Editorial: Motorola, sort Blur out or give it up

As thoroughly as I try to review phones, the phone that I carry for personal use always teaches me things about hardware, software, workflow, and -- quite frankly -- myself that I can never learn from a transient device that's merely passing through my home (and pocket) for a few short days. This week, I purchased a Motorola Atrix 4G to replace my aging (I kid, I kid) Nexus S, and let's just put it this way: it's been a rollercoaster of emotions ever since.

Let's start this on a high note: the Atrix may very well represent the pinnacle of smartphone hardware today. Make no mistake that the engineers at Motorola are stone cold experts at engineering devices. Sure, they've had a miss here and there -- haven't we all? -- but by and large, strictly from a hardware perspective, this company has pumped out winner after winner for many years predating its Android days. As we said in our review, the device feels positively rock solid, and it exudes a vaguely muscular, high-tech appearance that pretty accurately conveys the maxed-out specifications under the hood.

So far, so good. It's the software that kills me. I understand that complaints about Motoblur are nothing new; heck, I've been bellyaching about it in my own reviews for as long as it's been around. But it hasn't improved -- in fact, it's gotten worse in some respects -- and I'm afraid it's time that I dial up the volume in the hope that someone at Motorola will hear me.

On some level, we need to give Motorola credit where credit's due. Blur was engineered and introduced at a time when deep social integration was first becoming very trendy in the mobile industry -- manufacturers and platform vendors weren't yet becoming social network aggregators or managing their own clouds on any sort of large scale. Indeed, the concept was way ahead of the curve: in late 2009 at the Cliq's announcement, only webOS Synergy was vaguely on the same page. Even today, iOS hasn't gotten on board.

The problem is that in the year and a half since, Android has advanced in countless ways. Google's oft-maligned pace of development on the platform has run circles around OEMs, Motorola included. Many of those advancements have deprecated key features of Blur, and so I can't explain why those features of Blur continue to appear in new devices -- essentially unmodified -- other than foolish corporate pride or the company's wrongheaded belief that it should carry forward outdated functionality in the name of consistency. It's illogical, it's maddening, and it detracts from these amazing phones that the company keeps releasing.

Allow me to give you an obvious example. Blur's Facebook and Twitter integration are famously bad, forcing local contact synchronization and offering views and update mechanisms that don't generally line up with how people use either service in the real world. Fortunately, since Blur's introduction, Android has added native contact integration with third-party services -- and both Facebook and Twitter have produced their own applications that directly interface with that capability. Though you might argue that those apps aren't the best in the Market, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone that believes they aren't better than Blur. Alas, Motorola has continued with its own wonky integration, either unaware or unwilling to admit that there's no longer any reason for its own integration to exist. Even in a best-case scenario, as these services evolve, Motorola will never be able to iterate these integration points as quickly as Facebook, Twitter, TweetDeck, Twidroyd, TweetCaster, or any of the other standalone apps out there. That's nothing to be ashamed of -- Motorola is not a provider of social networking apps. It's a phone manufacturer, and a damn good one. I just wish it'd stop pretending to be the former.

What in the world is going on here?

Let's take a look at another (somewhat related) example -- accounts. Android decoupled the user's Google account from the phone and shuffled it into a separate Accounts screen somewhere around Eclair, if memory serves me correctly. Again, Blur was doing the account management thing way back in Cupcake, and credit should be given where credit is due. It was ahead of its time. But for goodness' sake, Motorola, it's time to give it up. Look at that screen up there: nowadays, Blur simply piggybacks on Android's in-built Accounts screen with its own array of account types that sync to Motorola's cloud. It's perhaps the single most confusing, unforgivable screen on the phone. Who inside Motorola -- what UX designer -- green-lighted this? I'm looking at two different, unrelated types of Facebook and Twitter accounts on the same screen. If I'm not a tech-savvy user who understands some fairly deep ins and outs of Android and Blur, I don't have a prayer of appreciating what's going on here, or what type of account I should choose (hint: it's always the non-Blur type).

I can't speak for bugs in the version of Blur that's loaded on the Atrix, but I know they're there. Modern software is never perfect. I'm not saying that because I don't believe in software engineers, I'm saying that because it's statistically impossible to create perfect software at the levels of complexity we see today (without immense validation costs that are reserved for intensely mission-critical things like space shuttles). And let's not lose sight of the fact that Blur is built on top of a foundation that is itself imperfect. And, of course, skins like Blur slow the process of delivering fixes to that foundation in a timely fashion, which makes this an incredibly complex set of moving parts that are all quickly forgotten and left to crumble as soon as manufacturers and carriers no longer find it financially beneficial to patch and improve.

What's my point? Mainly, it's that I don't really trust Blur to handle my contacts, and that's a huge problem. Data synchronization is an immensely complicated task that very few devices and software packages over the years have managed to get right; stock Android still hasn't managed to do it, but if you just use Google Contacts, you can sort of reach a happy balance these days. You can make it work and place a decent level of trust in it. When you add Blur on top -- which wants to synchronize my contacts to multiple locations, some of which I don't understand, don't want, and can't be removed -- that trust no longer exists. Frankly, I don't know what I'd do if the Atrix borked my Google Contacts, but it would probably involve a long string of obscenities I can't print here, followed by several hours of sobbing, followed by the realization that I don't have a great way to piece all that information back together in a timely fashion.

And let me make this problem more real for you: right now, the Atrix dialer is showing seven more contacts than I have in the My Contacts group in Google. I have no idea what those are, or why they're there. My guess is they're coming in from Blur Contacts (which I don't use and I wish didn't exist), but that's pure speculation. For that matter, I don't even know where the dialer is getting its data, because it has no options for choosing the source -- though I do know that changes I make in Google Contacts are instantly reflected there, so that's a clue. Meanwhile, the phone's actual Contacts app -- which inexplicably has no relation to the contacts list in the dialer -- is just an insane list of thousands of random names culled from Google, Twitter, and whatever other services you've configured through Blur. You can filter down to Google alone, but not My Contacts, which renders the list useless.

As for Blur's look and feel, I know that this is an intensely personal opinion. When it came out in 2009, I thought it looked pretty sharp, and it's still the least "cartoonish" replacement UI offered by any major manufacturer. Since then, it's aged, and today I prefer stock Gingerbread by a wide margin. Frankly, I think we've lost this battle -- manufacturers will insist on differentiating their Android devices by making custom UIs for as long as they're producing Android devices. I'm resigned to that, and it doesn't bother me too much. It's the functionality of the device that has me fired up, not the appearance.

So, Motorola, let me make this very simple: if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. With Google's immense engineering staff all cranking on Android, you can't be blamed for failing to keep up. No OEM can. But that doesn't give you a free pass to produce devices with half-baked add-ons. Remove things that don't work or don't make sense, and don't add them back in until they do work. And furthermore, while there might be some isolated cases where carriers are asking for tamper-resistant bootloaders, using eFuse or a similar technology on a device with a buggy, deeply-flawed ROM is a jerk move (I'd like to use stronger language here, but this is a family site). You're already making some of the finest phone hardware in the world -- now let's get the software into the same league.