What Andy Ihnatko learned at Motorola [and why Apple is freaking out right now]

SHARE What Andy Ihnatko learned at Motorola [and why Apple is freaking out right now]

How cool is that coat? | Photo by Andy Ihnatko

The Internet has a couple of features that make life difficult for tech companies. More than a couple, actually, but two of them are relevant for this column. First, anybody with a reaction or an opinion can, thank God, make those thoughts known to a wide audience; and secondly, the pure velocity of that opinion is often astounding.

Compatible opinions and reactions tend to find each other and bundle themselves together, as more and more people read and then reblog. So as they keep rolling, they pick up mass and momentum … and, ultimately, destructive impact. A single writer can, with a single idle reaction to a product, set into motion a storm of opinion that could ultimately become a Big Problem for that thing’s makers. Sometimes the criticism is justified. Sometimes, it’s utter smoke. But no company is immune to this effect.

This explains why Apple is erecting what amounts to an Olympic venue at the Flint Center in Cupertino for Tuesday’s expected iPhone 6 announcement, and it’s also why Motorola invited me and a couple of hundred other journalists to Chicago and take a four-hour tour of its headquarters and see this fall’s new products. These companies aren’t trying to control the press. Any company that’s grown beyond the credit limit of its founder’s MasterCard is too smart to believe that’s a practical goal.

But through these events, they can make an effort to put their own point of view across clearly — sometimes even emphatically. That way, they can at least become an active participant in their own story.

Is it good PR? Of course. At the same time, though, all good technology amounts to a kind of creative art, and the intentions of the artist will inform the work. At minimum, as part of my desire to form my opinions based on the broadest range of data possible, I want to hear what the makers have to say, despite the precisely staged nature of such an event.

(The proof, as always, is in the pudding. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful to talk to the cook and hear that they intended for it to be served cold and not hot.)

The highlight of the day’s media event was obviously the release of the Moto 360 smart watch. It’s a good case in point. It’s unique among Android Wear watches because its screen is round, not square. “Bogus!” some writers have cackled. “It’s not round at all! Look! The circle is flattened at the bottom!”

Which is good stuff to build a fire on, if you’re actively predisposed not to like a $250 electronic watch with unproven utility that requires charging every night.

Here’s what Motorola had to say about that. They call that part of the face “the slice.” It houses a sensor that lets the face of the watch react to touchless actions. You can dim the screen just by holding your hand over it. The screen component itself also requires a certain amount of electronic support adjacent to the pixels, as opposed to behind it.

OK, so why not just hide the sensor and its support hardware in the bezel? They tried that, Motorola Mobility design director Dickon Isaacs said. He held up a design sample with a thicker bezel. It looks terrible compared with the sleek metal circumference of the Moto 360. Well, they could have just gone with an easy-to-source, easy-to-design-around square screen, like LG and Samsung did, right? Sure, and he had some more design samples to show. None of them has the appeal of the round 360.

Dickon Isaacs shows off samples of the Moto 360. | Photo by Andy Ihnatko

Dickon Isaacs shows off samples of the Moto 360. | Photo by Andy Ihnatko

Besides, Motorola’s first conclusion about a potential smart watch was that they wanted it to “read” like a timepiece, not like a tech gadget. This from Jim Wicks, senior VP of consumer experience design.

Eighty percent of watches are round. After wearing Moto 360 for a couple of days now, I can certainly appreciate that point. My daily wear timepiece (I’m old, I wear wristwatches, and damn it, I don’t apologize for either of those things) is a round Mondaine Swiss Railway Watch. The 360, despite its size, feels like a lifelong familiar presence and not like an alien invader.

Will consumers sense the level of abstract design thought that went into this simple choice? Who knows. But it’s my job to express my opinions to folks who are thinking of buying these things.

I always thought the “It isn’t really round! #FAIL #NOTHOWAPPLEWOULDHAVEDONEIT” online reaction to the first Moto 360 pics was … I’m struggling for a precise description. If the commentator is someone I know and respect, it’s an unfortunate statement. If I’ve never heard of this person, I’m apt to add the tag “Kind of a dope” to the Category field when I create a new mental database item for him or her.

But that’s not my problem. I’ve seen plenty of tech products where an oddity far worse than this — like, say, shipping a flagship phone with a deal-breakingly bad camera — was a baffling mystery. Do they don’t get it? Or do they just not care? But with the design story in hand, I gain a better understanding of the device itself and of the processes that will shape the next generation of devices in this product line.

The other value of visiting Motorola’s design studio: the blue lab coats that people were wearing. They’re embroidered with the old-style Motorola logo, from the days when they made consumer devices that were electrical rather than electronic. “Do you have those in the gift shop?” I joked. No, the group had those made up special.

(Look, there’s only one lab coat cooler than that one and it was worn by Trace Beaulieu on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” All I’m saying is that if I had a brother-in-law who worked for Elon Musk’s space startup or was a roadie for Foreigner, I would have desperately tried to work that into the conversation in hopes of trading backstage access for for a lab coat.)

The rest of the visit concerned the exhaustive in-house engineering facilities they’ve set up in the Merchandise Mart. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Motorola has a well-lived-in sound department with anechoic chambers and plastic heads fitted with sensors and phone speakers that are shot at with laser beams, or a big engineering department paneled in copper to block outside radio interference (even the windows are covered in wire mesh).

Any tech journalist worth reading understands the amount of engineering and QA that goes into any piece of consumer hardware and if we ever say “Did [name of company] they even test this before shipping it?” we do it rhetorically. And then delete it because it’s weak sauce. The point of the tour, naturally, is to underscore that common sense with actual sense memories.

I’m reminded, of course, of the unprecedented tour that Apple gave a select group of journalists after the iPhone 4 shipped and plenty of people (myself included) noticed that the signal strength meter dribbled to almost zero if you casually shifted the phone in your hand in a perfectly normal way. That’s when they threw the doors open to their own antenna testing rooms. We humans might be wearing fancy clothes and watches today, but yesterday (in geologic time) we were completely dependent on our senses for hour-to-hour survival. As such, something that we see and hear and touch and experience will always make a stronger impact than something that’s undeniably true, but merely words on paper.

It was a valuable day at the Merchandise Mart. It got me thinking about the secrecy with which Apple operates. They have a system that works exceptionally well, obviously. The big win of the way they develop products is that it gives them the ability to delay a new device or even abandon it entirely if the hardware, or the market, just isn’t ready. The downside is that each new release can sometimes feels like as though the life or death of the product, if certainly not the company, are on the line.

When a company shows its mistakes as they go, they send a message that Art is Process. I switched to Android almost two years ago because I seriously envied some features that weren’t in iOS, and, to my late-2012 knowledge, Apple wasn’t in any way planning to deliver.

Finally, many of those key Android features (like apps that collaborate with each other) are coming to iOS 8. Had I been able to see the future of iOS past the then-upcoming iOS 7, I might have waited. A simple talk about the iOS team’s broader goals and philosophies — behind “make sincerely great things” — might have kept me in that chair, and led to my communicating that optimism to my readers.

The Motorola event was a huge logistical project for Motorola. I’m sure hundreds of people at Apple are having kittens right now trying to coordinate Tuesday’s event.

That’s not the toughest part of these events, though. They’ll spend weeks or even months crafting the message the company will sent to guests. It’s very easy to write a simple philosophy on a slide. But we’re there, taking notes and nodding, and thinking, “Fine, and now let’s see if that sentiment can actually be found in the products you ship over the next year.”

Apple tends to communicate general passion, and commitment toward doing what it believes is in the best long-term interests of the consumer. Its products generally support those statements. Apple can misstep, but even when a design decision drives me up a freaking wall and is, I think, a bad choice, I know that it was a rational decision made from a point of view that isn’t 100% my own.

I wasn’t ultimately pleased with first-generation Moto X phone that Motorola unveiled at a big media event in New York last year. This phone was great at many things, and no less than Very Good at everything else … with the exception of its camera, which was about as useful as a rumor.

But I was pleased with the overall presentation. Up to that point, I’d always thought that the company’s phone division had embraced “adequacy” as its aspirational goal. Which is no way to live if you’re competing with Samsung and Apple.

When I left, after plenty of time spent speaking one-on-one with senior management, I felt optimism that Motorola was, truly, relaunching the company and had found a new and useful purpose in this industry. Some of that was indeed the message that they meant to send during the meetings and presentations, I knew, and as a wristwatch-wearing old-timer, I’m (hopefully) too experienced to be dazzled. “Let’s see what happens over the next year,” I thought, on my train ride home to Boston.

On Thursday, I left the Merchandise Mart feeling as though the 2013 message matched both its intentions and achievements. In 2012, I wouldn’t have imagined Motorola as company would ship the Moto 360 or a stylish and affordable smartphone filled with fresh, compelling features. Now, I kind of expect those things.

All of these positive vibes are subject to wild modification, as my hours of testing with the new hardware stretches into days and then weeks. But I’m boarding my flight home with the happy sense that mobile hardware is a much more competitive and diverse marketplace than it was 18 months ago. It’s a much better world than it was five years ago, when there was just one great phone for businesspeople and practically just one good phone for the civilian population.

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