Lenovo bought Motorola's smartphone business on Wednesday, which looks like a great deal from all the usual business perspectives, but I couldn't shake a feeling of dread. It took me a few hours to figure out why: It's about taste. Under Google, Motorola regained its role as a thoughtful, tasteful innovator. Lenovo's bland smartphone line-up shows no indication that it'll be able to keep that run going.
Of course it's a good idea
Much ink has already been spilled about why Google selling Motorola to Lenovo is a good idea for Google and Lenovo. Google doesn't want to compete with its hardware partners and hasn't turned Motorola into a financial success. Lenovo is a smartphone powerhouse in China that has had zero success breaking into North America and the western world. Lenovo has some serious manufacturing economies of scale. Lenovo is a much more natural home for a smartphone manufacturer than Google is, and it'll continue to use Android.
Backing off from Motorola cleans the sand out of Samsung's swimsuit, too. Google's number one partner poured time and money into its anti-Android Tizen project starting around when Google bought Motorola, clearly as a hedge against Google becoming an end-to-end smartphone maker.
LG then did the same, keeping WebOS in its back pocket for various devices while it trumpets its use on TVs. Just as Google sold off Motorola, Google and Samsung leaked a new agreement to be best Android buddies. That isn't a coincidence.
Now Google can go back to doing what it does best, which is collecting eyeballs, displaying ads, and monetising your personal data.
Moto got its groove back
But what's good for Google, Lenovo, and probably Motorola isn't necessarily good for consumers who like truly great smartphones.
Motorola really came into its own last year with the Moto G and especially the Moto X (which launched in the US last year – it took some time to get to the UK, having only just arrived here). The Moto X's customisable frame, custom DSP chips, and especially its thoughtful Android extensions veered away from the kitchen-sink approach that Samsung and LG tend to take. Touchless Control, Active Display, and the twist-to-launch camera focused on making it easier to do things people already do, not on features for features' sake. That's why the Moto X was my personal favourite phone of the year.
This new taste-based strategy comes from ex-Googler Dennis Woodside and his team. Lose them, as Motorola is likely to do under new administration, and there's a good likelihood you'll lose the taste they brought to the endeavour. I'm not encouraged by Google keeping the modular Project Ara division, which looked to be Motorola's next truly radical step.
We also aren't likely to see another Moto G under a Lenovo administration. That phone broke new ground for low-cost Android smartphones because Google was willing to shave its profit margins to the bone to build a £150 smartphone with genuine, high quality Qualcomm parts. Make no mistake, we're likely to see lots of low-cost smartphones from a Lenovo-run Motorola, but it will have to cut corners to make the bigger margins Lenovo will require.
Let's look at Lenovo's line-up. For years now, Lenovo has made a thoughtful and well-regarded line of Windows laptops in the ThinkPad series. But the company's Android products show none of that differentiation:Tthey're bland, generic slabs.
Last year at MWC, I struggled to keep my eyes open as the company demoed its A1000, S6000, and A3000 tablets, which used underperforming MediaTek processors and enclosures that looked straight out of Shenzhen's North Huaqiang Road wholesale markets. This year, Lenovo introduced its first LTE phone – its first, really, in 2014? – as part of a line of handsome but forgettable devices, once again with those MediaTek processors. So far, the company's success has been based mostly on good-enough performance with a solid brand at a low price point.
Who's in charge?
As with many of these mergers, it's going to come down to who's in charge. If Lenovo simply integrates Motorola with its existing, much-larger smartphone business, the bright spark created by the Moto X and Moto G will go out. Expect Motorola to become a dull-but-worthy price-performance player, a real threat to Huawei, ZTE, and the meaty affordable middle of Samsung's and LG's businesses.
The smartphone landscape is littered with innovators who never really made it in the market. Motorola's 2013 reinvention may end up like Palm's 2009-2010 second act: A bright moment which will be long-talked-about by mobile connoisseurs, but one which was too precious to survive.
For more on this, see our closer look at the sale of Motorola to Lenovo.