No More Moto -- Google's Not So Smart Phones: Why Design Is the New Digital Divide

Four months ago a gang of bloggers and influencers were wined and dined at the GooglePlex in the hope that we would flog the soon to be hyped Moto X smartphone. Dozens of obedient bloggers marched in lockstep, posting glowing salutations filled with words like "awe" and "awesome" and "amazing."

I drank the same bubbly but was not optimistic. I wrote in August that I doubted that candy-colored phones or voice control would delight mainstream buyers, and noted that "Apple has over 400 of the world's highest grossing stores, while Samsung has succeeded in large part by spending $4.2 billion a year on advertising -- 4 times that of Apple."

I concluded my article with a quote from the legendary tech guru Robert Scoble: "Everyone's going to be waiting for what Apple will come up with in September."

Scoble was right.

Last week we finally received proof of what has been suspected for months about Google's high stakes smart phone gamble. The Moto X flunked, flopped and tanked, and has already been dubbed the most disappointing smart phone of the year. In 3 months the Moto X has sold just half a million phones--an abysmal showing when you consider Samsung and Apple each sold tens of millions of phones during that same period. Motorola lost a quarter billion in the last fiscal quarter--the only drag on the Google juggernaut.

Curiously, on the heels of that catastrophe, Motorola has announced it's selling a down market discount model, the Moto G, for what reviewers call the "ludicrously cheap price tag" of $179 without a contract, certain to accelerate what Steve Jobs derided as "race to the bottom pricing."

Meanwhile Apple is designing, delighting and pricing its way to the top. Apple's latest cell phone introduction proved that the company's core customers are frantic to buy its most expensive model--the 5S, while demonstrating ambivalence toward its less expensive 5C.

The gold 5S has been a massive, worldwide product phenomenon, flying out of stores largely on design and appearances.

Some Wall Street analysts call this high margin sales surge a failure, noting that Apple is losing market share in developing markets by failing to sell a cheap phone.

They've got it backwards. When customers clamor for your top line product everywhere that's a good thing. Let someone else sell more compact cars if you can dominate the world market for BMWs or Teslas.

Aesthetics and design is the new digital divide. Most techies, analysts and bloggers simply can't fathom why Apple soaked up 56 percent of the profit in the world's mobile markets during the last quarter. Sure, Apple boasts a rich, diverse ecosystem (phones, tablets, laptops, content, software, etc.) and powerful and versatile chips, but that's not what's driving extraordinary sales.

Design with a capital D is what is winning over Apple cohorts --that subtle combination of materials, weight, lines, and how it feels in your hand. It's the same elusive quality that gets women to blithely pay $5,000 for a Prada handbag or a man to gladly fork over $6,000 for a Breitling watch.

I write books, teach and give seminars about innovation, and Apple's biggest innovation by far has been magically transforming everyday digital devices into iconic things we desire on a deep, primitive human level.

Yes, I'm talking about product lust.

This is not about marketing or ads. This is not about engineering or hardware and software. The Moto X is a perfectly sound phone if you're judging by the paint-by-the-numbers hardware and user interface categories that mattered a decade ago. But when I held the Moto X in my hand this July and compared it to the iPhone 5, it felt and looked ordinary, and today, next to the 5S, it is not even in the same league.

The Design Gap is not one that engineering or advertisements will easily close. Google has done a brilliant job of prototyping and experimenting with radical futuristic initiatives. Google Glass and Google's driverless cars, for instance, are pioneering fresh territory.

In contrast, the Moto X and the Moto G are strangely out of tune with Google's broader innovation sensibility. The world doesn't need these dated me-too products, and the sooner Google wakes up to that truth, the sooner it just might put its ample talent toward coming up with something new.

Then again, Apple probably is hoping Google keeps on floundering with Motorola, reminding the tech world that there's at least one realm where Apple maintains a competitive edge.

Jonathan Littman was the first news editor of Mac Week magazine. He owns Apple stock and is the co-author of the Art of Innovation and Ten Faces of Innovation and founder of Snowball Narrative.