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Google Ups Its Game Against Apple With New Smartphone

Aug 1, 2013
Originally published on August 2, 2013 9:40 am

When it was launched Thursday, the Moto X, Google's first smartphone product to come out of its buyout of Motorola, was not the highest powered or highest pixeled device. Rather, the designers boasted of its usability — that the Moto X has a larger purpose: making the technology of a phone adapt to the way people use them, rather than force user behavior to adapt to the technology.

For example, if the phone is placed face down and then turned over, it briefly exposes the time, text and any email notifications without getting unlocked. And the Moto X is designed with rounded edges so it's comfortable in the hand.

Gesture-control also becomes prominent. By twisting it back and forth two times, the camera opens without the user needing to feel around for a button.

It's also responsive to the way younger generations are using their phones — for searches, GPS, texting — anything but actually calling people. A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project released in 2011 found that barely 53 percent of Americans preferred a voice call to a text message.

So Google has made its voice activation system, Google Now, easy to use with this phone. Unlike the Siri system by Apple, which requires a button to turn it on, Google Now is always listening. All you have to do is say "OK, Google Now." And then it listens for your commands.

Google Now combines nicely with GPS so it can help answer questions like, "Where's the closest Chinese takeout?" It takes dictation, and it can respond to a text with a quick note, "Not now! Busy."

"It's a refreshing step back," says Consumer Reports' Mike Gikas. He got an advanced look at Moto X and has been testing it. "For the last few years we've been in this arms race regarding features," he says. "Every phone is going to have more megapixels and a larger display, and sharper this and faster that."

Gikas says he's still got a lot of testing to do before he makes a recommendation as to whether consumers should pick the Moto X over an iPhone or a new Samsung Galaxy. But he thinks the Moto X is inching us along to another way of thinking about smartphones.

"Whenever there's a good idea like this," he says, "we're going to see more of it."

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There's big news in the world of technology today. Google unveiled a new smartphone. The Moto X is the first phone designed and made by Motorola since Google bought the company last year. With this venture into the hardware business, Google is upping its game against Apple. And NPR's Laura Sydell joins me to talk about the phone and what it means for Google and for consumers. Laura, first, what can you tell us about the phone itself?

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Well, I didn't get to put my hands on it, but I did talk to Mike Gikas over at Consumer Reports and he got me advance copy, and his initial take was interesting. He said it's a refreshing step back. And what he meant by that is that Google isn't focusing on giving you a bigger, faster processor or, you know, a bigger screen. It's about how you interact with the phone.

BLOCK: And what does that mean in terms of how you interact with the phone?

SYDELL: They put a lot of work into voice and gesture control with this phone. So Apple has Siri, which got a lot of attention. But, you know, Google also has voice recognition. It's called Google Now. And with Siri, you had to push a button on the phone to get to Siri. Google now can be always on, and basically, you just activate it by saying, OK, Google Now, and it's listening. And if you're driving and you want to ask for a nearby restaurant, it will hear you and it will tell you. It takes dictation so you could respond to a text message. But it only works with Google apps.

It also has gesture control. So these days your phone is a camera. So if you have to put in the code to open the phone, you're going to miss that great shot at the ballpark that you wanted to get. Well, with this, you just take it out of your pocket, you shake it and you can take a picture.

BLOCK: Maybe take a picture when you don't even intend to take a picture if you shake it...


SYDELL: Right. Yes, there is that. It is always on, listening.

BLOCK: Google makes most of its money from search advertising, and it's been doing pretty well by giving away its mobile operating system, Android, to other hardware makers, so why a decision to build its own phone now?

SYDELL: Well, first of off, it spent $12.5 billion buying a hardware company, that's motivation. Though at the time, a lot of people thought they were buying Motorola for its patent portfolio. But I think it's about being able to have control of the entire system. So since Motorola is a division of Google, it can use the Android operating system to show off Google products.

And then there's the financial side. Google makes money selling ads. So by having its own phone, own software, own system, it can gather a lot more information about individual users and do a better job targeting ads at them.

BLOCK: You know, Laura, I'm looking at an ad for the Moto X, and here's the pitch: Designed by You, Assembled in the USA. And they're saying, look, you can customize this thing and it'll be made right here.

SYDELL: That's right. In fact, you can get up to 18 different colors and different background photos. You can pick the apps. And one of the reasons I think they kept it in the U.S. is that they can get it to you within four days. So that's great. Another reason they're promoting made in the U.S., I think, is because they say it gives them the opportunity to have designers and engineers close together so they can work together and hopefully give you a better product.

BLOCK: Well, in the end, do you think Google can gain a foothold in the market as it competes with Samsung and Apple?

SYDELL: Well I think catching up to Samsung and Apple is a tall order. They really dominate the market. And, of course, Microsoft has tried with its Windows phone, not so successful. But I do think this is part of a larger effort by Google to keep you in its world, using its products as much as possible.

Earlier this month, Google released a $35 dongle that lets you zap video while - to your TV from your laptop and so forth. So I think Google wants to keep you in their universe. They've also got Kansas City and Austin where they have their own high-speed Internet connections. So it's about nothing less than world domination.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Laura Sydell. We were talking about the new Moto X phone from Motorola. Laura, thanks so much.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

BLOCK: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.