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Why Is Motorola Leaning into its Chicago Roots?

The Chinese-owned company is leading the race to 5G — and rebranding as a home-grown Midwestern product along the way.

The Moto Z3, Motorola’s first 5G upgradeable phone, has its moment in the spotlight at the company’s August 2 rollout at Merchandise Mart.   Photo: DS Shin

Lenovo, the giant Chinese telecom company that now owns Motorola mobile phones, seems to be newly in love with Chicago — at least in its branding.

Earlier this month at the launch for its latest smartphone, the Moto Z3 — billed as the world’s first 5G upgradeable phone — tech journalists from near and far lined up to enter the company’s Merchandise Mart offices while a live band playing Chicago blues. The office walls glowed with projected images of Motorola’s “bat wing” logo superimposed on the Chicago skyline. Sergio Buniac, the company’s division president, extolled the Chicago roots of the original Motorola, once one of the world’s most admired companies.

Of course, every mobile phone maker in the world is a legacy of the original Motorola, where Martin Cooper and team invented the handheld cellphone in the 1970s. Whether Lenovo is any more the steward of the old company’s legacy than any other phone maker is arguable.

The move to emphasize the company’s roots in Chicago signifies a big shift in how Lenovo is marketing its American-born brand. The company completed its purchase of the Motorola handphone business from Google in 2014 for $2.91 billion, and spent its first years at the helm of the brand downplaying its past.

That’s understandable: In the decade before the purchase, Motorola teetered on oblivion, having lost most of its commanding market share in mobile phones. Lenovo may have saved the brand, but it wasn’t ready to celebrate it. When Chicago wrote about the company in 2016, its publicists stressed that they had little interest in discussing, let alone extolling, the past.

In fact, Lenovo was in the process of surgically dismantling the old organization. They quickly pared the Chicago workforce from around 2,000 to fewer than 800 today, with the last 250 eliminated in the past 12 months. (By comparison, Apple reportedly has a team of 800 working on the iPhone’s camera alone.) Lenovo also shed much of the vast space they inherited in the Mart, leaving the Motorola offices feeling pretty ghostly. Lenovo moved in execs from China to share top roles. And in 2016, Lenovo announced it would replace the word “Motorola” on its phones with the parent company name. (It did keep the bat logo, though.)

The Moto Z3 Photo: DS Shin

Despite the rough remake, if Lenovo hadn’t stepped in to buy Motorola’s phone business, the company might have disappeared — not just from Chicago, but completely. Also to its credit, Lenovo has produced some great phones at affordable prices. Its sleek design language is roughly derivative of the one worked up by veteran Motorola designer Jim Wicks for Google’s phones. Lenovo’s commitment to pushing advanced features into low-priced phones also carries on a strategy Google commenced.

Lenovo, however, also cooked up some quirky innovations of its own. The main one is its collection of “mods,” accessories that snap onto the back of the Motorola phone and give it extra purpose. One mod is a tiny but workable projector; another is a muscular speaker with Amazon Alexa; yet another is a camera with a 10x zoom.

That’s where the Moto Z3 comes back in. In theory, it could change the way we use our phones forever.

At base, the Z3 is a marginal improvement on the company’s past “Z” phones. The screen is a little better than its predecessors’, its processor is faster, the camera is tweaked. It looks roughly the same as the company’s phones from four years ago.

A forthcoming mod, however, is the real innovation. It will likely be the first device in the U.S. that will give users access to a 5G network, which delivers data to phones at least ten times faster than the current 4G standards. The 5G Motorola is backed by Verizon and will only work on Verizon’s network. And, at first, it will also only work inside users’ homes — not exactly mobile. Verizon’s 5G network is rolling out in three cities later this year; Chicago is not one of them.

A few years from now, though, the same network will service nearly everywhere in the U.S. You’ll download every episode of Breaking Bad in the time it takes to watch the pilot’s credits; you’ll play data-intensive war games with opponents in Vladivostok with no time lag when you fling your doomhammer.

The Moto Z3 with detachable 5G mod. Photo: DS Shin

Motorola looks to have won the race to 5G, and that’s what the tech press came to see earlier this month. So why, in its moment in the spotlight, did the company suddenly lean into its Chicago roots? Surely tech hubs like Suzhou, Shenzhen, and Beijing, where Lenovo has its headquarters, would’ve been sexier backdrops for its 5G rollout than Chicago, where the corporate parent seems to regard Muddy Waters and Motorola’s freshly dusted history as gee-whiz enough.

In fact, China was almost entirely absent from the 5G event. Execs came from Verizon in New Jersey and Qualcomm in California, but none came from Lenovo’s home country. When I asked why, Jeff Snow, one of the engineers demonstrating at the event, told me that Motorola’s branding is in flux; the previous approach didn’t work.

Indeed, Lenovo’s CEO has bemoaned the company’s failure to integrate its Motorola acquisition. But Lenovo, once expected to be China’s Dell, HP, and Apple all at once, has struggled more broadly. In February, Bloomberg caught the company’s founder Liu Chuanzhi at a low point:

“How many mistakes have we made? How many mistakes have I myself made? Without question, today’s Lenovo Group faces severe and acute challenges. The challenge is multi-dimensional and uncertain. It’s an age when innovations in technology and business model are powerful enough to overturn an industry and even social customs.”

Meanwhile, the tech press, which normally lauds Motorola phones, has been merciless. One headline from March: ”Motorola is more at risk of becoming irrelevant than ever.”

The fortunes of Chinese companies are hard to measure. They muster resources, such as government funding, that rivals elsewhere simply can’t. But reviving a brand’s coolness in the most fashion-driven realm of tech is rare. Going retro with Motorola — going Chicago with Motorola — may be part of Lenovo’s plan to recapture the magic of its faded American predecessor.

There are reasons why a Chinese-owned phone maker may want to seem as home-grown American as possible. In the last year, two prominent Chinese phone brands, Huawei and ZTE, have had their products banished from U.S. government offices due to suspicions that the phones would let the Chinese government spy on U.S. users and networks. Some companies have discouraged their employees from buying from big Chinese phone brands for fear it could put corporate IT and information at risk. The damage to ZTE has been so great that the company said it would go out of business.

That’s a lot of potential guilt by association for a company whose phones have never been found suspect — to say nothing of the tarring China’s taking from Trump on our trade deficit with the country.

Still, some skepticism for Lenovo’s newfound nostalgia isn’t unfounded. Tech from Asia may be cool for what it can do. But it’s not as cool if it’s aping U.S. designs — and selling hundreds of billions in goods at prices American factories can’t match.

In blues-loving, blue-state Chicago, folks may be suspect of trade wars. And if Lenovo wants to invest its best dollar selling Chicago as a tech leader, the city ought to cheer it on. But for a company that’s lost some of its local cultural expertise, blues music may not be the best soundtrack for high hopes.

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