How Apple Can Leapfrog the Moto X



The most vocal and active iPhone and Android fans scoff at the notion that Moto X is the new iPhone. But it’s true.

The iPhone used to represent the most elegant, innovative and fun-to-use smartphone for everybody. That status has now been taken by Motorola’s new “Google phone,” the Moto X.

iPhone fans reject this idea because the Moto X is just another Android phone with an inferior screen — and a vanilla one, too, plus a few gimmicks. Android fans like the Moto X, but say superior phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One and even Motorola’s own Droid Maxx are more powerful phones with better specs.

The problem is that the whole which-is-best conversation is dominated by outliers — enthusiasts who are especially knowledgeable and use phones differently than most people. They make the classic mistake in the analysis of consumer electronics devices, which is that they confuse their own buying and usage patterns with the larger market’s.

The second problem with the way pundits generally look at the industry (in direct contradiction to how Apple views it, and I think Apple is right on this one) is that they view innovation through the lens of technology, rather than behavior.

The iPhone, for example, was innovative not because it had touchscreen technology that nobody had seen before (in fact, we had), but because it changed the behavior of everyone to the touchscreen way of interfacing with a phone — primarily through the iPhone and secondarily through the copycat phones.

Apple innovates by changing user behavior for the better. And that’s why the Moto X is the new iPhone — because it changes user behavior.

Why the Moto X Is the Phone to Beat for Apple

The broad consensus, even among Apple shareholders, is that Apple isn’t innovative anymore. In fact, this is always where Apple finds itself in the weeks before a big announcement. Apple announcements historically leapfrog the competition. But as time passes, the competition catches up and surpasses Apple. Then there’s another announcement, and the circle of life continues.

Motorola, on the other hand, will soon become the darling of the industry when the masses start buying and using Moto X phones later this month. The list of innovations in these phones is long. And by innovation, I mean the Apple kind of innovation, which involves changes in user behavior.

Specifically there are five behaviors the Moto X will change for the better. Here they are, plus how Apple might (or might not) leapfrog each of these behaviors by coming up with better innovations.

Behavior No. 1: Buying a Phone

The Moto X will be super-fun to buy for AT&T customers. They’ll be able to visit Motorola’s Moto Maker site, and custom-build their phone, choosing colors, color highlights, matching accessories and even words to be printed or engraved on the outside of the phone. They can customize the wallpaper, log-in message and add their log in, and when the phone arrives in four days or less, it will already have those options set.

Design snobs will say this will result in ugly color combinations and garish phones. But this is beside the point. It’s fun! And even more to the point, it’s a totally new user behavior for how phones are purchased.

The Apple buying experience is already pretty good, and the addition of iPhone 5C color options will help a little bit. Apple can come close to matching the buying innovation of Motorola by working with case manufacturers and accessory makers to offer stuff that matches the new 5C colors.

Unfortunately, however, I don’t think Apple is going to be able to beat the Moto X buying experience.

Behavior No. 2: Turning On the Phone

Motorola has come up with two really cool ways to bypass lock screens while maintaining some degree of security. The first is called Trusted Devices. The way it works is that you pair your Moto X phone with any Bluetooth gadget, even if the phone has no use for it. These can include your Bluetooth keyboard, wireless headset, car sound system — whatever. From then on, whenever the phone is within range of any of those devices, the lock screen doesn’t present itself. The phone just comes on.

The second is a $20 clip-on dongle called the Motorola Skip, which uses NFC to bypass the lock screen. Just attach the Skip clip to your belt or shirt or whatever, and by tapping the phone to the Skip you turn on the phone without a passcode.

I think Apple could blow Motorola away on how people turn phones on with biometric fingerprint ID. This should exist as rumored in the upcoming iWatch and/or also in the future iPhone.

It makes the most sense for fingerprint ID to first appear in an iWatch: The device could then authenticate not only the iPhone, but the iPad, MacBooks and all the rest. It could also be extended in software to provide a kind of LastPass-like functionality in which wearing the watch simply eliminates all passwords when you use any of your devices — or anyone else’s Apple stuff, for that matter.

If Apple announces a biometric iWatch next month, they will instantly replace Motorola as the most innovative company on the behavior of how phones are turned on.

Behavior No. 3: Checking Notifications

The Moto X “breathes” the time and notification alerts — they fade in, then fade out, constantly. By pressing and holding on a notification type (say, the notification says you have three new emails) you instantly go to those messages.

The main reason all smartphone users touch their phones at all is to check for updates and notifications and the time. Has anyone called? Are there new Facebook messages? In real life, this is why people pick up their phones 20 times a day.

The Moto X changes that behavior. By simply placing your phone upright, you see the time and notification alerts without touching the phone. Not touching the phone for this information is a totally new and innovative behavior.

Right now, the way Apple handles notifications is already broadly inferior to how Android does it. iPhone users complain endlessly about how their phone sounds an audible alert for an incoming notification, but then they can’t find out what it was that triggered the alert — the pull-down notifications screen often shows no evidence of a message. So in addition to picking up the phone, unlocking it and checking the alert, iPhone users sometimes have to search app-by-app to figure out where the alert sound came from. It’s a mess and Apple needs to fix it.

Apple could out-Moto X the Moto X by showing not only the alert for notifications, but also the notification itself (a summary or first few lines of the messages on screen) with a Siri voice command. So the iPhone is sitting there, the alert for notifications sounds, and with a command — such as “What is it?” — the real message could appear on-screen, but only if the user is wearing the iWatch.

Apple could also clobber the Moto X by bringing into the iPhone notifications from other devices, such as from an iMac or MacBook Pro.

Behavior No. 4: Interacting With the Phone

Both Apple and Google launched kick-ass voice-enabled artificial intelligence virtual assistant features. But neither company has successfully changed mainstream behavior in using these features.

Google Now is better than Siri. But Siri has more mainstream usage.

The Moto X is likely to give Google Now a big boost. Because the Moto X responds hands-free to Google Now commands, even when the phone is asleep, I think it will actually shift user behavior toward the use of virtual assistants.

Apple could beat the Moto X by emulating its hands-free capability and adding Google Now – like pre-emptive interaction, interrupting the user with vital information. I would also like to see agency — the ability for Siri to do things, buy things, reach out to people — put back into Siri.

The combination of Siri’s personable, natural-language interface with Google Now’s pre-emptive interruption feature and the Moto X’s hands-free interaction capability would drive massive changes in the behavior of iPhone users toward heavy Siri use.

Behavior No. 5: Taking Pictures

Even the old iPhone 5 takes better pictures than the shiny new Moto X. However, the Moto X has behavior-changing innovations that Apple needs to leapfrog.

Specifically, Moto X has a very short time interval between deciding to take a picture and taking 10 pictures. Just take the phone out of your pocket, flick the wrist twice, then hold a thumb on the screen. That gets the Moto X to focus and start cranking out photo exposures. These are auto-uploaded into Google+, where Auto Awesome creates animated GIFs, applies good photo improvements, creates panoramic photos and other changes — all without the involvement of the user.

The next iPhones are sure to take higher-quality pictures than the Moto X. But how can Apple improve the behavior around taking pictures on an iPhone?

The Apple way would be to change the functionality of a button — such as the Home button. Right now, pressing and holding the Home button brings up Siri. But if Siri can be conjured up by voice alone, then the press-and-hold behavior could launch the photo app and start cranking out the pictures.

All these examples, and my suggestions about how Apple could leapfrog the Moto X, are presented here to illustrate what Apple needs to do to be Apple again — leapfrog the best features for mainstream users available elsewhere with better, more elegant ways to do things.

Apple must change user behavior again with its next announcement. The company may not do it in the ways I’ve specified. They may not do it at all. But if Apple is to retain its giant head start, it needs to starkly improve the way people interact with their phones, and not just come out with subtle improvements.

  • aardman

    The broad consensus is that Apple isn’t innovative anymore? Only among click-whoring bloggers and market manipulators.

  • norb

    Just like the blackberry storm was an iPhone killer before it was even released to the public.

  • Mike
  • minimalist1969

    It makes for a fun you tube video but the proof will be in how they actually sell. And unless the X is in stores with all colors to see and touch and can be configured right there I’m not sure Apple or anyone else is going to have to worry about it stealing market share. No other phone has ever gained significant traction when the only way to get one is by ordering online.

  • MailTip

    Usual Elgin antiApple pap: The Motox is an iPhone killer.

    It’s not. Samsung will bury the Motox before it creeps out of its crib.

  • jpaul

    Neat idea for a column! Agree with you that it’s the user experience more than the hardware (especially more than the hardware specs or items, such as whether there is an SD slot! :-) ).

    However, I’m wondering if these are the 5 experiences that will set the Moto X apart. They also have the potential for disaster.

    1. Online ordering in multiple combinations. Sounds good/fun in theory, but when the inevitable screw-ups occur; when the colors and combos do NOT look like what’s on line; etc.

    2. Auto-on. Not sure that Moto X has anything going for it–you have to buy an extra dongle or you have to bring into range of some Bluetooth device… how many smartphone users have BT devices? If they have them, they have to turn *them* on first, etc. Nah, nothing much here.

    3. You’re right about notifications. Apple’s implementation is incredibly poor– still no way of snoozing an alert, and even on the Mac, the new snooze button doesn’t give you a choice. However, not sure that the “holding it upright” approach is going to be all that great, either. Still, being able to tap and go directly there is good… this is clearly a place where Apple can leapfrog the X.

    4. Hands-free voice interaction is a big plus. OTOH, once the initial excitement is over (e.g., either with Siri or Google Now), how often do users use that feature? Dictation is a key one–and being able to do that offline as in iOS 7 will be a major plus for Apple. It immediately obviates anyone’s privacy concerns!

    5. Taking pictures by wrist twists. This is surely going to be a DISASTER for the X. It is as bad as Apple’s shaking to undo. Sorry, gang–but to both companies, the notion of shaking or twisting a $350-500 device around is going to leave many broken on the floor. Slips will happen. Intriguingly, the iPod Touch 5G’s strap is a largely overlooked, but brilliant addition. Straps are what enable all sorts of digicam photos– hanging out of windows, over the edge of a building, out of a balloon, balancing on tip toes–there’s a huge security in having the device attached to your wrist. The inevitable slips do NOT result in disaster. But the X is going to be broken left and right as people try to take quick pictures– keep in mind, that the likelihood of the device slipping out of one’s grip is even greater when one is rushing to take a snapshot–and twisting it back and forth — TWICE– to activate the camera.

    So, where are we when the count is made? 1 plus, 1 a half, and 3 strikeouts. As the traffic-accident cop says, “Nothing to see here, move along.” What happens is that many are curious, the spectacle grabs their attention, and they proceed to have another accident.

    Bottom line: The X is a disaster waiting to happen! :-)

  • nwerneck

    Fingerprint id: not gonna happen.

    About notifications and Siri improvements: Apple could have been doing much of that for a long time, yet they didn’t. It’s hardly about knowing the problem or having ideas, there must be some other reason why we don’t see that happening. It would be great to read columns that look for those reasons instead of simply suggesting that “they should do it”.

    About the quality from the camera shots… This has continuously failed to be the “silver bullet” to turn smartphones into market hits. It is just another spec. As you did mention, the interaction with the camera, and uploading, is much more important…

    In general, your column just advises Apple to emulate Moto X where they can. And this is not the innovation they need. Of course, some of thee will arrive in the iPhone and people will talk like they had discovered America. The question is: will Moto X captivate users, specially new users, and hurt iPhone sales, or will people still buy the iPhone and be happy waiting until all these innovations arrive for Apple products?…

  • Shane Bryson

    I really wish Elgan would just come right out and say that he hates Apple and LOVES Google.

  • Pallaro

    I love the Steve Job’s Apple (NOT the actual Tim Cook’s) because of the elegant innovation. Stop for a minute and think about it: it’s all about very simple ideas, tiny things that alone won’t change much, but the combinations allow for something broader. These new Motorola innovations are a great show-off at parties, or at a bar, but it’s just like a dog doing some tricks: cool, but once you’ve done it a couple of times, it gets boring. This is a great discussion, but don’t get me wrong – these whoop-a-doodles will be dead in no time, and when Apple puts something out of their hats like the Fingerprint HomeButton, now THAT will be something! Imagine a single physical iPad with multiple profiles, each one with their individual apps, login info etc – credit card payments – all these awesome stuff that ENABLES for these functions.

  • mtwb

    I would bet Elgan $10,000 that the iPhone outsells the Moto X. Heck the iPhone 4 will outsell the Moto X. He is spouting the same sort of nonsense that was around when the iPhone was first introduced: “The iPhone can’t succeed because…” He ignores the fact that Motorola is a hasbeen (like BlackBerry and Nokia), and won’t be able to sell the phones enmass. They will still be restricted by the carriers who hold all the cards (AT&T has an exclusive on the colors, which may be the most innovative feature of the MotoX).

    Elgan has provided another example of why he is an over optimistic analyst who doesn’t get anything right.

  • rammo123

    I don’t have any problems with notifications on my iPhone. From what you describe, the Moto X doesn’t sound any better than Apple.

    And this “flick-of-the-wrist” camera activation actually sounds far slower than the swipe to activate from the iPhone homescreen.

  • marcomeneghello

    «Motorola, on the other hand, will soon become the darling of the industry when the masses start buying and using Moto X phones later this month»

    So, this is the iPhone Killer number…?

  • splynters

    Why is Mike Elgan even writing for CultOfMac???!!!