Between the dwindling opportunities for hardware differentiation in the smartphone and tablet markets, and the Windows-like commoditizing effect that Android is having across mobile device makers, Motorola Mobility (like its competitors) have few options but to build their own user experiences.
Apparently, Android might not be good enough for Motorola Mobility. At least not as it comes in its plain vanilla form.
Based on my colleague Tom Claburn's report in InformationWeek speculating that Motorola Mobility is developing its own mobile Web operating system, Motorola is sending a pretty clear signal to Google and the market that it will need its own secret sauce if it's going to successfully compete against the likes of Samsung, Acer, HTC, and a slew of other hardware manufacturers who together are essentially commoditizing Android. As more manufacturers come to market with Android devices with the same basic chipsets, multi-touch displays, camera, and audio configurations, the opportunities for hardware differentiation are rapidly dwindling. So, where else is there to turn but the software?
As Claburn reports, Motorola Mobility has been quietly assembling its own dream team whose pedigree lies in operating system development. Wrote Claburn: "Over the past nine months, Motorola Mobility has been hiring engineering talent that would well-suited to create a new mobile operating system. Its team appears to include a significant number of ex-Apple and Adobe personnel, including Gilles Drieu, VP of software engineering at Motorola Mobility, Benoit Marchant, director of engineering at Motorola Mobility, and Sean Kranzberg, also a director of engineering at Motorola Mobility."
So far, Motorola Mobility hasn't confirmed or denied its plans to InformationWeek, but has said that it remains "committed to Android as operating system." Claburn cites one analyst -- Deutsche Bank's Jonathan Goldberg -- as saying that he heard the new Moto OS rumors as well. My colleague Fritz Nelson is at the CTIA telecommunications conference this week and, among other things, is trying to find more insiders to comment.
Editor's note 3/23 3:06 PM ET: A Motorola spokesperson said that the company will not comment on rumors, only saying that the company is fully committed to Android as its mobile OS. When pressed with other Motorola statements about the work being done on the company's own efforts, the spokesperson said that it is interested in what is happening with HTML5 and mentioned the Webtop solution that runs the Motorola Atrix. Reading into that, we might jump to the conclusion that a slightly client-less OS could be where the company wants to continue experimenting. Additionally, several readers contacted InformationWeek about Motoblur, a technology that Motorola has used to skin Android on certain models. Some comments appear in the comment section below.
The question is, what exactly is Motorola up to? Here at InformationWeek, we've narrowed the news down to two possible outcomes. The first is, as Claburn suggests, that Motorola plans to develop its own Web-friendly mobile operating system. There is another option though. Motorola Mobility could very well stay committed to Android while at the same time differentiating its Android-based devices by developing its own user interface.
If Motorola Mobility developed its own user experience layer to run on top of Android, it wouldn't be the first time that a mobile device maker looked to differentiate its hardware through a proprietary user interface. From CTIA yesterday, Nelson filed a video report showing a 3D interface that HTC has added to Samsung's newest EVOs. HTC has also been outfitting its Android devices with HTC Sense -- a user experience technology designed to put "people at the center by making phones work in a more simple and natural way," according to a HTC press release from last year. Additionally, Samsung has developed a drag-n-drop user experience layer for personalizing Android devices called TouchWiz.
But, were Motorola Mobility to hedge its bets by developing its own full blown OS, the company wouldn't be without its justifications. According to Nelson, who has been testing an Android-based Motorola Xoom (that runs the latest Android 3.0 aka "Honeycomb" operating system), there are problems with the tablet. The biggest of these is that apps -- at least the ones he has been using -- routinely crash. Furthermore, third parties in the software development community have been critical of the Xoom's HTML5 support.
In a blog post last month, Sencha's Aditya Bansod concluded that "The Xoom browser is not ready for prime-time -- even for HTML4 -- and it urgently needs a patch update if Motorola wants the product to succeed."
Later in the post, Bansod went on to say: "We were excited about the first true Android operating system for tablets and had high hopes for a mobile browser that was as powerful as the platform. Sadly, the Xoom and Honeycomb are a real disappointment. We found consistent and reproducible issues in CSS3 Animations and CSS3 Transitions among other things. We had issues where the browser either hung or crashed. Regular scrolling was slow or below full frame rate. We had issues where media playback failed or performed incorrectly. At times it felt like we were using a pre-production device, but we bought our test device from a Verizon Wireless store."
Nelson also says that the Xoom's browsing experience leaves much to be desired. For example, compared to an iPad, the Xoom has major problems displaying colors accurately when browsing Web pages.
If Motorola were to develop its own operating system, it wouldn't be alone in playing both sides of the fence, either. Samsung, for example, has abandoned Windows Mobile in favor of Android. It also has the open source-based Bada operating system in its stable. Bada is used internationally, but hasn't surfaced in a domestic U.S. device yet. Additionally, HP is in the market with its own WebOS (which came with the Palm acquisition) and, at the same time, HP CEO Leo Apotheker said he remains committed to launching mobile devices based on an ARM-compliant version of Microsoft's Windows.
In either case (building a new mobile OS, or a proprietary UI for Android), Motorola Mobility's incredibly deep ties with the wireless carriers could lead to a UI that better exposes the plethora of services that those carriers are desperately trying to use as both differentiators and upsell opportunities to drive additional ARPU (average revenue per user).
Meanwhile, what do you think Motorola is up to? Let me know by writing to me or leaving your thoughts in the comments section below.
InformationWeek editorial director Fritz Nelson contributed to this story.
David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of TechWeb.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below).
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