Moto X smartphone 16GB in black

Teardown: Moto X smartphone 16GB

What Google got for its $12.5bn acquisition of Motorola...

While not available to markets all over the world, the Moto X is an important pathfinder, if not an outright experiment.

Billed as the first real fruit from Google's acquisition of Motorola's handset business last year, it underlines the direction the search giant is taking in hardware: this smartphone is a gateway, much like Google Glass. The intention is to get consumers to use a range of Google services (Now, Maps, Drive and so on) on an unmodified version of the Android operating system.

These core services reflect the bulk of smartphone usage and by using them in an integrated way, you will get a better experience (nothwithstanding access to alternatives from the Android Market). The underlying value for Google is that rather than purely making money from the apps and the phone, it harvests profile data about Moto X users and can sell that to advertisers.

There's nothing earth- shatteringly new. However, one issue that may be more sensitive in today's post-Snowden world is how comfortable consumers feel with real-time monitoring.

The Moto X's design is interesting in that it borrows from the business models of two other high-profile players: Apple and Amazon; then adds a couple of twists of its own. These could have interesting implications for how and where Motorola will make handsets in future.

What was interesting about the launch of Apple's iPhone 5S was how much the company made of the technology inside it, particularly the new quad-core A7 processor and fingerprint identification. As a rule, the late Steve Jobs didn't do this.

Jobs' Apple never favoured cutting-edge components or performance as much as getting a well-designed product. Apple would often lag rivals in adopting new technologies - even now, there's no near-field communication on the 5S, while there is on the Moto X.

Get down to the motherboard, and the Moto X adheres to the same philosophy. It is driven by a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 apps processor. This is a whole generation behind the chips seen in the latest phones from rivals. There is a quad-core Qualcomm Adreno graphics processor and two-other low-power cores to sustain a claimed 24-hour battery life. But, as shown by the teardown, the design adopts a 'commercial-off-the-shelf' approach based on easily identifiable components.

Qualcomm accounts for so many key pieces of silicon as well as power management, audio codec and Wi-Fi combo silicon - this looks like a platform built on a reference design from the chip giant.

The result is that for the mass market, the Moto X does its job well without forcing too many compromises on the user.

This COTS strategy has strong echoes of Amazon. The industrial design matters but the phone is very much a means to an end, though it may be pleasant to use. Amazon wants Kindles to sell you content; Google wants to harvest information.

Where the Moto X breaks with Apple and Amazon is in terms of customisation. A customer can choose from a very wide range of colours and materials for the front, back and side of the phone, as well as the more traditional memory options (16GB and 32GB with no expansion slot). There is even talk of novel materials such as wood and bamboo.

This is probably what has driven Motorola's decision to offer the phone only in the US initially (and only with customisation through one carrier, AT&T). To serve the market locally from a Flextronics factory in Texas, there will be a four-day turnaround time between order and delivery. Consider potential customs issues with export sales and you can see where this has limits.

Similarly, the pricing of the Moto X suggests that Motorola is still feeling its way. It retails at $199; that's the same as a US subscriber can pay for a more powerful phone from a rival OEM. Google could have subsidised its offering, but most likely wants to test whether or not it can trade off personalising the phone against functionality and capability.

Motorola says that versions of the Moto X sold outside the US will be cheaper. That could mean a couple of things. Probably, given manufacturing and logistics challenges, they will appear in a number of standard but colourful fascias, much like the recently launched iPhone 5C.

However, a better option would be for Motorola to borrow from the model of the Hong Kong 'bespoke' tailor. He will offer to cut you a suit, deliverable in only a couple of days, sometimes hours. The trick is that rather than cutting the suit from scratch, there is a huge warehouse of pre-fabricated components (sleeves, trousers, etc) that are assembled quickly based on your measurements.

From US orders, Motorola will quickly discover that there are certain standard combinations that appear more frequently than others. It can pre-manufacture these in bulk, and low-volume assembly would only be necessary for less common configurations. That could allow it to cut manufacturing costs and thereby the end price, but retain the DIY sales pitch.

For now, those of us in Europe, Asia and elsewhere will have to wait.

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