Breaking down Google's impact on the Moto X

As the first device designed after Google's acquisition of Motorola, the Moto X is a good combination of both companies' services.

Moto X is the first completely new smartphone project that was launched after Google acquired Motorola Mobility. As such, it fully integrates the technology assets of both companies. It is a carefully designed, customizable mass-market consumer device with much embedded Google technology: speech recognition, contextual awareness, and personalized search. It’s available in 18 colors with 7 accent colors. The specifications are adequate for a high-end smartphone and meet or exceed most of the iPhone 5 specifications.

At the announcement in New York yesterday, Motorola Senior VP of Product Management Rick Osterloh introduced the Moto X with a personal demonstration. Rather than one big Apple or Samsung-like announcement with hundreds of people, Motorola held four personalized sessions for approximately 50 journalists at a time, allowing interactive questions.

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Osterloh led with “Touchless Control.” Motorola adapted Google Now to utilize a proprietary always-on speech recognition function. It’s based on the Motorola X8 Computing System that combines a standard Qualcomm Snap Dragon S4 Pro dual-core CPU and quad-core GPU with two proprietary cores, one for natural language and the other for contextual computing.

The Moto X uses the natural language processor to monitor local sound sources at low power for the words “OK Google Now,” that when detected takes the smartphone out of a low-power state and turns the speech stream over to Google Now for recognition and a response through Google services, such as search and navigation. Osterloh said the Moto X is not listening to every word - it’s just listening for the signature of “OK Google Now” to awaken the smartphone. If Google Now’s speech recognition were constantly monitoring for this cue using ordinary hardware, the battery would quickly become drained.

The user can train the Moto X to recognize his or her voice. It’s not completely foolproof, as someone with a similar voice can prompt the Moto X to awaken. This was shown when an attendee at the event shouted "OK Google Now" and briefly took control of the device. The user can choose to add a password or PIN code to protect the device from unauthorized access, and a Bluetooth device, such as an in-car hands-free system, can be configured as a trusted command device, eliminating the need for password or code entry. Touchless Control was demonstrated to work at cocktail-party levels of ambient noise, and at a distance of up to eight or 10 feet.

Motorola’s researchers learned that the average person activates his or her smartphone 60 times a day, to check the time or respond to notifications. The Moto X uses the contextual processor to operate its “Active Display” to present time of day, missed calls, and notifications at low power without taking the smartphone out of sleep mode. Only a minimum number of pixels are illuminated, saving power by leaving the rest of the OLED display dark. The contextual processor recognizes if the smartphone is face down or in a pocket and does not illuminate the Active Display.

The 10-megapixel camera has three improvements. A twist of the wrist launches the camera without entering a password or PIN. The UI is simplified, moving most camera controls to a panel that can be exposed with a left-to-right swipe. This UI makes it possible to take a photo by touching any part of the screen, replacing the small blue icon that requires concentrated fine motor control to press. The camera is easier to focus and produces better images with an RGBC camera sensor that captures up to 75% more light when the picture is taken.

Most interesting is the user customization. The image at the beginning of this report gives one a sense of the many choices the consumer has to personalize the Moto X with a color scheme. The consumer can choose from two bezel colors, 18 back-plate covers, and seven accent colors, for a total of 252 unique combinations. The user can also add personalized text to the back of the Moto X, such as a name or email address that a good Samaritan might use to contact the owner if the smartphone is lost.

Motorola has created a web service called “Moto Maker” for consumers to use in visually sampling and choosing colors, accent colors and personalized text inscriptions. The suggested price is $199 with a carrier contract. Those interested in buying one can visit a carrier and purchase the Moto X at a contract price, where they will be given a voucher that includes a PIN number to enter into the Moto Maker web service to order the Moto X. Motorola said that it has organized its supply chain to assemble the Moto X in Fort Worth, Texas, with a four-day turnaround from order to shipping to customer. Consumers can also use Moto Maker to purchase directly from Motorola online.

Recognizing speech, understanding the meaning of speech and executing specific commands are priorities for Google. To this point, Google recently hired artificial intelligence expert Ray Kurzweil to lead engineering advances in speech technologies. Motorola may be pushing present-day speech technology to its limits. Moto X’s Touchless Control appears to have made at least an incremental improvement over Google Now and Apple Siri. Even if the incremental improvement in speech is not large, the combination of Touchless Control, Active Display, colorful customizability, and buying experience will drive consumer adoption. Google takes risks and innovates at a scale of many millions and billions. Whether the Moto X achieves Google scale remains to be seen.

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