With Moto X's Custom Exterior, Motorola Learns To Speak Human

It might be the inside that counts, but it's the outside that sells.

Motorola announced Thursday that its new Moto X phone will run on Android 4.2.2, include a software optimized Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, and have a 4.7" active display (316 ppi). But only the geekiest among us knows what any of that actually means. What the rest of us will notice first about the Moto X, and its biggest differentiator, is what’s on the outside.

Instead of a flat back, the phone curves to fit your hand. And instead of standard color options, Motorola is launching a "Moto Maker" website where customers can customize their phone’s design.

Sure, Moto X has some neat technical innovations—a touchless control that brings the phone to life without any buttons and a camera that launches quickly when the phone twists like a screwdriver—but what will drive sales is something more powerful than better specs: A unique exterior that humans, not just geeks, can appreciate.

To most consumers, smartphones look more or less like variations on the same black rectangle. There might be different numbers on signs sitting next to them, but even if shoppers understand specs, there’s nothing intuitively compelling about them. But when a car company allows you to choose your interior details or Nike allows you to design your own shoes, it creates what Moto X head product manager Lior Ron calls "the Ikea effect."

"Once you finish assembling it, you’re emotionally attached to that furniture," Ron says. "It’s now yours. We see the same attachment here. You’ve basically gone through the process to build your phone—you are now emotionally attached to that phone."

At a demo event for press, Motorola displayed its phones with the back, rather than the screen, facing reporters. The company is making a bet on cosmetic features like personalization, and it's a big one. In order to create the curved back, for instance, it designed a new type of curved battery. To create a trendy wood version that will be available later this year, it had to work around the material's low conductivity. And to offer four-day shipping for customized phones, it is moving part of its phone manufacturing process to the United States for the first time—hiring 2,000 people in Fort Worth, Texas, to assemble phones as they’re ordered.

Using Moto X's customization site, which will initially only be available for AT&T versions, customers will choose from 18 different back colors, a black or white front color, and seven accent colors for buttons and the ring around the back camera ("to make it pop," Ron says). They can also print something on the back of their phones, like a name or email address, and change options like the welcome message and wallpaper before the phone is shipped to them. Sol Republic will make matching earbuds, headphones, and speakers.

Black or white versions of Moto X will be available with five carriers by early September. All 16GB versions—custom or not—cost $199 with contract. The 32GB version costs $50 more.

The company will take a poll via Facebook (not, interestingly enough, a Google+ poll) to help determine future color options. The current palette was meticulously selected based on user research. "It felt at times like being a fashion designer, designing a summer collection," Ron says.

You read that right: Fashion, at Motorola.

[AP Images | Line up image: Fast Company]

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