Motorola and Lenovo, Sitting in a Tree…


Last week, right after it broke, I linked to the news that Google was divesting itself of Motorola, and selling it to Lenovo. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about it then. Part of me was sad because I saw some promise in the changes Google had been making at Motorola, and I was eager to see how they would play out. Towards the end of ATP episode 50, the guys talked some about this turn of events, and after listening to this and having some time to chew on the issue a bit more, I’ve decided that I’m largely optimistic about this new combination. What follows is a slightly edited version of the thoughts that I sent to the ATP folks.

Lenovo and I have a history. Before I started buying Mac laptops, I was a huge ThinkPad fanboy. I started using ThinkPads back in 1998, when it was still an IBM institution. So I was there as the Lenovo takeover unfolded. I know that many people who were once (and perhaps still are) ThinkPad users have not been happy with some of the changes that came about under the Lenovo regime to what they consider to be “signature traits” of the brand, such as what was at one time thought to be the absolute best keyboard on a mobile computer of any stripe. I had my own gripes as well: the timing of this change may have been purely coincidental, but I personally was not happy when, in 2006, roughly a year after the Lenovo acquisition had been finalized, they stopped shipping workstation-grade laptops with high-resolution (for the time) in-plane switching LCD displays. That’s right: IBM was one of the few manufacturers doing IPS (which they called “FlexView”) on their laptops back in those days. In fact, they first offered that option in 2001, well before Apple started to get religion about it. In comparison, the Apple laptop displays of that era (least-common-denominator twisted nematic technology, sub-100 DPI) were absolutely terrible. I didn’t see how anybody could stand to use those things, much less call them gorgeous.

That period between 2006 and 2012, when the Retina MacBook Pro finally came out…those were dark days.

But as John and Marco both alluded to, Lenovo overall did a decent job of not screwing things up…which in the world of high-technology is relatively high praise. I’ll stick my neck out and say it: if I had to buy a PC these days, it would still be a Lenovo ThinkPad, hands-down. I’ve used some recent machines, and the engineering, build-quality, and durability are still excellent. And I think that the key to the relative success of the Lenovo transition was that it wasn’t just a brand acquisition, or just an IP acquisition, or just a talent acquisition. Lenovo saw the value in all of it, wanted all of it, and kept all of it. (To this day, I believe that Lenovo still contracts with IBM to use their international support infrastructure; if you call Lenovo support in the U.S. today, it still rings the same call center in Atlanta that it always has.) They didn’t conduct massive layoffs or restructurings afterward. As I understand it, they retained all of the U.S. offices where the IBM Personal Systems Group guys were housed as well as all of the people in those offices, and at the end of the day, it was still the same guys making the decisions as before, and the same engineers working their magic as before. So if anybody is actually guilty of tarnishing the ThinkPad brand post-Lenovo, I think it could be successfully argued that the blame should be laid squarely at the feet of the same people who had been running the place when it still said “IBM” above the door, and not Lenovo management. In retrospect, I think that the IBM guys had more influence on Lenovo after being bought than vice-versa. Regardless of how it looked on the balance sheets, it felt in practice more like a bizarre reverse-acquisition, as if IBM spun off the PSG, had them acquire Lenovo, and then assumed their name.

Now, I personally think that Google threw in the towel on Motorola way too early. Everybody in the press was going ga-ga over the Moto X when it came out last summer, and, yeah, it looks like a decent phone, but in my opinion, the most interesting and exciting thing to come out of that strange union was the Moto G, which was only released last December. I was (and still am) very bullish about the Moto G, and was eager to watch this experiment unfold and see whether it ended up paying off for them or not. (If you watch the Moto G announcement, it’s actually pretty hilarious: it basically consists of a bunch of ex-Googlers that had been installed at Motorola getting up and publicly saying, in effect, “look, you idiot hardware partners: THIS is how you make an Android phone. Are you getting this, Samsung? Are you taking notes, HTC?”) A couple of months is simply not enough time in this industry to accurately gauge the success or failure of a strategic course correction, and Google getting rid of Motorola almost feels in a sense like HP and Palm all over again. At least Google is giving somebody else the chance to make a go of it rather than just pulling the plug the way HP did, and if Lenovo can maintain that same kind of “hands-off” attitude with this freshly-Googlified Motorola that they had with the IBM guys1, getting acquired by Lenovo may end up proving to be the best possible outcome for them.

  1. There are a couple of notable difference between the IBM Personal Systems Group acquisition and the Motorola acquisition. One is that is that the PSG acquisition didn’t involve taking over the old parent company’s brand — IBM kept their own name, obviously — while in the Motorola acquisition, the Motorola name and trademark are (I presume) along for the ride. Now the question is, do they call the phones that they sell Motorola phones, or Lenovo phones?

    The second is that the PSG group was a fairly mature organization that had more or less existed in the same form for decades. Motorola, on the other hand, has had a rocky past few years. Google didn’t buy Motorola per se, they bought Motorola Mobility, which itself had been split from the parent company just 6 months before. While under Google’s thumb, it would seem that Motorola Mobility underwent some pretty stark changes. So it could be that Motorola, in its current form, is more “malleable” (and more fragile) than the IBM PSG was at the time of its acquisition, and thus more at risk of being meddled with by the uppity-ups at Lenovo.