Motorola Looks to Android

Motorola is banking on Android, the promising open source mobile platform, to help steer its floundering mobile device division into a positive revenue stream by 2010.

Sanjay Jha, Co-CEO and mobile device leader at Motorola, told investors this week that his 2009-2010 smartphone road map features a variety of Android devices. He touted Android’s development flexibility and heavy developer interest.

Android works well for Motorola, he said, as Motorola’s new device applications are now focused on providing “best-in-class Web browsing and unique experiences” which would include social networking capabilities. Motorola’s expertise in Linux and Java is also a natural fit for Android development, he said.

“We have a large team which is very familiar with Linux, Java and now Android. That gives us an advantage,” Jha told investors, noting that efforts in those platforms have produced software modules that Motorola has not yet been able to plug into handsets. His expectation is that Motorola will be able to leverage Android software to build unique products that will prove alluring to carrier partners and resellers.

“For this reason our road map has a much greater focus on bringing smartphone functionality into lower tiers, with touch inquiry and on experiences around messaging and mobile internet,” said Jha. “We believe we can enable differentiated user experience [with Android].”

The news comes as Motorola is focused on regaining lost market share in the competitive mobile device space. It’s also not the only handset maker betting on the platform as analysts expect a flood of Android devices to debut at 3GSM, the Mobile World Congress event this month in Barcelona, from both new and tenured players.

Many Android devices

Android was built under the auspices of the Open Handset Alliance. Search giant Google and HTC debuted the first Android smartphone, the G1 through exclusive wireless carrier T-Mobile early last fall.

Android’s allure lies in the fact that the Alliance has stated it will be made available under one of the “most progressive, developer-friendly open source licenses” that will provide significant freedom and flexibility for product design. Google  acquired Android in 2005.

Jha said Motorola is ahead of schedule in developing its new Android product road map, is already getting good vibes from prospective carriers and resellers have been receptive.

“The feedback we’re getting is that the portfolio will be very competitive. This puts us in a position for important product slots in the fourth quarter and first half of 2010,” he said.

Yet some industry watchers aren’t as convinced that Android is the lone market-saving move Motorola needs to thrive in an increasingly competitive industry.

One industry watcher said an improved device interface is necessary for any major industry impact.

Another said strategic planning is key to pulling Moto out of its current market slide. Motorola fell from fourth to fifth place in worldwide mobile device sales at the end of 2008.

“With Symbian being bought by Nokia, and becoming open source, it was obvious Motorola needed to look elsewhere for a mass market platform and Android fits the bill,” said Carolina Milanesi, research director of mobile devices at Gartner. “But the end of year seems a long time to wait for a device,” she acknowledged, adding that user interface and software have never been Motorola’s strong points.

“It will be interesting to see how good their application offering is,” the analyst said.

Looking to differentiate

Jha told analysts this week that a good portion of Motorola’s research and development is focused on differentiating device UI and experience.

The co-CEO came aboard last August after Motorola CEO Greg Brown announced the company was planning to spin-off the mobile device business in 2009. That plan is now on hold due to the rocky economic climate that prompted big layoffs and cost cutting actions in late 2008.

Jha spent his first three months evaluating the mobile division, products and development teams. Shortly afterward he announced Motorola would pare down its mobile OS use to a few platforms, focusing primarily on Android and Windows Mobile.

Co-CEO Brown told investors Tuesday that Motorola remains committed to Windows Mobile but, as compared to Android, Android will be more competitive in the next year.

“More of our effort and focus in 2009 is going to Android, but in 2010 when Windows 7 will become available, we will participate in a more focused way in Windows Mobile 7,” Brown said during the call.

The goal, meanwhile according to Jha, is to pump Motorola’s lower-tier products with more Web and communications capabilities and shore up interactive capabilities on mid-to higher-end products as well.

In simple terms it plans to make its cheaper devices more smartphone like, and make more high-end smartphone offerings above a $50 price point.

IDC analyst Ryan Reith said he’s impressed with Jha’s approach so far and that the steady product strategy is good given Motorola’s recent history.

“Over the last two years, before Jha came onboard, Motorola’s would apply some quick application solution to try and solve a big issue,” said Reith. That approach, in part, lead to its decline in the industry.

“Now they’re taking their time and in the big picture it’s only been six months since Jha came in to right the ship,” he said.

“They need to take a year to get where they need to be,” he added.

As Jha reminded analysts this week, Motorola was the company that designed the fastest selling smartphone at one point in its history.

“This is a company that delivered RAZR and we have I think world class design capabilities and we will be able to use Android and bring it lower down into tiers and differentiate versus our competitors,” he said.

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