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Do You Remember Your First Motorola? A Brief History of Moto

August 28, 2014 - Written By David Steele

Do you remember the first time you set eyes on the StarTAC? This was Motorola’s innovative clam shell ‘phone. It was released in January 1996 and was one of the first ‘phones to include a vibrate function. Motorola had a hit on their hands but the design largely rested on its laurels. Eight years later, Motorola launched the Razr V3, which at the time was an amazingly thin flip ‘phone with a laser-etched keypad, a MiniUSB port for charging and an aluminium body. The original V3 quickly became the must-have handset for, well, pretty much everybody. Motorola followed the V3 with a large number of very similar looking models, showing little evolution but for a few years it worked well. In the mid-1990s over half of all mobile ‘phones sold in America were manufactured by Motorola.

The Razr was joined by the Rokr, the first ‘phone connected with Apple iTunes but with a cap of just 100 songs. This was a disastrous venture that almost had Thunderbirds International Rescue called out. Apple launched the iPod Nano and despite Motorola’s massive marketing budget, the original Rokr was not a commercial success. And with the benefit of hindsight, it was Motorola’s reliance on the tried-and-tested Razr that eventually saw them lose money hand over fist. The ‘phone went out of fashion. Motorola’s attempts to sell it at a loss at the bottom of the market accelerated the money drain. The original business lost over $4 billion between 2007 and 2009: Apple had started selling the iPhone and because Motorola had no smartphones, they were still pushing the Razr.

After a disruptive management shake-up, something wonderful happened. In 2009 Motorola picked Android as the operating system for a range of new smartphones. Android’s competition included Microsoft Windows Mobile (the predecessor to Windows Phone; consider it a bit like Windows 3.11 compared with Windows 8) and Nokia’s Symbian. Android has gone from strength to strength since 2009 but we must remember that during those early years, Android was far less polished than it is now. In late 2009, helped by a licensing deal between Motorola and George Lucas, Motorola introduced the Droid. The first Droid introduced Google Maps with Navigation to the market. It came with a 550 MHz single core processor, a 3.7-inch screen with a 5 MP camera, a hardware keyboard and a 1,400 mAh rechargeable battery. It originally ran Android 2.0 but was subsequently updated to 2.2. It was a commercial success and was followed by a number of upgraded models. The Razr was reintroduced in 2011, combining beautiful hardware with new generation materials and an amazingly thin 7mm body. The original Android powered Razr was superseded by the Razr HD and Motorola championed battery life with the introduction of the MAXX handsets, which included a very large battery for extended uptime.

Meanwhile, at the corporate side, Motorola Mobility was split off from the parent. It was quickly snapped up by Google for $12.5 billion in 2011 and the deal was completed in 2012. There are many possible reasons why Google bought Motorola but one of the important ones is the sheer number of patents that Motorola own: buying these has given Google and of course Android a degree of protection from some other manufacturers with a reputation for legal action. Under Google’s ownership, Motorola introduced the beautiful Moto X and Moto G handsets: the Moto X is still the daily driver handset of many tech-heads and the Moto G is an affordable and surprisingly great device that showed the competition how to do the cheap Android thing.

In January 2014 and to the surprise of many, Google announced the sale of Motorola to Chinese manufacturer Lenovo for under $3 billion. The sale is still going through. We do know that Google is retaining a significant number of Motorola’s patents for the benefit of the whole Android ecosystem. Where now for Motorola? We are about to see the Motorola Moto 360, an eagerly anticipated round Android Wear smartwatch, and perhaps successor devices to the original Moto X and Moto G. Lenovo have introduced a number of Google Chrome OS and Android products including the innovative Yoga tablet range. Lenovo devices don’t subscribe to the stock Android interface that Motorola’s recent devices have used and we will have to see what happens here, but going on the quality of Lenovo hardware and their innovation, the future is positive for Motorola. But here’s to you Motorola: it’s been a rollercoaster of a ride so far! Long live the Moto!