Android Influencer: Motorola's Seang Chau chats bloatware, and Motorola's lack thereof

seang chau
Credit: Motorola

It's easy to fall into the bloat-y app trap if you're an Android manufacturer, but Chau insisted throughout our interview that Motorola resists the urge.

Bloatware is absolutely the worst. And though we all hate it, it has somehow become an expected byproduct of being an Android user. Most manufacturers don’t limit how many extra apps and software modifications they bundle in with a new device.

But one company that’s been particularly consistent about avoiding bloatware and excessive interface skins is Motorola. It’s stayed committed to putting forth bloat free, mostly-stock Android devices, while also building in features that its users will actually use.

I spent some time chatting via email with Motorola’s Senior Vice President of software engineering, Seang Chau, all about the bloatware problem and how Motorola manages not to fall into the bloat-y trap. Chau said he’s committed to keeping Motorola’s products clean and assured me that Lenovo’s acquisition won’t change the company’s stance on skinning Android.

Greenbot: Software is a big deal in the world of Android, even though Google’s mobile operating system is open source. What is Motorola’s goal with the Android OS? And what motivates it to keep its version of Android close to Google’s?

Chau: Our goal is to make the most responsible and assistive smartphones in the world, so we put a lot of emphasis on understanding in-depth how people use their smartphones throughout the day. We’ll look at all the things they do—every step—and ask ourselves, how can we make this better?

You’d be surprised at how often the answer to those questions is to not do anything. Don’t change the color of the status bar. Don’t skin the email application, the Lock screen, the Home screen, or the launcher. If users want their applications and screens to look different, they’ll download the app they want. Android’s great flexibility lets you do this—something I think they really nailed with their “be together, not the same” slogan.

The benefit of not trying to change everything is that we can give our users a high performance phone that leaves as much memory and storage as possible for their own apps and content, with a battery that lasts. Then, we can focus our efforts on areas where we can make a tangible difference in improving the experience. Visually, our smartphones look and behave like pure Android. But under the hood we’ve made hundreds of enhancements that enable them to run faster and use less power on our hardware. That lets us do things like create the Moto E, which is inexpensive and yet more responsive than phones that cost three times as much. It also lets us focus on things like Moto Voice or Quick Capture that enable things that Android itself simply cannot do, and that come back to making things that users do every day work better.

Greenbot: How do you decide what kind of features to include in Motorola’s version of Android? Like Moto Voice, for instance: how did that come to be?

Chau: That comes from observation, coupled with insights. Let me use both Moto Voice and Moto Display as examples:

If you follow a heavy smartphone user around all day, you’ll notice that they check their phones all the time. We have a fear of missing out, and that leads to constantly checking our phones for notifications. It’s actually a fairly involved process: Take the phone out of your purse or pocket. Wake the display. Unlock it if necessary to see if anything important has come up. This means putting your phone in hand, clicking it on, and looking at the Lock screen to see if anything important came up.

We asked ourselves how we could make this interaction easier. The answer was to provide enough information about notifications on the display of a sleeping phone so you’d know if you needed to wake and unlock it. It takes a combination of hardware and software to make this work in a way that doesn’t impact battery life. The result is a phone that is more useful because it surfaces important information even while it’s asleep.

With Moto Voice, the question was a bit different. We asked ourselves how we could make your phone more useful in those situations where you simply don’t have your hands available, or where your phone is out of reach. What could be more natural than talking to it? As with Moto Display, it’s a combination of software and hardware that builds on Android in a complementary way rather than competing with it or obscuring it.

Greenbot: When you’re thinking of new, interesting software features to add to Motorola’s phones, where do you start? How do you field ideas?

Chau: We believe that your smartphone should be taking care of you and making your life easier. But if you think about how you interact with and use your phone today, you might come to the opposite conclusion—that you are actually your phone’s caretaker. It never learns who you are or optimizes itself for your routines. It’s programmed the way someone somewhere decided is the best way for you to use it. Your allegedly “smart” phone has no idea what you are doing right now, nor does it care. It will ring. It will beep. It will notify you of this or that. And we’re now conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to check it right away because we might’ve missed something.

We put a lot of emphasis on ideas that enable your Motorola phone to self-configure for you, so it can truly be the most personal device in the world. Our motto is “power to choose,” and that goes beyond personalizing the look of the device, though we’re pretty proud of that. Software such as Moto Assist is designed to personalize itself for you automatically so the phone can truly be smarter and therefore more helpful and responsive.

We’re finding that people really like this, and it’s a big part of the reason why they recommend our phones to others now.

Greenbot: There’s some fear from diehard Android users that now that Lenovo and Motorola are in business together, we’ll start seeing some of Lenovo’s Android skin spilling over into Motorola’s product department. Is it a possibility?

Chau: I have a lot of respect for what Lenovo has done, and they’ve returned the favor by being very supportive of our software and product strategy. They like what we’re doing, and they think it’s the right thing for us. We have no plans to adopt a skin, but we’re definitely open to leveraging key aspects of Lenovo’s technologies and capabilities that help us to build better products and deliver on our own vision.

Greenbot: What’s the real story behind that? Is there anything you can tell us about the Lenovo and Motorola partnership in regards to software?

Chau: In areas where Lenovo is strong or has built capabilities Motorola hasn’t, we would look for ways to leverage their work. But Motorola has been building Android devices for over six years. We are getting very good at fine-tuning and measuring performance and quality. Even our former parent in Mountain View learned a thing or two from us. Lenovo has been really open about learning from our experience.

Greenbot: Alright, now on to the fun questions: How long have you been an Android user?

Chau: Like many early Android adopters, my first Android device was the HTC G1, the very first commercial Android device, which debuted way back in 2008. But I switched to the Motorola Cliq shortly thereafter.

Greenbot: Which phone are you sporting now?

Chau: Right now I’m carrying three: the second generation Moto G; a Moto X with beautiful red Horween leather; and a Sapphire Blue Droid Turbo.

Greenbot: What’s your favorite Motorola feature? Past or present?

Chau: Our focus on battery life and fast charging has to be my favorite. If your phone’s battery is dead, other features don’t really matter.

Greenbot: What is one app that you absolutely cannot live without?

Chau: Like most Californians, I drive a lot, and that makes Google Maps with turn-by-turn directions and integrated Waze traffic information priceless. The other application I use every day is GroupMe. I have my entire extended family on group chats that keep us closer and more informed that we’ve ever been.

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