Motorola Android phones to debut on 10 September

by Caroline Gabriel

Motorola’s long awaited Android phones should make their debut on September 10, at an event in San Francisco, but while the US firm has scored major points by signing up Motorola and T-Mobile in advance, AT&T was reportedly unimpressed – possibly pointing to an interesting showdown in the US midrange market between Verizon’s Android strategy and an increasingly Symbian-friendly AT&T.

The two handsets – reportedly a midmarket W-CDMA model, Morrison, and the more heavyweight CDMA ‘Sholes’ device for Verizon – are truly make-or-break for beleaguered Motorola. Not because two products alone will change its fortunes, but because a lukewarm response to its first major launch in two years would dent the confidence that is just starting to be reawakened in the vendor’s handset business, a confidence largely driven by the hopes for the two Android products and by Verizon’s early interest.

The company has sent out an analyst invitation for 10 September, coinciding with co-CEO Sanjay Jha’s keynote address at the GigaOM Mobilize 2009 conference. So far, Motorola has kept details of its products under wraps, despite many leaks, with Jha’s most revealing comments focusing on a heavy social networking theme. He said recently the devices would be optimised “integrated contact and message management, multimedia and social collaboration”.

A glitzy launch within two weeks would be good timing, suggesting that shipments would start fairly early in the fourth quarter, well in time for the holiday season and probably ahead of other major Android launches like Samsung’s. UBS analyst Maynard Um said in a research note: “We believe some details around the new devices and/or services will be unveiled (but unlikely to be officially launched) at these events … We believe a key driver to sustainable share price strength will depend on visibility to Motorola’s portfolio direction and differentiation (design, applications, services, etc).”

While we would not expect the new Androids to be positioned head to head with the iPhone, Motorola will not be able to avoid the Apple product, especially as it becomes more price competitive and reaches down to the midrange webphone market, where Moto is expected to concentrate its efforts and which is likely to drive much smartphone growth in 2010. And AT&T, faced with the potential end of its exclusive next year, has a difficult balancing act in terms of taking on new smartphones without cannibalizing its star performer.

This may explain its apparent hostility to the new Motorola devices, though it is also highly likely that 2010 will see AT&T following through on previous hints that it would address the midmarket with an own-branded mobile web strategy based on Symbian and its growing ties with once-shunned Nokia. According to MKM Partners analyst Tero Kuittinen, talking to Barron’s, AT&T rejected two Motorola models as “outdated”.

According to his sources, Motorola presented two phones to the GSM carrier – prototypes that appear to have been different from those that morphed into Sholes and Morrison, and targeted at teenage and young professional/student segments. These were originally demonstrated running Windows Mobile but conversion to Android took “so much development time that AT&T decided the devices appeared too dated to carry”, according to the reports. AT&T and Motorola would not comment. Kuittinen also said Verizon Wireless initially planned to offer two Motorola Android devices this year, but pushed one into 2010.

Meanwhile, as the iPhone continues to dominate the US market, it is finally set for its Chinese debut too, after months of wrangling with the operators. China Unicom could announce the launch as early as today, and Sanford Bernstein analysts estimate that Apple could sell 2.9 million units in the country by the end of 2011. This would be a welcome boost – according to IDC, only 7% of iPhone sales in the second quarter came from Asia-Pacific and Apple’s PCs have only 1% share in China.
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