By Laura Rich
July 26, 2010

By centering its strategy around the smartphone, and with Google as a partner, the company may just have a chance.

by Laura Rich, contributor

Not too long ago, it was Motorola-who? The Razr’s leadership had fallen off, and Nokia was gobbling up mobile handset market share. The revenue losses were devastating — down $2.35 billion from Q4 2007 to Q4 2008. Internally, the mobile division at Motorola (MOT) was a mess, racing through seven presidents in four years. Then former Qualcomm (QCOM) exec Sanjay Jha was brought on as head of the handset division and has since managed to stabilize the business. Now, the company is on course to be a formidable player in the mobile arena — with Apple (AAPL) in its crosshairs.

“A year ago, we focused on smartphones and we bet on Android,” Jha explained at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen last week.

It’s essentially a bet against Apple. A year ago, Motorola announced a partnership with Google (GOOG) for its Android OS; Verizon (VZ) for its cell service; and Adobe (ADBE) for its Flash software. “I think you were making a statement that you were in a competitive partnership against Apple,” said Fortune executive editor Stephanie Mehta, who interviewed Jha onstage.

“Yes, it could play out that way,” Jha said. “The three of us coming together made sense, and then Adobe came together with Flash.” He added: “I actually think without Flash you don’t get a complete browsing experience,” a reference to Apple’s no-Flash policy.

The bet may be paying off, thanks in part to the massive marketing effort by Verizon behind the Droid phone — which included an ad in the New York Times on June 30 taking aim at iPhone’s antenna problems. It touted Droid X’s “double antenna design,” and in a dig against the so-called “iPhone death grip” that blocks antenna reception when the phone is held the wrong way, the ad said that the Droid “allows you to hold the phone any way you like and use it just about anywhere to make crystal clear calls.” In a virtual session at the conference, Jha added, “You know, I heard (probably apocryphal) that the most popular voice message on iPhone4 was, ‘Sorry I can’t answer your call, because I am holding my phone.’ I don’t think this is an issue with Droid X.”

So far, the Droid isn’t selling at the rate of the iPhone, but its overall market share is growing fast, from 9% in February to 13% in May, according to Comscore. And there was strong support behind the Android OS at the conference, where attendees voted in a poll for Android OS to take the lead in mobile OS in the next five years.

But Jha doesn’t take an all-or-nothing view on the OS. “I’m not entirely convinced that that notion that consolidation plays out,” he said. “There are probably seven important OS’s in mobile” now, he noted. “I think that seven is not a sustainable number, but I don’t think it’s three.”

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