What's on Motorola's agenda‾

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.


So did voluble criticism of the phone's user interface for texting and the audibility of calls. A prevailing conclusion‾ The Razr was a beautiful device housing mediocre software.

Clark observes that Motorola's phone portfolio, while often sleek and even featuring unique features such as live TV, lacks a clearly defined 'Motorola experience' in terms of brand identity. In addition, he says, by offering so many different styles for so many different market segments, Motorola's brand equity has become diluted to the point of being nearly generic. 'The Razr 2, for example, has no soul,' he says, adding, 'Motorola has become the Acme of phones,' a reference to the fictional maker of everything from anvils to birdseed.

Motorola seems to be suffering a condition common to many of the old-school tech giants: how to couple their huge engineering or technological know-how with what a user really needs. 'The tech part is easy [for Motorola]. The social and human parts are hard. That's the part Motorola has difficulty with, because it's an engineering company,' says Don Norman, the author of numerous books on design and user experience (including The Design of Everyday Things) (BusinessWeek.com, 12/5/07), and a professor at Northwestern University, who has served on the Research Visionary Board since its inception five years ago.

Clark, meanwhile, points to the company's recently released Crystal Talk technology, featuring two microphones that distinguish between the talker's voice and surrounding noise. It's bleeding-edge tech, and a potential selling point if only Motorola executives can work out how to market it to consumers effectively. And the company has added innovative design elements that might offer a more appealing user experience than even the iPhone: For example, the forthcoming Rokr E8 (an update of the disappointing Rokr MP3 phone that syncs with iTunes) features a flat, iPhone-esque touch screen along with software that offers a sensation of touch when using the digital keypad. And it has FM radio, which the iPhone lacks.

Exchange of ideas

Another Research Visionary Board member and former Motorola employee, Andy Seybold, who heads a Santa Barbara (Calif.)-based consulting firm, the Andrew Seybold Group, believes the MTO initiative might suggest the company is at last paying attention to its consumers' experiences"”and also working on its internal communication. That's also been a big problem for Motorola, which observers say has led to competing mobile products and a lack of overall brand cohesion.

'Motorola has always had a problem sharing thoughts and technology across groups,' Seybold says. 'It's full of fiefdoms, and in the past they didn't cross-pollinate technologies. But the [MTO] document is so full of so many different ideas, it can be seen as one way of cross-group pollination.'

Motorola's Dvorak emphasizes that the company is working toward synergizing its various departments. 'We have a group that looks at consumer intelligence with the goal of analyzing consumer trends [vs. technology trends] in a similar time frame of three to five years, and we are now looking to collaborate more closely,' he says. And although the consumer research group doesn't publish a report similar to MTO, an exchange of ideas is occurring, Dvorak concedes, 'in an ad hoc way.' In other words, the synergy isn't systemized, at least for now.

Whether this year's MTO, which seems to address problems that analysts and Motorola insiders are quick to identify with Zander, will spark the design of must-have phones with a distinctive Motorola user experience is yet to be seen. New CEO Brown may decide to ditch the MTO strategy altogether"”it's a relic from the previous era, after all. His challenge is to capitalize on the design and technology advances already in place while waiting for the MTO's forward-thinking prescriptions to come to fruition.

Reena Jana is the Innovation Dept. editor for BusinessWeek.