The reported Google/Motorola 'X phone' sounds like it's Google's attempt to build the ultimate phone. But the people at Google aren't the only ones who dream of blue-sky phones of the future. There's a reason, for instance, why Apple didn't crowd the iPhone 5 up with the hottest technology in every way. Apple needs to be able to sell their phones in high quantity and high quality. The X phone story has indications of Google trying to change the way the phone game is played, and stumbling over themselves in the process.
Engineering and product design are always games of trade-offs. The biggest factor in most trade-offs is cost. If you're willing, for instance, to have a very expensive product, you might be able to deal with parts that have a high failure rate. But how expensive do you really want to be when Apple's letting iPhone 5's out to customers for $126?
According to the Wall Street Journal report that broke the story, Google and Motorola were looking at a bendable screen and many other less-wacky ideas. The screen sounds like the perfect example of the feature that just isn't worth it for the cost. When you hear about supply chain issues, that they can't get enough parts, it means that they can't get enough of them that work right.
And while it sounds like the bendable screen is not going to happen, the screen is probably the main part of the holdup. If they're talking now about manufacturing constraints then it means they're pretty far along and thinking of Spring 2013 for a rollout. A high-quality OLED display with cutting-edge features is tough to get from the small number of companies that make them. Everyone wants them.
People experienced in the device hardware business know these things, but does Google? Both the WSJ story and our own sources inside Motorola say that Google interlopers, inexperienced in the actual building of phone hardware, are in charge of this process.
The choice of Motorola for the phone caps a series of perplexing moves by Google, starting with their decision to buy Motorola Mobility. Even before the acquisition Motorola was retrenching, cutting off products and product teams, to the point now where they have next to no current products and about the same number of teams. And earlier this week it emerged that the Arris Group was buying the home/set top box part of the Motorola business. Perhaps Motorola's not up to the job because there's so little of it left?
Perhaps even odder is the implication in the WSJ story that the X phone will be sold direct to consumer, as opposed to the usual channel through the mobile carriers. Maybe Apple can get away with that stuff since they have their own retail channel, although I suspect the large majority of iPhones are sold through the carriers. But they can't be expecting any help from what's left of Motorola in this that company has no successful experience selling directly to consumers.
There are other advantages to taking the carriers out of the picture, such as control over pushing out updates (although Apple seems to be able to get their way over the carriers in this regard). It's also just better for a manufacturer to have multiple sales channels.
After the Arris deal it looked more likely than ever that the whole point of the Motorola purchase was to get patents, even if they overpaid for them. Now they want Motorola to build them the greatest phone in the world?