Google has finally unveiled the Moto X “superphone” that the company has been teasing for months. As predicted by the many leaks that preceded today’s announcement, the Moto X is not an ultra high-end Android smartphone intended to go head-to-head with the top phones from Samsung, HTC, LG and Sony. Rather, it’s a thoughtful “mid-range” smartphone that will appeal to the masses.
But the Moto X has a number of unique features—many of which turn it into an always-on sensor cluster that monitors your every motion and verbalization. And these features have, in light of overwhelmingly positive early reviews, the potential to turn it into one of the most popular Android smartphones ever.
That would be great for Motorola, the Google subsidiary that manufactures the phone and which has been losing quite a lot of money of late. But it would be a nightmare for Google’s partners, namely Samsung and LG, which are the #1 and #2 makers of Android handsets, and could also crowd out new entrants like Asus and struggling manufacturers like HTC.
When Samsung unveiled the S4, the latest iteration of its Galaxy line—generally seen as the elite of Android phones—two things stood out. The first was that, as usual, it was the most powerful smartphone the company had ever released, with a processor matched only by its strongest competitors. The second was that the phone included a “laundry list of features” enormously customizable and, for the average user, almost certainly way too complex. Apple has always taken the opposite approach, favoring simplicity and ease of use instead of satisfying the few people who have the time and knowledge to fine-tune their phones.
With the Moto X, Google/Motorola seems to be taking a much more Apple-like approach. It still has the stock Android operating system to be found on countless other smartphones, but it includes several thoughtful design tradeoffs intended to give the phone as broad an appeal as possible. The key ones are:
Faster processors and more elaborate screens force manufacturers to make their phones ever larger and heavier to accommodate a battery that will last all day. Motorola used a weaker processor (it’s a “dual core” rather than the “quad core” processor in Samsung’s Galaxy S4) and a smaller screen (4.7 inches compared to the S4′s 5 inches). Motorola also rounded the back of the phone—ostensibly so it will sit better in your hand, but also because it creates extra volume for a larger battery. The company claims a Moto X phone can go 24 hours between charges with normal use.
The main microprocessor of the Moto X is a fairly standard chip made by Qualcomm, which shows up in countless other mid-range smartphones. But alongside it are two chips designed entirely by Motorola. The company was able to produce them because, as Iqbal Arshad, Motorola’s senior vice president of engineering, told PC Magazine, “We invented mobile. We have  years of DSP expertise. [These chips are] all Motorola’s unique technology.”
The DSP to which Arshad refers are the two “digital signal processor” chips in the Moto X that allow the phone to listen for voice commands even when the phone is asleep. Which means the Moto X can do something no other smartphone can: Respond to natural, spoken language at any time, and to do so without draining the phone’s battery too much, because Motorola’s DSP chips use very low power and can operate without activating the phone’s main microprocessor.
A new extension for the Chrome browser allows people to view and respond to texts right in their browser, where most people are all day anyway. Apparently, this is a Motorola-only feature, and points to a future in which Google’s phones integrate smoothly with Google’s other bits of hardware and software.
Apple has long known that it’s pointless to get into a battle over who has more storage or the faster processor. All that matters to most people is, does the thing work? Google has created a “mid-range” Android smartphone that should satisfy the needs of all but the most obsessed phone geek. And because it includes a number of other thoughtful touches, like voice control, long battery life, and a supposedly superior camera (though it will need to be pretty darn good to beat the iPhone 5), Google could have a hit on its hands.
In essence, Google has decided to play a different game from most other manufacturers. It’s built a phone that will try to make the most difference to a user’s day-to-day experience, whereas most of its competitors are caught up in a race to trump each other with abstract performance measurements or exotic but rarely-used features. In this approach, Google currently only has a few competitors, and they include Chinese phone manufacturer Xiaomi—sometimes called the Apple of China—and of course Apple itself.
Google has been pushing harder of late for good design in Android software. Now, with the Moto X, it’s trying to create good and unique design in the hardware that runs Android. Together, these could make Android phones a more compelling competitor to the iPhone. Until now, Samsung has reaped the lion’s share of profit in selling Android hardware, but the Moto X could threaten Samsung’s dominance, at least where it’s sold. (Initially, Motorola is focusing on the US, where the phone is manufactured.)
In addition, with Motorola’s exclusive access to Google’s voice-control software, via microchips that only Motorola is currently making, Google finally has something that not even Apple can match. Or in other words, the increasingly stagnant state of competition in the smartphone market just got interesting again. Perhaps we’ll see a refreshed arms race, in which usability matters more than extra pixels or clever tricks. And that was probably Google’s intention all along.