If there's one Android manufacturer that's been getting things right lately, it's Motorola. The now-Google-owned company has been on a rampage since its relaunch last summer, acting as the "unmanufacturer" (to use a fitting analogy) and little by little chipping away at all the bad phone-maker habits we've come to accept over the years.
Much to my pleasure, Moto's been following many of the same pleas I put out to Android manufacturers (and even to Moto specifically) back in 2012. With any luck -- just like what we're seeing with T-Mobile on the carrier front -- its moves will eventually force other manufacturers to start modifying their own behavior to keep up.
To be clear, the tactics I'm talking about aren't related to short-term sales; that's an effect of marketing and brand recognition more than anything. What I'm talking about are broader practices that affect a company's long-term customer experience -- practices that are woefully ignored by most manufacturers.
Specifically, these are seven things all Android manufacturers would be wise to learn from Motorola:
1. Focus on quality over quantity
It's hard to make any product as great as it can be -- or to continue supporting and improving it as much as you should after its debut -- when most of your efforts are devoted to launching 40 bazillion slightly different variations of your hardware every other month.
As I mused in an essay directed at the old Motorola two years ago:
Choice is a big part of what makes Android appealing and successful, and the platform's ever-expanding array of interesting devices is a core part of that equation. But having 50 different devices that are practically the same doesn't enhance the notion of choice; it dilutes it. Focusing on a smaller number of unique and well-made handsets -- and then continuing to support those handsets over time -- will serve both companies and customers better in the long run.
Making a sale is one thing. Continuing to impress people after they've bought your device is another.
2. Differentiate with meaningful value additions instead of arbitrary UI modifications
When I called for this in 2012, I reluctantly admitted it was unrealistic -- which, in the Android phone market at that point, it was.
Here's what I wrote at the time:
This one's not realistic, I know, but just imagine if more manufacturers were to focus their efforts on "differentiating" via exceptional hardware, standout design, and outstanding battery life instead of arbitrary changes to the Android UI. The lineup of high-end Android devices could go from great to phenomenal in a heartbeat.
To be clear, I'm not saying we should back away from software changes across the board; the ability to modify the OS is a core part of Android's open nature. But in the era of Android 4.x, the types of modifications many manufacturers are choosing to make are horribly misguided. Meddling with the UI merely for the sake of change accomplishes little more than detracting from the user experience and adding extra delays into the upgrade process.
By all means, manufacturers, innovate supplementary software features that actually add value to the product -- but give the arbitrary UI meddling a rest.
It's something I've touched on in countless reviews -- and something that makes Motorola's products so refreshing to use: They don't mess with change for the sake of change. Rather, they focus on providing a cohesive and outstanding overall user experience -- and modifying the Android software only in meaningful ways that actually add value without requiring unnecessary compromise.
3. Battle bloatware
You know what doesn't make for a good user experience? Bloatware. Whether it's carrier-added crap or the garbage manufacturers bake into their own devices, bloatware creates clutter and confusion and certainly isn't there to serve the user.
Motorola may not have been able to eliminate bloatware entirely on its devices yet -- carriers are a force to be reckoned with -- but it's come closer than any other other company in pushing that unwanted nonsense out of the picture. If more manufacturers follow that lead, the level of quality on Android devices will creep up and carriers will have more pressure to back the hell off.
4. Get upgrades right
Android upgrades have long seemed like an inevitable source of pain, to the point where my standard line of advice for years has been: "If timely upgrades are important to you, get a Nexus device. End of story." A three-to-four-month turnaround for a non-Nexus flagship phone upgrade used to be considered impressive and as good as you could get. Motorola has shown us it doesn't have to be that way.
The company started rolling out KitKat to its Moto X less than three weeks after the release dropped, beating even some Nexus devices to the punch. Its lower-end Moto G saw the update a month after that. And both devices have been seeing regular improvements and expansions to Motorola's own custom software, which the company maintains via the Play Store for easy and frequent updating.
As Motorola is demonstrating, a device doesn't have to be put on a company's backburner the day after it's released. Thanks in large part to lessons #1 and #2 (see how it all ties together?), we no longer have to settle for second-class treatment.
5. Be transparent with your customers -- and always underpromise and overdeliver
As a guy who maintains an evolving list of Android device upgrades, let me tell you: Getting info from manufacturers about their plans (or lack thereof) for upgrading devices isn't easy. Part of that may be because in the early days of Android, the manufacturers made all sorts of specific promises -- and then failed to keep them. So nowadays, many of them either give out vague and limited info or just avoid saying anything at all.
But keeping customers in the dark isn't the answer. Motorola's upgrade support site shows the way things should be done, with simple and easy-to-find info on the upgrade status for all current products. And rather than making overly ambitious promises it can't keep, Moto's been underpromising and overdelivering -- like with its Moto G, where the company promised an upgrade by the end of January and provided it in mid-December.
These things don't have to be an ongoing source of frustration.
6. Provide a good user experience from the top to the bottom of your price range
Budget-level Android devices have traditionally been a sad state of affairs: junky old phones with poor performance, disappointing displays, and outdated software that still cost a few hundred bucks (or require a one-sided carrier contract). Manufacturers have been getting away with that for years now, because they could -- and because, like with most non-customer-centric practices, no one challenged the status quo.
At least, not until now. Motorola's Moto G provides an inexpensive off-contract experience that, to put it bluntly, doesn't suck. That device should force other manufacturers to step up their game on the lower end of the spectrum, too -- which is a big win for us as consumers.
7. Don't underestimate the importance of off-contract customers
From the $179 off-contract Moto G to the now-$400 off-contract Moto X, Motorola is addressing a long-neglected segment of the phone-buying public: those of us who prefer to buy devices unlocked instead of playing the carriers' deceptive games. It may still be a relatively small portion of the phone-buying public in America, but awareness is expanding -- and Motorola is establishing itself as a company that recognizes the need for affordable off-contract devices.
The more manufacturers that follow that lead, the better our phone-buying options and phone-using experiences will become -- and ultimately, that's what all of this is about.
One thing's for sure, though: The gauntlet's been thrown down -- and even if Motorola's the only one maintaining it, a new standard has definitely been established.