These days, most in-the-know folks would sooner eat glass than carry a Motorola phone. The company has shredded its reputation by failing to address basic interface design issues: freeze-prone software, head-scratching menus, keys that demand Herculean strength. It's baffling that such a venerable company could build such frustrating phones, considering the zillions presumably spent on development. How did Motorola make such a bollocks of its wireless division? Now that the company has annointed new wireless division chief Sanjay Jha, we surveyed former staffers for the inside scoop, as well as their advice on how to right the ship.
Insiders always start by attacking Motorola's corporate culture, formed decades ago when radio was the company's bread-and-butter. Motorola made its bones building end-to-end systems—not just hardware, but the infrastructure that supports it. That, in turn, has led to a culture in which engineers reign supreme, and are allowed to sneer at their more right-brain-inclined colleagues. Marketers? Designers who focus on usability as opposed to circuitry? At Motorola, they're peons.
"There's this amazing wealth of engineering talent, but there's no system for harnessing that talent for the good of the consumer," says one former Motorola executive. The men in the R&D labs are permitted to indulge their flights of fancy, many of which centre on fine-tuning antennas to optimise reception. Meanwhile, no one pays much attention to more prosaic fundamentals such as reliable software.
Another Motorola departee told Gizmodo that the company group charged with consumer research has been marginalised by the engineers, who dismiss its concerns—and, to a large extent, its very existence—as inconsequential. "With the engineers," he said, "there's this attitude of, "I create—what do you do? You pick out colours?'"
The engineers could theoretically be kept in check by corporate managers, but few suits are bold enough to act. A Motorola insider noted that long-serving managers have "deity status" at the company—no matter how many of their products flop, they never suffer repercussions.
The RAZR, a design victory as much as an engineering one, only came about due to the gumption of chief marketing office Geoffrey Frost. Following the RAZR's overnight success, Moto commissioned an in-house team to research the company's next step. Countless hours were spent pulling together focus-group studies and carrier feedback, but it was all for naught—the research was simply ignored by Motorola's top brass. "They have this attitude of, 'Well, I've built phones for 20 years, I know what I'm doing," says a frustrated member of that team, who noted that once Frost died in 2005, there was no one left with the chops and political capital to route around Moto's stick-in-the-mud managers.
Motorola's managerial bumbling has resulted in severe cultural malaise—a condition made worse by the mobile unit's location in the deep Chicago suburbs, hardly a place awash in creative energy. (Few 22-year-old design wunderkinds are willing to forego the Bay Area in favour of Libertyville.)
Keep in mind, too, that Motorola was the birthplace of Six Sigma, a methodology meant to eliminate product defects. But Six Sigma was created in 1986, well before the era of ubiquitous mobiles; its focus is engineering, not end-user experience. The methodology is therefore unequipped to address many of the shortcomings that have irked so many customers.
Take, for example, the navigation joystick on the ill-fated first-gen ROKR. It looked cool and worked as intended, but not without minor headaches: The joystick was a hair too sensitive, making it too easy to scroll past your music selection. Or take the Q—relatively powerful, but why in heaven's name didn't it auto-capitalise address book names, or allow for copy-and-paste? Sure these may strike you as minor details, but minor details make the difference in a competitive handset market. And Motorola's aging quality-control program wasn't designed to catch such annoying foibles.
Six Sigma and its companion product-development methodology, dubbed "M-Gates," both stress caution in the name of quality. But when it comes to innovation, there's certainly such a thing as too much wariness. In planning its software path after the RAZR's smashing success, Motorola knew (to its credit) that its Synergy OS was antiquated. But instead of developing a worthy successor, the company decided to wait around for Windows Mobile, ostensibly because it was a sure thing. Big mistake, as we all now know. Motorola next turned to Linux, which has never lived up to expectations. That's left the company scrambling for replacements, a panic that has led to the striking of numerous deals with potential software partners—"throwing darts at a board," as one former Motorola employee put it. It's also meant that different generations of the same phone end up running completely different software—the RAZR2 3G, for example, runs on the old P2K OS, while the 2.5G variant uses Linux. Both are painfully slow.
Motorola can still find the way forward—this is, after all, a company that's long done wondrous things in the lab. Surely it can figure out how to make its software work more fluidly, or realise that consumers actually care about such "trifling" issues as external volume rockers and intuitive menus.
Ex-employees are nearly unanimous in stating that bringing on Sanjay Jha as co-CEO (and designated handset-division savior) is a reasonable gamble. It's been clear for months now that CEO Greg Brown is in way over his head. "He has no idea how to run a consumer electronics business," grumbles one critic, adding that Brown's previous job was at an enterprise software company. While Jha is well regarded for his operational prowess and sheer intelligence, it's worth noting that he's fresh off a 14-year run at Qualcomm. Did chipmaking really prepare Jha to address the needs of Joe Sixpack consumers?
Our contacts contend that Jha's rescue plan needs to focus on two important areas—one technical, the other cultural. First, the company needs to streamline its wireless development, so that phone models are designed in conjunction with one another—thereby ending the lunacy of different generations featuring different (and inadequate) software. Second, there needs to be a reconciliation between the engineering heroes and the consumer research folks, who are currently out in the wilderness.
That can happen if Motorola opens its eyes to the very real design problems that plague generation after generation of its handsets. But does the company's leadership have the will to really shake things up? Some curmudegeonly engineers and managers are going to resist with every fibre of their beings. May the Force be with you, Mr. Jha.
Gizmodo columnist Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and author of the Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II.