The Sub-$200 Moto G Smartphone Is Google’s Answer To Android’s Laggy Low-End

When Google bought Motorola there were plenty of theories about why it wanted the mobile maker. Patents, being named chief among them. But today’s launch of the low-cost Moto G smartphone suggests the strategy was — or has certainly become — multi-faceted.

If there’s any kind of wall between Google and Motorola it’s definitely a porous one. Motorola’s Punit Soni took the stage in São Paulo to discuss what the Google-owned mobile maker was trying to achieve on the software front with the Moto G. Soni went to Motorola from Google last year, where he’s now VP of product management.

His on-stage session cheerleading the Moto G at turns resembled a strident lecture — which in turn sounded very much like Google chiding and schooling its Android OEMs on what it takes to make decent budget handsets. Subtext: stop making awful Android phones and using ‘budget price-point’ as your excuse.

“I came from [Google to Motorola],” said Soni, during the Moto G launch. “I can vouch for the fact that Android is the best mobile operating system in the world bar none. It is progressive, intuitive, it’s gorgeous and it’s very high performance. Not only that it updates itself at regular intervals; it only gets better. A device that’s built on pure Android with minor optimisations is going to have an incredibly high performance. That is the crux of our software strategy.”

Android’s low end has clearly become an embarrassment to Google, dragging the platform’s reputation down by pairing it with cheap, underpowered hardware — which inevitably results in a laggy, frustrating user experience.

Even though the huge reach of Android — which runs the gamut from high end flagships to ‘cheap as chips’ mobiles — is a strength when it comes to talking about marketshare; Google monetises the platform via its own software services. So if those services are absent because an Android OEM made too many changes to the platform, or rendered it frustratingly laggy because of bad hardware/bloated software, then it’s Google’s business that suffers.

Seen in that context, the Moto G looks very much like Google’s answer to cleaning up Android’s low end.

Soni described the current crop of Android OEMs as having a “confused” relationship with Android — because in trying to differentiate their handsets, they’re either slowing Android down with skins or duplicating Google’s own services and cluttering the user experience.

“In today’s ecosystem, mobile manufacturers have a very confused relationship with Android. They build on top of it but then they add on all these custom skins which detract from the user experience and hog resources,” he said. “Then they go and put duplicated software on top of it which basically competes with Google’s mobile services and you have a situation where you have homescreens with multiple mail apps, multiple app stores, multiple video players and music players and so on.”

“The result of all of this is you have devices with very non-intuitive, cluttered user interfaces, with apps that actually slow it down and make it worse than they need to be — the phone much slower than it needs to be. Now there has to be a better way to do this,” he added.

Soni said Motorola had focused on “complementing” rather than “competing” with Android — and singled out aspects such as the display, the battery life and the camera as areas where OEMs should absolutely be sweating to produce a decent smartphone experience for a low-end price.

“We didn’t build TouchWiz UI and Sense UI, and all of these other custom skins,” Soni said, referring to tweaked Android interfaces offered by Samsung and HTC, respectively. “We didn’t duplicate Google mobile services; we focused our energies into building things that have real value to the user. And that actually means the fundamentals. So we spent time optimising the device so that it has an extended battery life, so that it boots faster.

“We’re talking about obsessive attention to the basics. Whether it is audio, whether it is data, storage, memory, touch sensitivity, connectivity, you name it. We focused on those aspects which make the phone a joy to use. And because we did that we believe that Moto G actually punches way above its weight, in terms of performance, given its price category.”

In other words, the Moto G is basically a lesson in what it takes to make a decent Android handset for sub-$200.

TechCrunch asked Motorola Canada’s General Manager, Odile Guinot, whether or not the Moto G was a proverbial gauntlet thrown in the direction of other Android OEMs.

“We feel it’s an unserved part of the market,” she said. “It’s not like we’re the only person that can do it, it’s just that we’re the only company that wants to right now, and the only one that is doing it.”

To make this device, Google surveyed 15,000 smartphone users and focused on their priorities, among which was customization, according to Guinot. It was higher on their list than other features some might have expected to place high, including LTE support.

“That’s just not what the customers were looking for,” Guinot said of LTE. “They did not prioritize that when they talked about an affordable phone. They wanted to have a big display where they could watch their videos and view their pictures, etc. They wanted to have the latest Android.”

Do less with Android, and your devices stand a better chance of being updated to the latest version of Android, was another point made by Soni — referencing (in so many words) Android’s ongoing fragmentation problem. More evidence, if it were needed, that Motorola is acting as the mouthpiece of Google — telling Android OEMs what to do and what not do. And then hammering that lesson home by unboxing a $179 “premium” smartphone that has to potential to cut a swathe through the low-end Android pack, decimating the businesses of sub-par OEMs.

With the Moto G, Motorola is making the rare claim that devices will receive a guaranteed update to Android 4.4. Guinot told TechCrunch that carrier partners are on board with getting the update out on time, and that in fact, it’s in their best interest to do so, so they were happy to help. Google has worked with them to make sure all testing required is completed on time, she added.

“A pure Android strategy allows us to shine a light on Google services,” added Soni, continuing to sing from the Google hymn sheet. “Google has some of the best software services in the world. Whether it’s Gmail, Hangouts, YouTube, you name it; the list goes on.”

As well as taking out Android’s low-end trash, it’s possible Google also has Samsung in its sights with the Moto G. If the handset lives up to the promise of a premium experience for sub-$200 it could give consumers pause for thought about picking up another budget Samsung device that’s been compromised by a cramped, low-res screen and puny processor. Samsung’s flagships are excellent phones but the company plays at all price-points and makes more than its fair share of sub-par ‘Droids.

Motorola name-checked two Samsung devices during the Moto G presentation — the Galaxy Fame and the Galaxy S4 — the only Android OEM singled out in this way for explicit criticism, unless you count the passing reference to HTC’s Sense UI. (The other non-Android device mentioned was the iPhone 4/4S — and eating into Apple’s ‘past years’ discounted iPhones’ lunch is evidently also on Moto/Google’s mind.)

When it comes to Samsung, the Korean mobile maker’s dominance of the Android ecosystem has certainly made life tough for other Android OEMs. Motorola’s own position in handsets was looking shaky at the point when Google stepped in to buy it/save it. And today HTC continues to struggle to keep its handset business out of the drink. Bearing that in mind, doing what it can to dilute Samsung’s Android marketshare may also be on Google’s mind — as it puts Moto to work outshining the low-end competition.

That said, the Moto G may well make life harder for HTC which is apparently gearing up to shift its focus to more affordable smartphones. At $179 for a quad-core 4.5-inch device, Google-owned Motorola looks set to squeeze handset hardware profits ‘til the pips squeak. The profits it is making off of these phones might actually be in the accessories: those are traditionally high-margin, and Google has made sure to make this the most moddable phone possible, with a huge line of in-house cases, a Bluetooth headset called Buds and lots more in terms of launch accessories.

But, at the end of the day, growth in smartphones is coming from the low-end segment — as emerging markets switch from basic feature phones to smartphones. Which was a point Soni reiterated several times. And with Moto G, Google is putting Android in a plum position to “on ramp” those newcomers, and steer them away from alternatives that are offering a better experience at the low end than sub-par Androids. Notably Microsoft’s Windows Phone has been gathering some momentum in markets such as South America with its budget handsets — like the Nokia Lumia 520. They may not have access to a million apps, but the basic experience is solid — and you can’t say the same for every budget ‘Droid.

Motorola didn’t say what the ‘G’ in Moto G stands for — and it could well refer to several things. ‘G for Growth’, say, or ‘G for Global’ — with the phone set to go on sale in more than 30 countries, with 60 partners by 2014. Europe, Asia, South America and North America are all set to get their hands on this handset, with both the U.S. and Canada included in the rollout.

But really who are we kidding? This phone has been branded ‘G for Google’.  

TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington and Chris Velazco contributed to this article