Segan: Motorola Needs to Save Itself for America's Sake

We should have seen it coming when Motorola chief Ed Zander promised "more RAZRs" as the follow-up to the company's super-successful thin phone.

This is the tech world, people. More of the same only cuts it for a while.

More of the same is what Motorola provided — a string of RAZRs and RAZR XXs and RAZR MAXXs and RAZR 2's, with a few failed music phones and one really good smart phone (the Q) mixed in.

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The result: Moto's on the ropes. The RAZR XX is actually far better than the original RAZR, but to the jaded eye they all look the same.

Moto is weakest at the high end, where LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Apple and Nokia have all been pushing the limits of what you can do with a handheld by adding 5-megapixel cameras with advanced photo technologies, force-feedback games and huge touchscreens with new interfaces.

Since Moto devalued its RAZR brand and started almost giving RAZRs away for free in cereal boxes, it's had little to draw out the big bucks. The RAZR 2 and Q9 seem a bit late and a bit derivative.

Whatever happened to the MOTOFONE, a showcase for radical new voice, battery, screen and interface technologies that was supposed to bring the cell phone back to basics for billions of people?

Motorola's lack of follow-through there reminds me of two of its biggest missteps in recent years: the MPx, a super-smartphone which never made it to market, and the miserable MOTOROKR, the first phone with iTunes.

All three were great ideas that mysteriously evaporated or went sour when it was time to bring them into the big-time.

So what, you ask? It's not like there aren't a half-dozen players waiting to take Motorola's place. Nokia, Samsung, LG, HTC and Sony Ericsson are battling in the first tier of handset manufacturers, with Sanyo, Kyocera, UT Starcom, Casio, Apple, Palm, RIM and others filling out the list.

The handheld world is plenty competitive even if it passes by Schaumburg, Ill., Motorola's home base.

But there is a reason Americans should worry, intensely, about Motorola's decline.

We here in the USA are at best a sideshow, and at worst irrelevant, to the big handheld manufacturers.

Yes, we (and the Canadians) get the hottest BlackBerries and Palms, but they're a tiny slice of the market.

To No. 1 Nokia and to up-and-coming Sony Ericsson, the U.S. market almost doesn't exist. With LG and Samsung, we're at least on their radar.

But we're Motorola's home. Being the home of the No. 2 cell-phone maker meant that, for a while, U.S. consumers were at least on the minds of a big player in the industry.

Motorola's survival helps prevent the U.S. from becoming a total mobile backwater

My Prescription for Motorola

To survive, Motorola needs something new. A focus on simple interfaces and advanced voice technologies, like in the MOTOFONE, is something the other big manufacturers aren't doing.

It also jibes well with the passion of Motorola's CTO, Padmasree Warrior, for bringing mobile technology to the developing world.

The MOTOFONE was supposed to be able to make calls where other phones couldn't get signals. Motorola was also a pioneer in UMA, a Wi-Fi calling technology that T-Mobile has just recently implemented.

It's been trying to combine cell phones and land lines for a while. Let's see some more of that.

Work on crazy new antenna technologies; use e-ink screens to extend battery life beyond everyone's wildest dreams; leverage your strength in WiMAX to take some of the noise away from Nokia in that market.

How about a new slogan, Moto: "Call Anywhere. Do Everything."

If Moto could prove that it could help people get and stay connected where other handhelds can't, it would have a vast new market.

On the high end, Motorola needs to work its new and highly-touted Linux expertise and recruit the open-source community to create a passionate new world of Motorola fanatics.

Motorola engineers: Drop all that music-phone nonsense that you're not particularly good at. Instead, open up your devices, join those Open-Everything consortiums and promote your high-end phones heavily in Europe and Asia as powerful platforms free of the expensive burdens of proprietary intellectual property.

Buying the open-source cell phone company OpenMoko and turning it into OpenMoto would be a good start. That would really shake up the industry; Motorola could become the Firefox of the smart phone world in one fell swoop.

Palm also needs to learn from Motorola's collapse, and learn fast. That company's perpetual drone of semi-identical Treos has become a real snoozer.

The Foleo mini-laptop is an interesting new idea, but Palm needs to show new thinking in its core areas of PDAs and smartphones. RIM's Blackberries are eating Palm's lunch, and it's looking hungrily at dinner.

Motorola isn't dead. It's still a huge player. But it needs to make a sharp turn on strategy before its dull RAZRs are simply left behind.

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