CLIQ Won't Save Motorola

Motorola’s new wireless CEO Sanjay Jha has now proven himself capable of ordering a solid smartphone — the new CLIQ, unveiled today. But before anyone gets too excited, he has to fix the rest of the line first. And then figure out how to make Motorola profitable again.

The new Google Android-powered CLIQ will ship later this year, in time for the busy Christmas shopping season. First impressions from gadget bloggers look pretty good. For instance:

  • Gizmodo editor Jason Chen says he “came away pleasantly surprised.”
  • Engadget’s Chris Ziegler says: “The built-in widgets Motorola is supplying look top-notch with a ton of spit and polish (seemingly without sacrificing speed or usability), so all told, we think Moto’s been really cranking this year baking this platform to a golden crisp.”

We haven’t seen or held the phone in person yet, but we sense it’ll be on the same level or slightly better than many other Android phones. It’s pretty clear that Motorola is targeting teens here, and not nerds — a savvy move.

But one challenge, we’d add: The phone is launching on T-Mobile, the smallest of the nationwide carriers. This means a smaller upgrade base than Motorola might get at AT&T or Verizon, which have three times the customers. And it likely means a lower promotional budget than the bigger carriers.

But Motorola has promised at least one more Android phone this year, so there’s hope for a bigger partner. And beggars can’t be choosers, so T-Mobile is a fine first try. (Perhaps T-Mobile Sidekick users, if there are any left, will jump to the CLIQ.)

Taking a broader view, the challenge for Jha now is that he has to do it again, and again, and again, until he’s fixed Motorola’s entire line.

Unlike Apple, which has one phone to think about, or Palm and RIM, which can focus on a few smartphones at a time, Motorola has historically offered a large, complex product lineup. Even last quarter, it shipped almost 15 million phones, including many designs across dozens of carriers. Each partner might want something a little special; unlike Apple, Motorola probably can’t call all the shots.

So for now, it’s about taking what it learned designing CLIQ and repeating it over and over. Over the next year, Jha and team must devise an entire line of competitive phones, including some — we hope — that are more innovative than CLIQ, which mostly borrows from rivals’ cues. (Its new “MOTOBLUR” feature — grouping your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter friends’ updates on the home screen — looks slick, but is not revolutionary.)

In other words, for Motorola to be great again, it can’t just be Samsung or LG. It needs to lead.

And then, of course, Jha must figure out how to make his business profitable. Last quarter, Mobile Devices had an operating loss of $253 million on sales of $1.8 billion. That’s better than the same period last year. But for Motorola to spin off its mobile phone division as a separate company — that’s still the plan eventually, last we heard from the company — it will need to do much better.

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