Of course, the CLIQ isn't just about Motorola making an Android phone for the first time -- it's as much (if not more) about the socially-connected skin that the company has grafted on top of the whole package, MOTOBLUR. In a nutshell, MOTOBLUR is Motorola's version of Palm's Synergy -- an independent set of servers that Motorola owns that memorizes all of your email and social networking accounts, keeps them linked together, and lets you communicate in a blended way across services. In theory, it's a great idea; everyone's got a Facebook page and a Twitter account, countless contacts distributed among several disjoint repositories, and no cohesive way to manage it all from a central location, which is the problem that MOTOBLUR tries to solve in your pocket.
Like Synergy's Palm Profile, MOTOBLUR requires its own account that you're prompted to set up the first time you turn on the CLIQ, and you're walked through the process step-by-step. It's easy and quick, and once you do this, you'll get a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing that your account information and linkings will be transferred to any MOTOBLUR-equipped device you happen to own in the future. Afterwards, you're invited to add supported account types, a list that currently includes MySpace, Facebook, Google (obviously), last.fm, Twitter, Picasa, Photobucket, and Yahoo Mail, plus separate entries for generic POP / IMAP email and Exchange ActiveSync (which Motorola bills as "Corporate Sync"). It's a pretty impressive list and should cover 90 percent of the average user's social networking and email needs, but there's a problem: we're being told that BLUR is a closed platform. There's no API that would allow third-party developers to add account types into this mix, and as far as we can tell, Motorola doesn't intend to add one -- BLUR is being billed as "the special sauce" that Moto owns and controls completely. We don't really get that approach -- the best thing Moto could do would be to open this up and garner support from anyone it can, but for the moment anyway, that's not the strategy they're subscribing to. On the flipside, Moto also says that it could add new services into BLUR very quickly and easily, but again, it shouldn't necessarily be at their sole discretion to do so -- let third-party developers add as much value as they can, we say. There's nothing Motorola needs more right now than a vibrant ecosystem that it can call its own.
The next thing that'll happen after you've added your account information is the CLIQ will start syncing your contacts -- and we mean all your contacts. All of them
. And there's no way to stop it from happening. Every Twitter follow, every Facebook friend will suddenly be a mere touch away on your phone. This is the same issue we had with the Pre, and Motorola seems to have learned nothing from Palm's mistake. Whether or not this is an intentional decision or technical hurdle that couldn't be bypassed, it's annoying; we simply don't need quick access to Barack Obama from our phone (don't get us wrong, we wish we did, but we think we're at least several rungs below Yankee White security clearance). The good news is that you can create your own contact subgroups, though setting them up could quickly devolve into tedium when you're getting the phone going for the first time. The contact manager also has a bar across the top that lets you filter by source -- Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on -- but by default, you see all of them. Basically, we think it can be a little overwhelming, leaving a new user asking "why would I want to see all of these people when I'm just trying to make a call?" Indeed, BLUR -- and the concept of managing everyone you know on your phone, regardless of social medium -- has a ramp-up phase that we're not sure everyone's going to want to bother with.
Once you get past the initial account setup, you're presented with a very busy home screen -- far busier than anything you see out of the box on a so-called "Google Experience" Android device. This is the very essence of BLUR, a place where everything that everyone in your universe says to you sort of collides into a giant pile. For folks who feel the need to be ultra-connected (that is, beyond the mere email and voice that most of us old-timers consider to constitute "ultra-connected") at all hours of the day and night, this is certainly one way to make it happen. The BLUR-based home screen experience is powered by a handful of widgets that can be configured and repositioned just as you would any others; the big ones are Status, Messages, and Happenings, while News and Weather don't really tie in to the functionality but still get BLUR branding as a part of Motorola's value-add.
First up, the Status widget has three main lots in life: letting you know what your most recent social networking status update was, gently reminding you to update your status if you haven't recently, and giving you an easy way to update. You can update synchronously across all your accounts or update individual ones (Twitter alone, for example, which we imagine will be a frequent use case). It's a simple widget and it does its job admirably. Messages, meanwhile, aggregates all forms of communication that are directly to you -- SMS messages and Twitter direct messages, for example. A snip of the most recent unread message is displayed on the widget itself along with the sender's avatar -- a possible privacy concern for some -- but the bigger problem here might be that the widget doesn't show so-called "@ replies" in Twitter, just direct messages. Motorola's justification here is that @ replies are public, therefore belong in the Happenings widget (which we'll get to momentarily), but the fact is that you want to see them
-- they're directed at you, after all -- and none of the widgets here make it easy to do that.
Finally that brings us to the Happenings widget, which is a mishmash of all of the noise your follows, friends, frienemies, and acquaintances are making around the networks. Aggregation is often good, it really is -- but it doesn't take a lot of noise to effectively render the widget useless with an endless stream of status updates. Happenings has two core problems. The first is that your main navigation only lets you see one message per screen, and it requires a horizontal finger swipe to move to the next message; after reading ten or maybe fifteen updates about your BFF's bar crawl, your thumb's tired and you're ready to give up. If you've got, say, a couple hundred Twitter follows (a conservative figure by many users' standards) and, say, fifty or a hundred Facebook friends, you can see how this gets out of control really fast. The good news is that you can click on the widget's header to get bumped out to a proper scrollable list of updates, but by the time you've done that, you've already started to defeat the purpose of displaying this information as a quick, glanceable widget. The second issue, and what we consider to be a more serious drawback -- is that fact that those aforementioned @ replies from Twitter are pushed into your main stream of updates here, with no way to see messages directed towards you. If you follow more than 10 people, it's all but impossible to see who's trying to strike up a conversation. This is one of the most basic functions of almost every Twitter app available, and yet Motorola failed to include it with the CLIQ. It's as if the people who designed the software don't actually use the service.
All of the widgets get updated through Motorola's BLUR servers -- not from the many places across the interwebs where the data originates -- which has its pros and cons. Motorola's big argument here in the affirmative is that its servers periodically aggregate information and push it down to the phone, rather than the phone polling a bunch of sites periodically, stemming battery drain. Given the CLIQ's already heavy drain, that's a good thing (and we've definitely seen Twidroid plow through a G1 in just a few hours with the polling interval cranked). The downside, though, is that you're not getting anything in real time. For random Twitter noise, no biggie, but generally speaking, you'd like to be clued into direct messages posthaste. It gives the supposedly ultra-connected home screen an air of staleness much of the time.
The CLIQ will launch with Android 1.5 (that's Cupcake
, if you recall), and that may emerge as one of the CLIQ's biggest weaknesses: as a custom-skinned phone, updating the kernel is a far more intricate procedure for Motorola and T-Mobile than it is with a bone-stock Google Experience device like the myTouch. There's a reason the carrier was able to push Android 1.6 (Donut
) to the G1 and myTouch so quickly after Google made it available, and we wouldn't expect that same kind of good fortune with the CLIQ and other MOTOBLUR-based devices in the future. All of Moto's customizations need to be ported -- which may or may not be a lot of work depending on what's changed in the trunk, but it's still work either way -- and then they've got to be validated both by Motorola and the carrier before getting pushed out. Fortunately, the CLIQ supports over-the-air updates, but this is still all assuming Moto ends up updating the CLIQ to 1.6 or any core release beyond that; no announcement has been made at this point.
As for overall device performance, don't expect miracles. At our first demos at Mobilize in September, we were pleasantly surprised by what we saw; UI components that we'd grown accustomed to seeing lag on the Magic (and early-firmware Heros) were snappy and smooth. Thing is, these were fresh devices that we didn't have an opportunity to bog down with endless accounts, emails, picture messages, and background apps -- and in reality, the fact that you're still running a 528MHz MSM7201A core here ends up catching up to you in the course of daily use. We found that it can take upwards of a second or longer for BLUR widgets to load after tapping in certain circumstances, most of which are realistically beyond the average user's control -- there's just too much stuff running in the background, and you can't expect Joe Sixpack to be killing tasks. The app drawer and browser both get jerky over time, too. Ironically, much of this seems better in 1.6, which as we said before, hasn't landed on the CLIQ so far. At any rate, Snapdragon, we eagerly await your arrival to take this platform to the next level.Wrap-up
Let's be very clear: though it fares pretty competitively against the aging crop of Google-powered devices on the market today, the CLIQ isn't the Android phone to end all Android phones. Then again, it's not supposed to be -- at least, we hope it isn't -- because a smallish HVGA display and an overworked, outmatched MSM7201A core aren't going to win any believers that haven't already been won over by HTC's stable. What the CLIQ does
do, though, is lay the groundwork for something better -- a Motorola that doesn't cause eyes to roll, a Motorola that makes aspirational phones that people can want to own again.
In a perfect world, Moto would've kicked off its Last Stand by coming to the plate with an absolute beast of a phone -- massive processor, massive camera, massive display, the works -- but market realities and carrier demands have meant the middling CLIQ and DEXT are the first to get time in the spotlight. We think this is just the beginning, though; hardware will inevitably improve, and BLUR -- a system that is currently right in principle and wrong in execution -- will evolve to become a much more usable platform. How do we know? We don't -- but this is a humbled company with its back firmly pressed against the wall. They'll adapt and succeed, or they'll die. It's really that simple.
In the meantime, would we recommend the CLIQ? Against a G1, yes, if for no other reason than the fact that you're getting more internal memory and a more robust, modern, un-weird hardware design. In the bigger picture, though, we'd keep our wallets in our pockets for the time being -- the CLIQ looks and feels like a testbed, not quite ready for primetime but a genuinely heartening sign that Moto's still got a pulse.
Another way of putting it? Allow us to draw an analogy that's particularly appropriate in light of Motorola's situation: you might say the CLIQ is the DynaTAC. We're holding out for the MicroTAC and StarTAC.