Motorola opens up about Lollipop upgrade letdown and the future of fast rollouts

Motorola finally explains what went wrong with the Moto X's latest Android upgrade -- and what it's doing now to prevent a repeat performance.

Moto X Lollipop Upgrade

Motorola's original Moto X was a revelation of sorts for Android enthusiasts. Under Google's guidance, the company created a device that actually did things right -- with software that stuck closely to the core Android interface and had just a handful of useful features sprinkled on top.

User experience aside, that setup allowed Motorola to deliver Android OS upgrades shockingly fast -- sometimes even beating Google's own Nexus devices to the punch. It was a refreshing change from the pitifully poor performance we were used to seeing from most manufacturers up to that point.

Then something changed. When Android 5.0 came out last fall, Motorola pushed the software out quickly to its second-gen Moto X phone. But owners of the barely-year-old first-gen model waited. And waited. And waited some more. Month after month went by with no Lollipop upgrade -- and worse yet, no real communication from Motorola about what was happening. It wasn't until late last month that Lollipop (the newer Android 5.1 version) finally started rolling out to the original Moto X device.

Motorola -- which earned a shining first-place A+ in my Android upgrade report card for KitKat -- slumped in last with an embarrassing D score on my latest upgrade analysis. It was a low moment for a company that had created such high expectations.

Motorola Upgrade Score

Not so sweet: Motorola's score for its Lollipop upgrade performance (May 2015)

So what happened? How did Motorola slip from being head of the class to having the lowest overall score of any Android manufacturer a mere year later? And, perhaps most pressing, can we still trust the company to provide timely OS upgrades today? People have been speculating about those questions for months -- and for the first time now, we have some official answers.

At Motorola's launch event for the new Moto X and Moto G this week, I posed the questions to Jim Wicks, the company's senior vice president of consumer experience design. (I posed them indirectly -- via Computerworld's reviews editor, Barbara Krasnoff, who was on site and part of a roundtable discussion with Wicks and another Moto VP.)

Wicks says the delay in getting Lollipop to the first-gen Moto X was primarily the result of "chipset support" -- or rather, lack thereof. That phone, as you may recall, used a custom "X8 Mobile Computing System" that allowed it to provide always-listening functionality before most mainstream processors supported that kind of resource-intensive task.

Evidently, that system -- which bundled together a customized Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor with two additional digital signal processors -- presented problems when it came to playing well with Lollipop. Manufacturers typically rely on individual component-makers to sort out such issues when new Android releases come along. And from the sounds of it, someone involved with the chipset wasn't being so helpful.

(A Google+ post by Motorola's senior director of software product management hinted at a similar situation back in May. "[The upgrade] has been a struggle due to the lack of support from some of our partners," it said, without going into specifics.)

The other factor Wicks cites in the phone's poky upgrade progress is the fact that the initial Android 5.0 Lollipop release "had a lot of problems" -- something anyone who used that software can attest to. That, Wick says, is why Motorola ultimately decided to skip 5.0 altogether and jump directly to 5.1 for the first-gen Moto X's upgrade.

As for the elephant in the room, Wicks says the delay had nothing to do with Motorola's altered relationship with Google -- that is, the fact that the company was owned by Google in 2013, when it thrived at timely upgrades, and by Lenovo in 2014, when things didn't go nearly as well.

Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention that Motorola also wasn't so speedy at getting Android 5.1 out to its second-gen Moto X -- which, after receiving the initial 5.0 upgrade, waited around 15 weeks past 5.1's release to receive the much-needed follow-up. But moving forward, the company is making every indication that it plans to regain consumer trust and provide fast rollouts whenever possible.

Wicks says Moto is "lining up support" already to work toward that goal -- both from Google and from the company's various chipset suppliers. He also notes that the new third-generation Moto X is being sold exclusively on an unlocked basis and without any carrier involvement, which will eliminate the added variable of carrier approval that can often slow upgrades down. He concedes that these things are "hard to predict" because "there are so many dependencies" but seems optimistic that Motorola is doing all it can to deliver.

With Android M right around the corner, the true test isn't far away. And you'd better believe the Android community will be watching extra closely to see what happens.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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