Motorola, the Anti-Apple, Talks a Good Game at D11

Two Motorola executives describe a "crazy" future for the company which doesn't sound much like the Motorola we've known in recent years.

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Asa Mathat / D: All Things Digital

Walt Mossberg (left) interviews Motorola's Dennis Woodside and Regina Dugan at D11 on May 29, 2013

At the D11 conference‘s session this afternoon with Motorola Mobility CEO Dennis Woodside and Regina Dugan, the company’s senior VP of advanced technology and projects, Woodside began by recapping the company’s proud heritage of innovation. The cell phone was invented there. It created the phenomenally popular Razr. Even some of its failures, like the Iridium satellite phone, have been daring and noble.

And then Mossberg cut him off with a question that hung over the room like a gloomy little cloud: “What has Motorola done for me lately?”

Both Woodside’s and Mossberg’s points were reasonable. If you judge its entire 85-year history, Motorola has done amazing things. But it’s stumbled in the smartphone era. And the company has been awfully quiet since being acquired by Google in 2012. It hasn’t been clear why Google wanted to own a smartphone company or what it planned to do with it — especially since it’s maintained that it would give Moto no unfair advantages over other Android hardware makers such as Samsung and HTC.

Woodside and Dugan’s D11 chat turned out to be, basically, the flipside of Tim Cook’s conversation the night before. Apple is an incredibly successful company that needs to keep on being incredibly successful, but won’t explain how it plans to do so until its new products are ready or very nearly so. Motorola, by contrast, needs to convince the world that it’s still in the game at all — and since it has little to lose, it was happy to share major tidbits about a phone it doesn’t plan to ship for months. One which Woodside said he had in his pocket, though he wouldn’t show it to us.

That phone, Woodside confirmed, will be called the Moto X. It will use its sensors in creative ways, he said — such as to notice when you’ve removed your phone from your pocket and might want to do something with it. And unlike any phone that you own right now, it will be assembled in America, in a Flextronics factory in Fort Worth, Texas which once belonged to Nokia.

Mossberg and some of the questions from the audience pressed Woodside on Motorola Mobility’s relationship with its owner, Google. The CEO said that Motorola had a mandate from Google CEO Larry Page to think big, and that it had the luxury of being able to be patient. But he also said that the company is indeed walled off from Google in many ways, with no better access to the secrets of Android than any of its competitors.

Woodside’s comments on Google and Motorola weren’t entirely satisfying: I’m still confused as to why Google wanted to own a phone maker, beyond the lure — which Woodside acknowledged — of Motorola’s humongous portfolio of patents. But I was left at least a tad more optimistic about the chances that a walled-off, wildly-ambitious, semi-autonomous Motorola might do great things, or at least greater things than it’s done in recent years.

Meanwhile, Dugan — the former director of the U.S. Defense Department’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) — said that her mandate at Motorola is to “challenge everything, not just about products but about how do do innovation.” She showed off her electronic tattoo, which can be used like a password or fingerprint to authenticate oneself for purposes such as logging into a PC or using an ATM. And she gave Mossberg a vitamin which, when swallowed, can turn one’s entire body into an authentication device.

What Dugan showed — which was developed by other companies, not Motorola — was potentially mind-blowing stuff; it’s possible that it’ll end up changing both Motorola and the world. Or it’s possible that if Motorola pursues this sort of innovation it will look like a bizarre waste of time in retrospect. Only time will tell.

Of course, the only way to guarantee that you’ll never engage in bizarre wastes of time is to never do anything all that interesting in the first place. “What we’re trying to do is simply bring Motorola back to its roots,” Woodside said. “Motorola did crazy things all the time, as recently as ten years ago. If we can bring back that craziness, that audaciousness, good things will happen.”

It’s way too early to know whether “crazy and audacious” will be a reasonable way to describe the Moto X and other upcoming Motorola products. But if it is, it would be a refreshing turn of events — not just for Motorola, but for the entire smartphone industry.