Moto X will flop unless Google applies lessons from the Nexus One

Google plans a big splash tomorrow, running ads in the big daily papers for the Moto X, the first phone designed by Motorola since its acquisition by Google. Ad Age first wrote about the ad.

The ad offers a few hints that remind me of Google’s initial disastrous to sell phones directly to users.

The ad hits a patriotic tone to coincide with the July 4 weekend, highlighting that the phone will be assembled in the U.S. Motorola has said that the phone is expected to be available this summer.

More interestingly, the ad calls the X “The first smartphone that you can design yourself.”

We’re left to guess what exactly that means. It could be that users will be able to decide how much storage they want, the color of the body, and maybe even what apps come preloaded. That sounds nice.

But I’m worried that Google also intends to let people choose which operator they want the phone to run on. It’s telling that there’s no mention of an operator on the ad. That makes me think Motorola may not be launching with operator partners.

In theory this is a great idea. Why not buy a phone and attach it to the operator that offers you the best deal.

The problem is, the operators feel they lose control and get relegated to commodity status in that scenario. So they don’t make it easy, even for a company as powerful as Google.

Google should have learned this from experience. When it launched the Nexus One, it did so via a novel online store. People could choose their operator and buy the phone directly from Google. Google talked big at the time about revolutionizing the phone buying experience.

It turned into a disaster. Buyers didn’t know how to find help. Since phone users traditionally ask operators for help, they turned to them initially. You can guess what happened. Operators typically referred them back to HTC or Google. HTC referred them back to the operator.

Google didn’t have any kind of live support so users had to send emails and wait hours or more for a response. Or, they could post to message boards. Neither option was the kind of help people expected from a several hundred dollar purchase. Google eventually added phone support.

But it ended up closing the store within five months, facing lackluster sales. Some operators weren't willing to offer a subsidy, so users had to pay full price. Plus, without salespeople in physical stores pushing the phones, they didn't take off.

I have to figure that Google won't repeat the exact same mistake. Most likely people will be able to choose other kinds of customizations. But the fact that there's no mention yet of a carrier partner has me worried that this phone might face some challenges.

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