Motorola's Android veteran bets on old habits

Features

Steve Horowitz, Motorola's head of global software engineering, is an Android pioneer, having led the engineering team to create the mobile operating system for Google almost 10 years ago.

Times may have changed at the smartphone maker, with it sold to Lenovo in January this year for €2.1 billion, but Horowitz's attitude towards software development remains the same. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

From the time of the Google buy and beyond, Motorola has offered bargain basement versions of Google's high-end Nexus devices. This week, it announced a 4G version of last year's Moto G handset, the bestselling device in Motorola's history, priced €195.

It also offered a more affordable smartphone than the Moto G; the Moto E is on sale for €119 and features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 with a 1.2GHz dual-core A7 CPU.

Motorola claims the handsets outperform any other smartphone in the same price range, something that is backed by the strong reviews of the Moto G. But how is it able to eke out a greater performance than rivals on a limited palette of technology?

Horowitz suggests it is the manufacturer's treatment of the Android ecosystem.

He says: "We can fundamentally get a better performance on the same kind of hardware [by leaving the software alone]. To keep up in terms of features, other manufacturers will have to upspec and add costs to their handset development. We feel we don't have to throw money at hardware to get a highly desirable device."

According to Horowitz, rival manufacturers' focus on skins in a bid to differentiate themselves is a misguided strategy. By making the Android UI more complicated by loading additional software onto it, the user experience suffers.

He explains: "They feel they are adding value with their skins and layers. Having been around Android since the very beginnning, I have not seen people choose a device over another because of the Android skin.

"I understand that they need to differentiate by trying to add consumer value through features. But it causes the software on the handsets to not run as efficiently."

One major criticism of Android compared to iOS is the frequency of updates. Horowitz notes how both Android and Apple launch major updates for their devices every year, although Apple is much better than its rival in improving issues within a certain generation of OS.

However, Horowitz says it is down to the handset manufacturer to roll out updates quickly. During the launch of the Moto E and Moto G 4G, the manufacturer said it even beat Google in rolling out Android updates to certain devices.

"The issue is not the operating system but the vendors. The pick of upgrades is decided by the OEM," says Horowitz.

Critics note that while Motorola's dedication to low-cost devices and killing off the feature phone is admirable, it has not been able to translate that to the bottom line.

Motorola stacked up losses during its time under Google's stewardship and there has been scepticism as to how much money the manufacturer can make in the long term with its low-cost devices.

Horowitz sticks to the company line that it makes a profit on every device it sells. He is confident Motorola can thrive in the longer term because it is concentrating on what is important for consumers.

"The approach that others have taken is to take Android and change it as a means of differentiation. What we feel is there is always a finite amount of engineers so when you change for change's sake, you can't spend as much time on the things that matter," he concludes.