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What killed Motorola? Not Google! It was Moto's dire software

Ex-Moto director Rockman tiptoes through the code graveyard

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Suddenly it wasn’t just eight of us in a room in Cambridge - 30 people flew in

Senior product staff were like children playing a game of playground football, everyone chasing for the ball, and for a short while my project was the ball. Suddenly it wasn’t just eight of us in a room in Cambridge - 30 people flew in for a two-day meeting. The eight of us had to stop work to host them. The result of the meeting was a proposal for another 30 two-day meetings. Every single person had their own view and plan, all empire building, with very little concern for the user and even less for getting anything to ship.

Before we had any of those follow-up meetings the project was reclassified as an “experiment”, too small to be production ready, and killed. Thanks to the trashing of Ajar, none of the product people wanted to use it. One phone shipped running the platform with the Synergy user interface.

Taking into account the cost of buying TTPCom and then making all the staff redundant, plus development and slippage costs, that one phone must have cost close to half a billion dollars to build. It wasn’t particularly good.

P2K and Synergy lived from 1998 to 2008. It never worked properly. While armies of developers were fighting code and politics on Platform 2000, there were two other battlefronts: Linux and Motorola doing the hokey cokey with Symbian - the mobile operating system developed in a joint-venture between Psion, Motorola, Ericsson and Nokia.

In 1999 Motorola signed a deal with Psion to build a Symbian phone: Odin. This would have been just like the Sony Ericsson P800 but years earlier. However Motorola had so many different product lines under development the incoming Moto president Mike Zafirovski cut back to the core and most projects were canned including Odin. The loss of the project also caused the company to lose most of its EPOC-Symbian expertise.

Motorola A920 handset

The Moto A920

Symbian got a second wind in 2001 when the team rebuilt in Florida with a deal funded by the UK mobile network Three. This saw the development of the A920 and A925, big and clunky 3G handsets excellent for web surfing, except that Three had a walled-garden policy for software and the phone never had any legs. Still it meant that the excellent A1000 was built. Unfortunately the sales people didn’t get the A1000 and they never managed to capitalise on the success of the Symbian Sony Ericsson devices. Three phones and that was it.

Goodbye, Symbian

A corporate decision was made to move to Windows Mobile. It was seen that Symbian was an Evil Nokia thing, so Motorola sold its shareholding in the venture and watched Nokia turn the partnership against Motorola. Eventually the Symbian gang fell apart, leaving Nokia to layoff its engineers this year and bury the OS in an unmarked grave.

But before then, in 2005, Motorola snapped up the engineering assets – all the bits worth having – of high-end Symbian mobe maker Sendo in Birmingham. Nokia's Series 60 phone software was now the enemy, not Symbian, and so in a fantastically expensive deal with Sony Ericsson, Motorola bought UIQ Technology, which layered a graphical user interface over Symbian.

I was at Sony Ericsson at the time and we could not believe our luck; we’d been struggling to get operator acceptance for UIQ and the Sony Ericsson P1 phone, but with Motorola on board, how could we lose? It was like Christmas. This third Symbian resurrection yielded the mechanically fantastic Moto Z8 and its Z10 sibling. The Motorola front-end to UIQ even had a nod to P2K Synergy.

Then Motorola shut down Sendo and the joint-venture of UIQ collapsed.

It’s impossible to overstate how many millions of dollars were lost in the in-out-in-out-shake-it-all-about relationship Motorola had with Symbian.

Motorola Linux phone

A Motorola Linux mobe pre-Android

The Linux story is horribly similar: over time, seven different Linux-based OSes were heralded “the next Motorola standard”.

Again in 1999, in parallel with all the Symbian and P2K activity, a small team with a semiconductor background could see that Linux was the way forward. The Chinese market wanted handwriting recognition, and an open operating system that wasn’t controlled by Nokia and friends, Palm, RIM or Microsoft.

YK Ho, Charles Wang and Ephrem Chemaly started work an a OS called LJ, for LinuxJava, for Motorola. This was much more Linux than Java. Chemaly secured funding for the project from Intel, which was keen to get its ARM-compatible XScale architecture into phones and thus needed a decent OS to run. This was a bit of a coup for Intel, which was up against the rival Dragonball processor from Motorola and Freescale.

The rest of Motorola saw LJ as a niche Chinese product, and Chemaly could see it needed more profile and resources. He went to Ralph Pini, his boss and then CTO preaching Linux as the future of mobile. Pini listened and in 2002 appointed Mala Chandra, who was senior director of Enterprise Java at Sun, to build a Linux team.

The result – trumpeted loudly internally with mugs and mouse mats for everyone - was the Java User Interface Experience, or JUIX, pronounced Juice. This was slow. The JUIX team in Sunnyvale, working with programmers in Chicago, Australia and India, were too used to developing for server environments. Devices with limited processor oomph, batteries and tiny memory were not suited to the software systems they built.

This led to battles between the LJ and JUIX teams, the latter writing cheques its code couldn’t cash. Functions generally ran at a tenth of the speed that P2K and LJ, and even they weren’t great.

The juice ran out of the Linux JUIX

At this stage LJ-powered phones were selling well in China at high prices and margins; the Motorola Accompli 008 turned up in Europe, and JUIX remained something for the future. LJ could not be killed because it was in shipping products and in the end the JUIX project was written off.

In a political face-saving move LJ was renamed as MotoJUIX and then quietly killed.

A new Linux project was started in 2006 in Denmark and led by the team Motorola bought from BenQ, the Siemens SX1 Symbian developers. Their mission was to build a contractually obligated phone. Kodak had waved its camera patents at all the phone manufacturers and threatened to ban cameras from mobiles unless the technology was licensed. Some paid up, but the Motorola approach was to build a new team, OS and product from scratch and share a cut of the sales with Kodak. It never shipped.

There is some interesting circularity in this as the Danish facility was the place where Dancall built the only dual-band phone to trump Motorola. The design had been sold by Dancall to Amstrad, by Amstrad to Bosch, Bosch to Siemens, Siemens to BenQ, and BenQ to Motorola, which shut it down.

Many of the Java developments were running in parallel; new ones started when an old one floundered, but with committed orders it was often hard to shut down a failing project. And whenever something ran badly more developers were thrown at the software. The learning curve for people new to each codebase slowed everything down.

Meanwhile the hardware people did wonderful things. The strength of the Motorola RAZR was its industrial design, but its huge success perpetuated the myth that Platform 2000 and Synergy were not that bad.

With three attempts at Symbian, vast workforces at P2K and multiple Java teams, things were bad enough, but in each circumstance the teams were internationally distributed. If, for instance, a programmer in Bangalore wanted to know how to use the left or right soft key he’d have to send an email to his supervisor who would then email the person who liaised with user interface team in Chicago who would then email the person in Chicago who understood who wrote which bit of the spec who could then email the UI designer.

The response, which might take a few days while the designer checked with other people, would then go back through the same system so that everyone could be held accountable. If the designer and coder had been in the same place it would have taken minutes - with the Motorola system it took weeks.

The distribution meant that the video people were in Japan, while multimedia was in Italy. There were 31 official development centres with more informal ones not counting the interface designers.

The mismanagement of software probably cost Motorola more than Iridium, it left the company’s products lagging.

The sale to Google has the potential to fix the only thing that was really wrong with the product side of the company - the software side. The scale of the redundancies however makes it look as though Google has little regard for Motorola’s hardware skills. Google has turned Motorola into HTC. ®

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