Moto X and the dawning Context Ecosystem

The Moto X is too expensive. It's underpowered. It's ugly. Consumers don't want color options. They don't want to talk to their phone, just on it. If it's not metal, it's not premium. Man, the Moto X is a disappointment. Some of the instant – and vocal – criticisms of Motorola's new phone have bordered on the vitriolic, the backlash perhaps again proving that pre-reveal hype can be a double-edged sword. Nonetheless, there's a sense that in immediately dismissing the Moto X on how it measures up to today's phones, we're missing out on recognizing how it could be showing us the shape of the phones of tomorrow.

We're trained to judge on numbers, in part because it's simply easier. User-experience is subjective, but 1.7GHz is faster than 1.5GHz, four cores are twice as many as two, and 13-megapixels is far more than 8-megapixels. That conveniently ignores the fact that just because a camera has more megapixels, say, it doesn't mean it will necessarily take better photos; just because you have a quadcore, it doesn't mean your phone will necessarily run smoother than a handset with a dualcore.

[aquote]When it comes to spec-sheet bingo, the Moto X clearly loses[/aquote]

When it comes to spec-sheet bingo, the Moto X quite clearly loses. Motorola told us that it was focusing on user-experience rather than something which looked great primarily on paper, but many still flocked to compare speeds, cores, sizes, and all the rest with the Moto X's primary competitors.

In doing so, you miss out what actually makes the Moto X special, the fact that it's the first real example of the context-aware ecosystem Google hinted strongly at during I/O earlier this year. There, the absence of whiz-bang gadgets like a new Nexus tablet range or a production Glass led some to bemoan that Google had lost its touch, but the missing showmanship simply left more room for how the company's services – Google Maps, Google Now, Google+, and more – were gaining more everyday smarts and, as a result, set to become more useful.

Smartphones have been dumb for some time now, but the Moto X is the first sign that things could be changing. What makes it special is how Google Now has been woven into the forefront of the mobile experience, no longer a key-swipe away but always listening out for its master's voice.

Moto X walkthrough:

As I wrote back in April, mobile devices have become more comprehensive in the net they cast through our data, but no more intelligent in how they process the results and offer them up to us. The most we've seen has been a sleeker notifications drop-down, or repackaging full webpages to suit a smartphone-sized display.

The context ecosystem, though, is about more than just summarizing. The Moto X is interesting because it attempts to learn from its surroundings – using Google Now as the context engine underneath, for the most part – and the user's own digital life to shape its responses and suggestions. Google has been talking about bringing Now more to the forefront of mobile for some time now, and while the Moto X is still early-days in how it leverages the predictive side of the engine, it's already far more intelligent than, say, the Nexus 4 or iPhone 5.

One of the most damning comparisons I saw today contrasted the Moto X with the HTC First. The new Now-centric phone, so the suggestion went, was Motorola's equivalent of the ill-fated Facebook Home handset, which HTC euthanized shortly after its launch.

The First's approach to mobile computing, and the Moto X's approach, are completely at odds, however. Facebook Home tried to succeed by walling the user into a closed garden of their own friends, making the Facebook platform a pen within which social took place. There was no attempt to better use the data that was being shared, only perhaps to make it prettier; it assumed that the raw data was sufficient in and of itself.

[aquote]The Moto X assumes the user benefits if their data is processed in some way[/aquote]

The Moto X, however, makes a completely different assumption: that the user benefits if the data is processed in some way. Your location and the speed you're traveling are of more use if they help your phone understand you're in a car, on a journey, and perhaps don't want the full flood of notifications to come through. Your calendar works better if Google Now can offer directions based on the appointments listed in it, and your phone knows when to pipe down because you might not want it to ring.

Has Motorola got it right? The Moto X is a first-generation product, so the answer to that is probably no, not yet. There's still a long way to go before the masses of information we share about ourselves, across multiple platforms, is being intelligently and beneficially parsed.

Still, for all its on-paper shortcomings, the Moto X leaves me hopeful that we're at the threshold of a new age of context awareness. Pure hardware taking a backseat and meaningful analysis shifting instead to the fore. Devices that are helpful, rather than just handy. The Moto X may not end up being the star of this new generation of truly "smart" phones, but it's the handset that opens the door.