Motorola nails smartphone customization with Moto X's Moto Maker

Credit: Stewart Wolpin

For mom and pop cellphone buyers, choosing an old-fashioned feature phone was relatively painless, even fun. The technology was easy to grok: Can it make a call? Check! Can it text? Check!

The difficult choice was all about the fun form factors — skinny clamshells, fat flips, vertical sliders, horizontal sliders, chunky candybars, flat candybars, square slabs with keyboards, rectangular slabs with keyboards, even round slabs with keyboards, and lots of other wacko designs. Cellphones stores were like a post-modern industrial design exhibit at the MoMA.

Post-iPhone, however, the cellular technology got smart, complicated and difficult for the average consumer to understand, while the aesthetics became boring, bland and indistinguishable — like the original Ford Model T, you could get any color you wanted as long as it was black (or even more sterile white).

Over the last few months, however, handset makers have begun to re-recognize the value of differentiating their wares by their appearance. Nokia's numerous Windows Phone 8 Lumia models are available in a trio of pastel pigments with matching accessories from Monster. HTC's Windows Phone 8 8x and 8S can be had in a variety of fluorescent hues similar to the Lumias. Samsung's Galaxy S4 Active is encased in a bright blue waterproof housing, and there's a Purple Mirage version on sale at Sprint for those who fancy themselves descendants of Roman emperors.

Unlike today's post-Model T car market in which you get to choose your vehicle's color schemes, smartphone pigmentations have been dictated by the handset maker. Motorola wants to disrupt this dye despotism.

Me Talk Pretty Moto

Arguably the most architecturally innovative cellphone maker has been Motorola, which, of course, invented the cellphone.

Motorola seems to shake up the phone design world once a decade. It started with the first-ever cellphone, the DynaTAC 8000X, in 1983. Moto then kick-started the clamshell era with the revolutionary StarTAC in 1996. It re-invented the flip phone with the sleek best-selling RAZR line, unleashed in 2004, followed by varying SLVRs, KRZRs, PEBLs, the camera-infused ZINE, with a plethora of experimental configurations in between.

But the company's redesign attempts in the smartphone era haven't quite captured the public imagination or sales of its earlier dumb phone incarnations. But maybe Motorola's design innovation for this decade, its Moto X, scheduled to go on sale August 23 AT&T and later this summer from Sprint, T-Mobile (from Motorola's site only) and Verizon, will continue its tradition.

Technologically, Motorola is touting Moto X's "OK, Google Now" voice-activated wake-up technology, its wrist-twist-to-activate Quick Capture camera, and other off-beat tap-free activation innovations. (Read the Moto X review from my compatriot Raymond Wong here.)

But instead of forcing its own Moto X industrial aesthetic on us, Motorola is allowing you to indulge your own décor ideas and craft your own unique color combo online via its Moto Maker website.

Last week I so indulged. And I found the Moto X design experience both easy and fun, and could presage a more customizable smartphone future.

Moto X Moto Maker

After you arrange for service via a carrier, you get a PIN to enter on the Moto Maker webpage (not live for the public yet). You pick from a palette of 18 rear cover colors, either black or white for the front cover, and one of seven accent "metallic" colors for the buttons, camera lens rim and trim. You then create a "signature," your name, a pithy saying, whatever, up to around 20 characters; unfortunately, the signature won't be available at launch.

You also can choose the amount of memory (16GB for $199.99, or 32GB for $249.99) and one of 20 available wallpaper images (which you can change once you get your phone). Lastly, you can enter your Google ID so your phone is completely configured with all your Google accounts.

All aspects of your options can be previewed and altered at any time, which makes the whole Moto Maker process an engine of indecision.

You'll also be able to order color-matched Jax earbuds ($40), over-the-ear headphones ($100) and Bluetooth speakers ($200) from SOL Republic, as well as clear protective cases ($30-$35). Over time, I suspect there'll not only be a wider selection of cover and trim colors, but perhaps actual graphics to complement the signature.

My own chosen Moto X décor (image at the very top) is a royal blue back cover, black front, orange accents and "Let's Go Mets!" as my signature (it was a beta signature feature). It was either that or a more generic red, white and blue and "E Pluribus Unum" as the signature, but I couldn't decide if the rear should be blue with red accents or vice versa.

Since Moto X is proudly constructed in the U.S., Motorola promises you'll get your phone within four business days. Sure enough, I ordered my Moto X last Thursday (August 15), and it dutifully arrived a day ahead of schedule this past Monday (August 19).

Apple's Answer

Motorola will soon not be alone in shifting the smartphone focus from the specifications to the superficial.

Most of the geek chatter about the upcoming iPhone 5S announcement on September 10 has centered on a crystal sapphire fingerprint-reading home button, the next-gen A7 processor, dual LED flash and, of course, the skeuormophism-free iOS 7.

But what might really shake up the cell biz is the other iPhone Apple will reportedly announce — the iPhone 5C, a cheaper plastic version of the current iPhone 5 that will be available in multiple iPod-like colors. Yes, Nokia already blazed this rainbow smartphone trail with its Lumias, but Apple's imprimatur gives this chromatic trend heightened legitimacy.

In fact, there have even been reports of an impending champagne-colored iPhone 5S.

Colorful iPhones could succeed where Lumias and HTC 8s have not. Unlike serious smartphone users, folks who have yet to switch from feature phones to smartphones are more likely to be attracted (or distracted) by more brightly-colored baubles.

In all events, it seems that color has come to smartphones, a welcome development in an unnecessarily bland business.

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