Motorola isn't showing off any new smartphones during the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, but it definitely brought a lot of executive muscle to the show. We had a chance to sit down with Motorola's head of global software engineering Steve Horowitz, and Steve Sinclair, vice president of product marketing at Motorola to ask several questions that we've been pondering. We discussed the success of the Moto X, how Motorola has been able to update its devices so quickly, its strategy for the future, Project Aura and more.
Let's talk about the Moto X really quickly. How have you been able to get updates faster than anyone? It's astonishing — what's your secret?
"There are two general areas of focus that allowed us to make that happen," Steve Horowitz explained. "A year ago we took approach to software and started from scratch. We only added a minimal number of things so that we were carrier legal and geographically compliant. We got rid of 70 percent of legacy code: a very pure vanilla version of Android with enhancements to basic experiences. We set ourselves up to move quickly, and we challenged our parters. We could pull it from an engineering standpoint, so we decided to rethink the Qualcomm approval process and carrier certification. They were game and great partners for us and with us. We view them as partners as opposed to vendors. We said, 'let's work together on it. It was a true industry-wide collaboration."
What have you learned since teaming up with Google, especially from a software experience?
"There's a lot of value and flexibility and freedom with what you do with software," Horowitsz explained. "Our approach is to be pure Android, and we didn't want to get in the way of the Android team. They're good and what they do. The Android team provides a great smartphone experience to start with, so rather than change it and modify it and compete with them, we let it shine through and just augmented it."
"What that enables us to do is to focus on building a hardware device that doesn't need to have the most tricked out amazing, top of the line super expensive chips. Android is capable of — amazing stuff on a lower-spec device that can run against the S4 in most situations. We can create and focus our hardware resources on things that are more meaningful to the consumer. We can really start to focus on things that make more of a difference as opposed to having the highest specs phone."
Will Motorola stray from that approach in the future? Will we ever see phone with super high-end specs?
"We won't announce new products," Horowitz explained. "I won't say never, though. We think of it as opportunity, and we see what we can do with the hardware we have. In the future, with higher density screens and more capable processors, everything can be that much better."
"There are a lot of groups on the market that we can try to address. There's a slice out there who wants the latest specs, in some case it's overkill on some of those capabilities. What's the sweet spot on that market? That's where the Moto X came through. Looking across the broader market – where can we make a difference? Where can we push mobile Internet to people underserved today. That's the Moto G. Those people who are interested in the Moto G and Moto X are interested in the whole package — software experiences they want, premium capabilities as far as durability, as far as battery life, are all important, and at a cost that they feel is reasonable."
What's going on in Europe? Are you announcing the Moto X there soon?
"We do have an announcement coming up on the 14th," a Motorola spokesperson explained. "We haven't said what's for — I'll leave you to speculate."
Can you talk about sales from Moto Maker versus sales through carriers? Have customers flocked to customization?
"I can't give you numbers and break it out," Horowitz explained. "It's been very healthy, Moto Maker has been a great place for people to reacquaint with the Moto brand. The engagement we're getting — people are spending an average of 5-6 minutes just browsing the options. If you use Moto Maker to design a device and go to the next step, they're spending even more time than that. It leads to a lot of satisfaction that you get from a product you build yourself. "
Did Moto Maker sales meet expectations?
"We were surprised when people bought a Moto X and chose to use the Moto Maker — sales were about double what we expected," Sinclair said.
Can you talk about the future of Moto Maker? Will you use it for your next smartphone? Are there more choices coming?
"You'll continue to see more choice not only with handsets its used for but also in the options that it gives consumers," Sinclair said. "The recent launch of the bamboo option should give people an idea that we're looking for. There are exciting options for people to choose from."
What about additional value adds for Moto X, like Windy Day and other software experiences?
"Without pre announcing features, one of the key things we've done is taken our core experiences — even things we aren't aware of, and made them into standalone apps updated through the Play Store," Horowitz said. "We've done 26 different updates with various experiences over the last couple of months. We moved to an architecture that allowed us to move quickly with the Moto X. The ability to push quick updates even encourages us to move more quickly. Maintenance releases can be a big deal across carriers, but we can now move more quickly because we are less afraid. Now we have the capability to fix bugs within days or within a week of testing and push it out to the Play Store and everyone gets the benefit of having that squared right away."
"We have our ears to the ground on what people are asking for," Sinclair added. "The big problem we have is letting users know about all of these new features. The Download, our new blog, will be letting people know what they might have missed over the next couple of weeks."
What will happen to the DROID RAZR family in the future? Will you put your focus into phones like the Moto X instead?
"The core architecture of the DROID franchise is every similar — it's a strong brand and Verizon is a great partner," Horowitz said. "We'll be very supportive of that moving forward. A lot of the architecture changes you've seen us make with the Moto X are in the DROID RAZR updates as well."
OK – Everyone wants to know. What's up with Project Ara, your modular smartphone project. Can we see it soon?
"There's no timetable on it," Horowitz said. "Conceptually, we've been really surprised with the idea. It has resonated with a certain population. For the broader market, though, it's still early to think about a product like that. It gets back to choice — consumers get to choose aesthetic, and they get to choose a larger set of functional options. They can say 'I'm going to optimize it for this weekend, I'll be away from a charger, I'll bring a lot of battery modules.' Or, at a sporting event, bring a zoom module for better pictures. It further shows that consumer choice is important. We'll push on that very hard."
"You'll definitely hear more about Aura in the next few months."
You've been very public that Google was hands-off on the Moto X. Will you continue to operate that way?
"We're happy with our position in Google," Horowitz explained. "We run ourselves independently and we run as any other OEM does. Google has seen that we can actually build products that are meaningful in lots of markets. I don't think you'll see any significant change in their involvement one way or the other."
What about wearables? Any smartwatch plans?
"We have nothing to announce at this time," a Motorola spokesperson said, while Horowitz and Sinclair kept quiet. "It's obviously an area of interest for us and anything we do we want to do it right. We're taking the same approach with the products you've seen over the last six months."
Hopefully you enjoy our quick chat with Horowitz and Sinclair, we're looking forward to what Motorola does in 2014. It's clear that the Moto X was a great starting point for the company in terms of rethinking how it builds smartphones and how customers buy them. We can't wait to see what's next.