With Moto X, Google enters the crowded smartphone market
August 2, 2013 4:00 AM
Don Emmert/Getty Images
A Motorola employee demonstrates the Moto X during Thursday's unveiling of the American-manufactured smartphone in New York. The Google-owned company said users will be able to customize a number of the parts on the Moto X, including various colors and materials such as wood.
By Brian X. Chen The New York Times
The time has come for Google, the king of online search, to show whether it has any business selling hardware.
After lackluster results selling devices made by other companies, Google is giving hardware another try -- this time with a smartphone made by a company it owns. On Thursday, Motorola Mobility, the handset maker Google bought last year for $12.5 billion and then retooled, introduced the Moto X, the company's first major device since the deal.
The phone has all the standard features expected of today's top smartphone, with a twist: the ability to control the phone by talking to it.
The stakes are big for Google, and not only because of the high price it paid for Motorola. Google is enormously profitable, but its growth is slowing because of lagging ad sales. Finding success with the new phone could lead to a new source of revenue and a way to get more users to view the company's ads.
The company has been aggressive in absorbing Motorola. It put a former top executive, Dennis Woodside, in charge of Motorola, laid off thousands of Motorola workers and formed a new team with many employees recruited from its fiercest competitors, including Apple, Samsung and Amazon. A major marketing effort is expected for the Moto X.
Still, sales could be an uphill climb. The phone, decked out with multiple processors, sensors and voice controls, is landing squarely in the brutally competitive market for high-end smartphones. And Google has a lot to prove before it is taken seriously as a hardware maker.
Motorola's executives think they have something special with the Moto X, which will be sold by all major U.S. phone carriers starting in late August or early September. It has a 4.7-inch touch screen, which puts it right between the smaller iPhone 5 and larger Galaxy S4 from Samsung. And it has a sophisticated camera and high-speed connections.
But what executives hope makes the Moto X stand out is its voice-command capabilities -- such as continually listening for a user's voice and quickly reacting to commands. Saying, "OK, Google, now find me my way home" will quickly pull up a Google map with directions to a user's house, for example. The phone learns the voice of its owner and responds only to it. Some people might find this creepy, but it is a feature that a user must turn on voluntarily.
Google executives have long talked about building computers so integrated into our space that we can ask them to do things without lifting a finger. The Moto X is a big step in that direction.
Iqbal Arshad, Motorola's senior vice president of global product development, said the company had to develop a new computing system, X8, to make Moto X work well. One low-powered processor in the phone is devoted to processing natural language. Another detects movements of sensors -- two wrist twists open the phone's camera, for example. The computing system design lets the phone constantly listen for the user's input and quickly respond without constantly draining the battery, Mr. Arshad said. (The phone's battery is supposed to last 24 hours handling various tasks.)
"We want to change the way people call, we want to change the way people search, and we want to change the way people navigate," he said. "That's what touchless control enabled you to do. So we had to design a mobile computing system to do that."
The smartphone business is still expanding -- in the second quarter this year, it grew 52 percent compared with last year, according to the research firm IDC. But most growth is coming from manufacturers offering cheap smartphones in emerging markets, said Tero Kuittinen, a telecom analyst at Alekstra, a mobile diagnostics firm.
And the companies competing with Apple and Samsung for the high-end market just haven't had much luck. HTC's new smartphone, called the One, and BlackBerry's new phone, the Z10, got good reviews but still sold poorly.
Another Google device, Glass, is not yet available to the general public, although it has already been the subject of public ridicule. But the Chromecast, a stick that plugs into a television and enables people to watch online video, is getting positive reviews from technology writers and appears to have strong sales.