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For The Motorola Brand, A Dignified Retirement Isn't Such A Bad Option

The fact that a name has an amazing legacy doesn't mean it should be kept propped up forever.

For The Motorola Brand, A Dignified Retirement Isn't Such A Bad Option
[Photo: Remy Gabalda, AFP, Getty Images]

A little less than a year ago, Chinese PC behemoth Lenovo announced it was buying Motorola Mobility from Google. In the press release announcing the news, it called the Motorola name "iconic" and "world-reknowned," and touted its own expertise at taking good care of famous brands, as it did when it assumed responsibility for the ThinkPad nameplate by acquiring IBM's PC business in 2005.

That was then. Now CNet's Roger Cheng is reporting that Lenovo isn't so smitten with the Motorola brand after all. Henceforth, it's going to downplay it in favor of emphasizing "Moto"—a nickname that Motorola had already embraced in recent years—and pairing that name with Lenovo's own brand.

On the official Motorola blog, the company clarified that it doesn't plan to entirely kill off the Motorola name. But it said that "Moto" is "contemporary and engaging," which is presumably a polite way of suggesting that it's decided that "Motorola" is not.

Unless you're a hundred years old or thereabouts, you don't remember a time when the Motorola brand wasn't part of American culture. It originated in 1930 as a brand applied to car radios by a Chicago manufacturer named Galvin Manufacturing, which explains the "Motor" prefix. The "ola" part was commonplace in branding for electronics at the time, such as Victrola phonographs and Rock-Ola jukeboxes.

A Motorola ad from the glory days

Motorola (which Galvin adopted as its corporate name in 1948) became huge by applying its rather specific name to an dizzying array of products—often helping to pioneer new categories. In its 1967 annual report—just to pick a year at random—it detailed product lines that included TV sets, phonographs, semiconductors, satellite communications systems for space flights, walkie-talkies for police departments, heavy-duty alternators for trucks, and test-scoring machines for schools. And, yes, car radios.

The company made the processor inside the first Macintosh computer. It invented the mobile phone and produced such iconic models as the Star-Tac and Razr. Even recently, Motorola Mobility has done inventive things like selling user-customizable smartphones and helping to jump-start the smart-watch industry.

It's been a long time since Motorola was the Motorola of yore, though. It sold off its defense business in 2001 and spun out its semiconductor arm in 2004. It got rid of its automotive operations in 2006, and in 2010, split itself into two companies. One was the phone business, which Google bought for $12.5 billion in 2011 and then turned over to Lenovo for $2.9 billion (sans patent portfolio) less than three years later. That's the part that is slimming its brand down to "Moto."

There Are Worse Fates

The other stand-alone Motorola created by the 2010 breakup is Motorola Solutions, a maker of everything from two-way radios to body-worn cameras. It's still very much extant and shows no sign of wanting to dump its moniker. So Lenovo's move simply means that the Motorola brand is going to fade away on smartphones and other consumer products. Given that Motorola invented the smartphone, that's sad news.

Motorola's executive team with some of its products, as shown in its 1958 annual report

But not too sad. What's really depressing is what's happened to a bunch of other once-proud American technology brands that eventually fell on hard times. Names such as Bell & Howell, Polaroid, and Westinghouse. They're now zombies, kept alive by licensing programs that allow random companies to use them on products by paying a fee. That's why you can buy Bell & Howell pest repellers, Polaroid headphones, and Westinghouse wine cellars.

(Just to make matters more confusing, part of the old Bell & Howell still exists as a manufacturer of industrial equipment such as envelope-stuffing machines. It's unrelated to the pest-repeller Bell & Howell, a fact it explains at some length on a website page titled "That's not us!")

Then there's Packard Bell, once one of Motorola's archrivals in the radio business, which is now a PC brand used by Acer in numerous countries—but not the U.S., where it originated. The only remaining value it has is that it sounds vaguely familiar.

When a brand becomes a zombie, the best you can hope for is that it's occasionally applied to something at least vaguely presentable, like Polaroid's Cube wearable camera. But I can't imagine that Polaroid's founder Edwin Land, one of the most extraordinary technological innovators and entrepreneurs of all time, would be happy with the Cube, let alone something like a Polaroid Nintendo charging dock.

"Motorola" is already available for rent: A company called Zoom Telephonics, for instance, markets cable modems under the brand. I suspect that there will be companies willing to use the name long after Lenovo loses interest in marketing Moto smartphones.

But you know what? Even if you remain fond of the Motorola brand, as I am, that doesn't mean you should root for it to live on indefinitely. As of right now, Lenovo's Motorola products are still very respectable—and graceful disappearance on a high note would be far preferable to zombification.

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