What's on Motorola's agenda‾

Reena Jana
17 Jan 2008

On Jan. 1, Ed Zander officially stepped down as Motorola's (MOT) chief executive, with former Chief Operating Officer Greg Brown taking the reins. According to Gartner (IT), in the third quarter of 2007, Motorola's market share in the handset sector dropped 7.6 percentage points compared with the same period in 2006, relegating the vendor to the No. 3 position, behind Nokia (NOK) and Samsung. The tech giant is clearly wobbling and the changing of the guard raises the question: What role will design play in the company's new era‾ Will Brown call on Motorola's designers and engineers to try to match the success of the Razr, the iconic product launched during the Zander reign‾

Clues as to where Motorola may be headed in the next three to five years can be found in an internal document, the Motorola Technology Outlook (MTO), which is initially available only to senior managers in the corporate technology office and business units (it will be posted later on the company's corporate intranet for all 66,000 employees to examine). Compiled annually since 2004, the MTO features trend analysis from the company's Research Visionary Board, an external group of 47 design and technology experts based around the world, and a spectrum of staff members, who identify key trends and concepts in mobile devices, the Internet, and other areas. BusinessWeek received exclusive access to a detailed summary of this year's 20-page document, which has never before been released externally.

A jumping-off point

The MTO outlines six directions that the company may focus on while planning its new long-term projects. They're meant to be macro-ideas, rather than direct recommendations, and, indeed, this year's trends seem both obvious and abstract. They are: 'the immersive Internet,' meaning that consumers will be online constantly, including on their handsets; 'hosted applications,' or standardized software that's available on a Wi-Fi or cell-phone network rather than vendor-specific applications available only on one device; 'video rerouted,' or TV seen not only on TV but on other platforms; 'virtually there,' or posting the physical world online in real time via sensors, GPS, and RFID tags; 'securing the bits,' or making mobile phones safer against hackers and identity thieves; and 'stimulating the spectrum,' or the emergence of entirely new networks beyond the traditional cellular ones.

While some of these seem painfully simple, the report's overseer, Joe Dvorak, technology futurist in Motorola's corporate strategy office, argues that the ways in which trends are applied in research and development within Motorola is complex. And the report does also provide scenarios for theoretical products or potential usages.

For instance, the document proposes 'snowflake devices'"”customized gadgets, such as smartphones or handheld computers, that display content specific to a consumer's taste and which feature speech and gesture recognition for a more human 'feel.' Or mobile handsets with fast-loading interfaces for quicker video downloads. While mere sketches of hypothetical handset applications, these proposals do seem to indicate the beginnings of Motorola's response to Apple's (AAPL) iPhone. Certainly they suggest Motorola is looking to enhance its user interfaces and software, two areas that critics have often pinpointed as needing radical improvement.

Focusing on the user experience

'It's not a surprise that Motorola is having the problems they're having now, because software and user experience are the real differentiators,' says William Clark, an analyst with market researcher Gartner. Indeed, despite initial acclaim for the superslim design of the Razr, which became a must-have accessory soon after its debut in 2004, consumer complaints about the phone's usability soon bubbled to the surface.

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