on Android, we can do a lot of interesting things that other people might not be able to do with Android, but we don't get any special treatment from the Android team.

GIZ: There were some features on the Moto X that I loved, and I expected to see on the Nexus 5 and in KitKat, but I was surprised when they weren't there. There's gotta be some give and take between you guys. Constant communication, I assume?

RO: Well we definitely communicate with the Android team, but only like any other OEM does, in a very structured way. We certainly don't get things like advanced access to code, so that's sort of the dividing line for us. But we do communicate with them like any other OEM would. So we'll do things that are different, like our experiences with Touchless Control and Active Display, and things like that. Those are unique features that we've developed. We think they happen to accentuate a lot of great things about Android and Google, but they're something that Motorola's developed independently.

GIZ: And the reason that Android won't get those features, is it a non-competitive thing? Or are you trying to have a wider array of products?

RO: There's no orchestration there. So we see our market needs and we see what consumers want and we try to go solve those problems. And the Nexus team and the Android team, they probably do similar things, although Nexus's positioning has been about being a reference design for a new vision of Android. We're more focused on trying to get phones to millions and millions of people, and we're also really focused on the things we've done with MotoX and Moto G, about choices, high quality, great value for money.

GIZ: In terms of the way you adapt the OS to your own phones, it's certainly a lot closer to stock Android than we see from most manufactures. What's the thinking behind that?

RO: Well, there are several things. So first off we think Android's evolved to a great place, a great user experience. And we just believe that it's a better user experience to go to the core essence of Android, and give that to the user. It also has some enormous benefits, like what users have just seen, which is that we can upgrade our phones to the latest version of Android much faster. And that's a core part of our strategy: We want to make sure that users get fast upgrades. And so we were the first to offer a KitKat upgrade on our phones through a carrier, and we did that through Verizon on the MotoX, which was, we thought, pretty cool for our end users. And we're gonna keep doing that, keep pursuing that strategy.

It's also the case that you see our phones have sort of outsized performance with the core specifications. User experience is really fast, you get great battery life out of these, and that's frankly because we're not introducing layers of software that we don't think are necessary, like our competitors are. So that's why we're pursuing this strategy. We add things where we think it can enhance the Google experience, like Touchless Control & Active Display, and in other places we try to stick to the core tenets of Android.

GIZ: Do you think we'll ever see Touchless Control and such make its way over to stock Android?

RO: I don't know, that's a good question for the Android team. It's certainly something we think is great for users, so we're absolutely focused on using that capability and making it better and better.

GIZ: But there's nothing that would preclude that from happening?

RO: We certainly have some hardware technology that makes it possible and better. And that's one of the key attributes.

GIZ: Like AMOLED?

RO: Yeah, in the case of Active Display, the combination of the driver work that we've done, and the display that we've picked have made it possible to offer this kind of notification experience on the phone. Also with Touchless Control, there's specific hardware that's always waiting to hear this key phrase that'll wake up your device, so then you can ask it questions or make phone calls or navigate places.

GIZ: That's the X8 processor right?

RO: Yep.

GIZ: Our nerdier readers always ask why you went with that processor and not the Snapdragon 800 which is faster, but also has low-power cores and theoretically would be capable of the same thing.

RO: A few things. We made a specific choice with the 8960 Pro as the core SoC for the phone because we felt like it was more than enough power for what we needed. And a lot of the operations the user sees in terms of performance come through the GPU. And the 8960 pro has a fantastic GPU. And then we have, frankly Motorola for years and years has had a great team that knows how to do software and performance optimizations, and we knew how to work with the 8960 Pro really well. And with the additional cores we added—the DSPs that are doing control for the sensors that are also listening for your voice, for the keywords—those special cores made it so we could also enhance the user experience and make it snappier. And we didn't need to put in a super high power and expensive chipset. So we could translate that into value for the end user.

GIZ: You managed to get KitKat out really quickly on Verizon. That's probably the number one complaint we hear from Android users: Updates take forever. That's why among the hardcore contingent the Nexus program is so popular. How did you manage to cut through the red tape, because I know a lot of that delay is on the carriers.

RO: It took a lot of partnership, and Verizon was a great partner in doing this. First off, because of our software strategy, we're able to do this quickly. Number two, we heard from users, they want fast upgrades. We've heard that loud and clear, so it's our aim to deliver those. And three, this is a big focus for software for us, and we pursued it and got it done first with Verizon but we also pursued it with our other channel partners as well. So it's now available on AT&T, Sprint, and other places too. This is a key focus for us, and I think you can expect this from us in the future.

GIZ: It seems like you've made your version of the OS more modular. With the Moto X, there were camera problems initially, and then a camera update was released. Does that play into this strategy? So you don't have to give them a huge thing, you can give out in chunks what you need to?

RO: I'll tell you, again this was a consumer focus point. We hear loud and clear from consumers that a lot of them are disappointed that the best day of their smartphone's life is the first day they own it. And we want your smartphone experience to get better over the course of your ownership. And we think in the long run that's gonna really work for users. So what we did was behind the scenes, we did a lot of groundwork to make many of our core experiences upgradable through the PlayStore. And I think we've done 26 updates to those experiences through the PlayStore since we introduced Moto X. And that's something we plan to continue. We think it's a great trend for users who want to keep adding value. We think of our software strategy as being very agile, and we think that's a new and unique twist to mobile that we're going to bring to our consumers.

GIZ: Are you still working on one with the whole Droid line? You guys started obviously, is that something you're looking to continue?

RO: Yes, definitely. We have our Moto products and our Droid product line. They're pretty distinct. The Droid product line is something that's had a great heritage, and it's something we'll continue with Verizon.

GIZ: We haven't seen any tablets from you guys in awhile. Not since the Xyboard, right?

RO: Yeah, we did a few in the past, it just hasn't been our focus yet. We're not disinterested in the category, we're just not participating yet, and maybe in the future that'll change.

GIZ: What do you think, are we gonna see a Motorola Nexus? You probably get asked that constantly.

RO: I dunno! We do get asked that a lot, but there's no plans to announce, and maybe it'll happen and maybe it won't. At the moment we're just focused on driving Moto X and Moto G. You know, with Moto G, we just started shipping it at the end of the year, and it has grown unbelievably well. It's now available in Latin America and Europe, where it's done fantastically well in both places, and now it's coming to the U.S. You might have seen it was announced for $99 on some channels just now, so it's a great value. As far as I'm concerned it's the best value for the money in mobile, and it's the kind of thing we wanna keep doing in the future.

GIZ: When we gonna see some new stuff?

RO: Stay tuned. Not here, but in the near future.

GIZ: Thinking Q2?

RO: We'll be in touch.

GIZ: Ha. Had to try. Anything you want to add?

RO: Just that we're excited to be back. We think we've made a big set of changes in the past few months and we're thrilled to see some of the momentum that's happening with our products. It's a very, very competitive industry, but we're trying our best to change it for the better for the end user.