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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

[Engadget] How an AT&T smartphone comes to life: behind the scenes (part two)

By now, you're probably getting a pretty good idea at what goes into the development of a groundbreaking smartphone. In part one we followed the development of the Motorola Atrix 4G, discussing the process of how AT&T decided upon a design and collaborated with Moto to get the ball rolling. Now, we conclude the series by covering the intense testing process, getting the device prepared for launch and updating the phones after they're released.


Every facet of the phone's development is important, but making sure the device actually does what it's supposed to do is understandably mandatory. AT&T praises itself for having some of the highest standards in testing, though it's impossible for us to verify without being able to compare notes with the other US carriers (Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, we await your valued input anytime you wish to divulge this information).

The lab cycle

After all of the collaboration back and forth between AT&T's and Motorola's product teams, doesn't it feel like the Evora should be a polished product by now? Nope, not even close. It was September 2010 when the phone reached the testing labs. Making it to this stage was no small feat in and of itself, but the device still had a long road ahead of it. Think about it this way: AT&T wanted to have the product ready to ship in time for the holidays, and Black Friday was a mere two months away. The LapDock hadn't even been sent to testing yet at this point, which goes to show how much was left on the team's plate before the phone would be ready to hit shelves. We know what it's like to have an impossible deadline, so we can relate.

The carrier wants its test devices to be completely defined, with all of the specs as close to final as possible -- and it requires that the OEM gets its handsets validated by a third party to ensure all of AT&T's quality metrics are met.

After reaching the labs, the Evora had to endure thousands upon thousands of test cases. AT&T has the ability to mimic and simulate virtually any type of network condition or environment that it can possibly think of, and runs the device through all of them to see if it can reproduce any issues. An average test lab contains 1,200 servers and about 100 cell sites, which enables them to simulate specific cities, frequencies and technologies. Need to see how the Evora operates on 1900MHz HSPA+ in Portland, OR? No problem. What about 850MHz UMTS service in Baltimore? Easy as pie. But why would the signal be any different in these cities? Because each individual market typically uses a specific infrastructure provider: AT&T contracts companies such as Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent to build out the carrier's network, but each one is chosen to do so for a given city or market. The variety of providers adds to the complexity of the network and its operation, and it's up to the testing lab to mimick every possible scenario a customer may face -- no matter how unlikely -- to make sure the phone isn't going to act wonky. 

Every simulation's run in a copper cage -- no bigger than your run-of-the-mill walk-in closet -- that's capable of blocking out all outside signals so as to not interfere with the tests (or leave them out in the open to be discovered by curious folks, for that matter). These labs also run tests on firmware updates, radiation, audio quality and any accessory that gets sold in AT&T retail stores. They've set up a bug tracking system that both companies' teams have access to; bugs are assigned a severity level as a method of prioritizing phone issues that need to be resolved, and the process to close out each individual bug is incredibly detailed and closely tracked.

Severity level one is anything that negates service, and absolutely none are acceptable in a final product. These types of issues aren't simply referring to things like dropped calls or network frustrations, though that certainly comes into play in the labs. Anything that prevents service or possible use of the phone is slotted into the top echelon of priority. To give us an example of something that's considered service-negating, Dante showed us one of the Evora units used during testing and had us go into the web browser. Once there, he asked us to try pressing the home key -- and nothing happened. The inability to properly use all of the buttons should be a top-priority fix, naturally.

Severity level two issues are those that are seriously frustrating to the user, and affect their enjoyment of the device: copy and paste doesn't work properly, the phone won't let you switch calls or perhaps the speakerphone doesn't work quite as well as it should. Too many infractions on this level will pause the phone's progress and it can't continue until they're fixed, though one or two penalties might be pushed through if the OEM commits to fixing it as soon as possible. Good to hear that these types of issues are taken care of before reaching final approval; could you imagine owning a phone that wouldn't let you switch or merge calls?

Finally, a level three issue is basically an improvement ticket -- a small bug that AT&T would like fixed in a post-launch maintenance release, and is something to be addressed in future products to ensure it doesn't show up again.

Usability testing

The usability tests for the Evora began in October, which means they were run at the same time the device was still in the lab. Each product goes through a slough of usability tests to help the two companies learn more about how people interact with it. The teams watch multiple people as they use the device to see if they can use it easily and comfortably. Can testers navigate through a certain menu structure quickly enough? Are they tripping up somewhere on the phone? If anything is found that adversely affects the user experience, the teams try to incorporate new things into the phone to make sure it doesn't keep happening. "If we look at incorporating best practices and improving user experience and take out extra steps, the customer becomes satisfied and becomes recommenders," Chris told us. As mentioned earlier, we have a difficult time believing that testers were completely happy with MotoBlur, but at least the UI has improved since the Atrix was launched.

There are some areas of the user experience in which only a few people seem to trip up on. When these issues arise, the team begins to look at other avenues to take care of the concern. For instance, is it something that could be addressed by adding a small blurb into the Quickstart guide that comes with the phone? If not, that particular case -- and others like it -- is worked through in one of the Evora's post-launch maintenance releases and incorporated into any future Motorola phone with similar features.

Lapdock and Webtop

Motorola's unique Webtop environment and accompanying laptop dock were born alongside Evora and given the codename Virgil to differentiate its development. It was going to be a brand new product, a concept that nobody had really tackled head-on before. And not just that, it was the perfect fit for AT&T and Motorola's vision of a groundbreaking device that would completely change the industry. Because it was such an unknown, both companies were going to be taking a huge risk by bringing it to market, because the costs involved in developing the laptop dock and the full Webtop experience were astronomical. How would it be used? What direction should we take the vision? What value will this be to customers? Can you get this thing to do what you need it to without having a PhD?
Since the LapDock was primarily geared toward the business professional, AT&T needed feedback from legit sources to get it right. On September 15th, the carrier invited CIOs from ten different companies to meet together under a Non-disclosure Agreement (NDA). These executives had no idea what they were going to see; it could've been a data card, for all they knew. The unveiling consisted of a few carefully crafted demos, since the Lapdock was so early in its development that not everything was working properly. But the mission was a success: the idea of incorporating Citrix functionality was brought up at the meeting, not to mention a few other additions that were either included in the first-generation models or pushed to later versions (details on those other additions weren't given). Citrix made it into the final first-gen product, but barely made the cut.

The LapDock made its way into the labs near the end of September, not even two weeks after the CIO meeting. Again, the device met AT&T's rigid stability requirements, but it still had plenty of bugs to work out. The lab would find issues and send the trouble tickets over to Motorola, which would then be addressed by spinning new software updates to the labs and repeating the cycle over and over.

Virgil was ready for usability testing in October, but it was still such a secretive process to this point that none of the internal teams even knew about it -- it had only been on an exclusive "need to know" basis so far. So, NDAs were issued to the usability testers, which is a pretty burdensome deal. Why? Not just anyone can be given access to something with such a high level of confidentiality; Dante had to go through a vetting process to determine who would be offered the NDA, and the lucky contestants were required to read and acknowledge it before any more progress could be made on the project.

The testers were faced with a rather tough challenge when Virgil showed up. Here was a completely new product that they'd never seen before, which meant that a full set of test cases had to be thought up. With such a tight deadline to make this work, Dante admits that he wasn't the most popular guy in the world for a while. "But," he said, "we had to do what we had to do."

Prepping for launch

By the time October and November rolled around, the teams knew Evora and Virgil weren't going to be ready in time for the holiday season, but at least a CES deadline was somewhat feasible. Launching a game-changer at the largest consumer electronics show in the world would give the carrier a boatload of publicity, not to mention the momentum AT&T needed going into the device's release (after all, we did deem it to be the best smartphone of the show). It still wasn't going to be easy though: it was red alert from this time forward, and nobody got much sleep the rest of the way -- we can envision several of them asleep at their desks, empty coffee mugs in hand. There were some huge last-minute changes that needed to be made before making the final launch preparations.

Hardware changes and delays

There's a huge reason AT&T doesn't like to make last-minute hardware changes on any of its devices unless it's an absolute must: it involves a hard tradeoff. Even the slightest adjustment usually translates into six to eight weeks, since the OEM has to first manufacture the product and push it through the full test cycle another time. Any hardware or firmware change requires the complete litany of tests all over again, because even the smallest of adjustments can break something else on the device that'd previously worked perfectly fine. Ah, the fun life a software tester leads.

Delays like this become even more costly when you consider how compressed the lifespan of a phone has become. The Atrix is a great example of this, since its sequel launched not even nine months later. Taking six weeks out of a product's nine-month lifecycle to fix issues or make changes means there's that much less time to sell the device before the market changes and the phone becomes obsolete. Thus, lost revenue opportunity -- not hilarity -- ensues. With such a groundbreaking device on the line, further delays were simply unacceptable.

Two key factors can cause delays. First, there's a serious quality issue that prevents the phone from reaching Technical Acceptance (final software certification) and the problem isn't being solved by new builds. Second, the market changes and AT&T sees a need to incorporate a different feature into the phone to make it as successful as possible. "Sometimes we decide [together with our OEM partner] that it just has to be done in order to push the product forward," Dante said.

Of course, tiny wrinkles happen all the time in device launches, and teams are used to dealing with these types of unforeseen circumstances that these obstacles hardly ever affect the timing of the handset's release. Just because the screen protectors designed to fit the Atrix 4G don't function properly, doesn't mean the train stops moving. So many things move along in parallel, and if one item gets completed en route to launch, more resources are reallocated to strengthen the other parts of the phone's development.

But the Evora project had a couple hardware-related concerns that were more significant than mere wrinkles, neither of which we're able to speak on. However, Motorola and AT&T made excellent use of the opportunity to update other components in the phone as well; in such a dynamic market, prices can come down swiftly and market trends can move incredibly fast. One of the big changes AT&T wanted to make was the inclusion of HSPA+ -- the Evora was originally designed without the next-gen tech in the works.

Looking back to the first quarter of last year, Verizon was busy making preparations to launch its LTE network around the same time the Atrix was supposed to come out, and T-Mobile was already rolling out 21Mbps HSPA+ service. Leaving an HSPA+ radio out of the Evora's design seems like a monstrous oversight, right? We know that AT&T had originally planned to simply leapfrog the tech on its way to deploying LTE, but just a week before the Evora was greenlit, Ralph de la Vega declared that his company intended to build out 3.5G sometime in 2011. There was more than sufficient time to switch tracks at this stage in the development process... or so it seemed.

We have a theory on why HSPA+ was left out until the last minute. The phone was originally expected to launch during the 2010 holiday season, ahead of the time that the next-gen tech would blanket the great lands of this nation. However, once AT&T knew the Atrix would be delayed into 2011 and the timeframe for HSPA+ deployment became much more clear, it likely made more sense to add the radio. After all, Motorola was adding a few things to the spec list already, so why not make sure the upcoming flagship device had all of its other components completely up-to-date as well? It's a good thing, too: it's hard to imagine the Atrix, a smartphone marketed as the carrier's top-notch flagship, being released without at least 14.4Mbps connectivity, let alone anything faster -- not this year, certainly.

To the relief of both companies, Motorola was able to refresh the hardware rather fast, delivering the new build to the labs in the middle of November. And the testing cycle started from scratch. It was becoming clear that the device would, worst-case, be ready to announce at CES.

Naming the device

What's in a name? In this industry, everything. When titles like Inspire, Revolution and Transfix reign supreme, it's just way too easy to mock phone names on a regular basis, and we doubt we're going to stop anytime soon. We get it, though -- the value companies take in finding a marketable name that's easy to remember is obviously priceless. Evora is just a codename, of course, so how did it turn into Atrix and why?

In general, the carrier and OEM both have a hand in a phone's name, but AT&T prefers to be in the driver's seat. The team generates a list of possible names to take to their legal department, which performs a trademark search and whittles it down to roughly one-tenth of the size -- and usually it's the worst from the list (all the best ones, we presume, are already taken). If they can't decide on a name, the process repeats until they stumble upon something good.

The team generates a list of possible names to their legal department, which performs a trademark search and whittles the selection down.

The Evora was ready to obtain an official name in November, and it had a couple top contenders that had passed legal muster: Glory and Catapult. Dante's team felt that Glory just didn't mesh well with the features they were trying to perpetuate, and Catapult just sounded too... medieval. But everyone loved "Atrix." Since it's a bleeding-edge phone for the tech enthusiast, it should have a futuristic name. Not only that -- starting with the letter A is always good, there aren't too many syllables and the X at the end adds an element of coolness. Making up words can definitely be cool, but it's a gamble. Dante educated us on the danger of diving into the realm of made-up names too often:
One of the nice things about a made-up word is that your message is the assigned value to it... the problem is, if you do it too often, you start sounding like you're coming up with baby talk or gobbledy-gook and it no longer makes sense. There's a fine line there.


We weren't able to glean a lot of information from Dante or Chris on how the pricing of phones is determined. The process is incredibly complex and depends on a number of factors, such as component pricing (which, due to the dynamic industry, is always changing), the carrier's target segment and, as you'd expect, some influence from the OEM. Sometimes pricing can even be affected by either partner's willingness to promote the device (more on that later).

The carrier's decision to begin selling the Atrix 4G at a $200 price point wasn't anything that warranted shock value. The cost of Motorola's LapDock accessory, however, was. We loved the idea of a laptop dock with Webtop built-in, but it certainly wasn't worth $500. AT&T was stuck between a rock and a hard place here: the carrier wasn't oblivious to the fact that the device was highly priced, but a much different business model applies to unsubsidized accessories. Says Dante:
"When you're working with an OEM who's used to carriers using one model and that's how they price, and then they price to us the same way to something we can't apply that model to, it doesn't work out very well."
In other words, without attaching a contract to accessories, AT&T was constrained to keep the LapDock at standard retail pricing, though it was willing to take a hit on profit by bundling the phone and device together in one purchase.

Motorola spared no expense in making the LapDock, which not only included a stellar battery for the form factor, a durable magnesium enclosure and individual metallic keys, but also incurred significant R&D costs associated with a first-gen device and a brand new ecosystem. We're witnessing some validation of that, as the next generation of the LapDock -- namely, the 100 and 500 -- is coming to market at a significantly lower cost.

Controlling leaks

Leaks. They're a fact of life for the tech media, the proliferation of which we participate in daily. Rumors of the latest and greatest (heck, even the blasé) handsets roam free across the internet like a pack of wild buffalo, whether they're true or not. As we learned in our meeting with Chris and Dante, leaks like these frustrate product managers to no end. It stings, but why? According to Chris:
We have an investment. If there's a leak, it can have a detrimental impact on the perception, or when there's a misquote and an assumption is made, then Dante has to work twice or three times as hard to try and convince people that's not what the product was, it never was that, but the decision has already been made, the court of opinion has already been flawed."
Dante went on to explain that each phone AT&T launches has a unique story to tell, since they're meant to reach different segments of the market and hit various groups of people based on what they care about. It's all about projecting the company's vision to the customer. Leaked phones tell no tales, because media organizations report on what components they feature and what they look like, rather than the "story" the carrier's hoping to portray. This especially speaks volumes to any device that isn't considered state of the art and may get negative points for not having the best specs on the market. "They can never set the right expectation," he said.

"We've never personally been involved with a purposeful leak. It's not in our best interest. One thing can go right while 99 things can go wrong."

Since product managers like Chris and Dante are forced to go into damage control mode as a result of harmful leaks, we asked if they ever seed a counter-leak on purpose to resolve the problem. They told us:

We've never personally been involved with a purposeful leak... it's not in our best interest. It's like one thing can go right while 99 things go wrong. We don't know how that makes sense.
The managers went on to say that no matter how something gets leaked, the information goes through the telephone game: no matter what you say, it'll be different once it gets to the other end, and the perception of the truth is altered. Granted, we didn't see a horrible alteration of the Atrix 4G when it was leaked as the Olympus, but that isn't the case with every phone. We'll give kudos to Dante and his team, however, for keeping the LapDock virtually leak-free.

Promoting and marketing the device

This part of the process is when the claims come out to play: "the world's most powerful phone," "the world's fastest phone" and other similar marketing terminology is pushed through AT&T's legal team to make sure the company remains free from the threat of any possible lawsuits.

It's also the time when the product managers determine if the Atrix 4G will be a hero device. Ultimately, a phone is a hero candidate when it either moves the ball forward from a feature standpoint or offers some type of value proposition -- the Impulse 4G is an excellent example of a hero that gets a lot of TV time for this very reason. The carrier will also negotiate with vendors to promote devices, which in turn can lower the price.

"Even though we do a lot of phones, it's not really a cookie cutter process," Dante explains. "New things become important... in general, we have the baseline for each launch. The idea is always to build on that. With each launch we're working with OEMs on new ways to promote it." Samsung and AT&T teamed up to sponsor the most recent Keith Urban US tour, which involves the superstar shooting video with an Infuse 4G. The opportunities to market phones are incredibly diverse, which forces the carrier to get creative.

First Article Inspection

Just as the Atrix spent time getting tested in the labs, pre-production units are seeded to a decent number of field testers to try out in real-life situations. But as these aren't the final units coming off the actual production lines, AT&T wanted to make sure that devices destined to wind up in customers' hands are as good -- if not better -- than what's been tested already. This is where Final Article inspection (FAI) comes in.

To obtain the coveted FAI status, Motorola sent AT&T a few hundred devices from the final Atrix production line to go through the entire suite of tests one last time. Sounds so sentimental, doesn't it? Once the phone passed, the vendor got the green light to begin flooding all of the available distribution channels -- a process that took around two weeks.

Know why AT&T will, more often than not, announce that a device is heading to stores "in the coming weeks?" FAI may occur two weeks before the phone actually gets shipped out; if something goes wrong and it doesn't receive that approval, everything the PR reps promised is no longer true and everyone has egg on their face.

The carrier may elect to announce a phone at CES or CTIA but prohibit the device from being turned on, handled or photographed -- much to our chagrin, of course. This happens because those handsets haven't yet reached FAI and officially aren't finalized. AT&T gets nervous when it comes to negative first impressions and hands-ons because the software may be pre-production quality. We'll offer an example: the Samsung Infuse 4G (shown above) was announced alongside the Atrix 4G at CES 2011, but media wasn't allowed to touch it or take pictures of its back. The phone wouldn't officially launch until May -- roughly four months later -- and was nowhere near achieving FAI. It was definitely not the carrier's style to announce new phones so early, but AT&T's reason for doing so was to further emphasize that it was making some huge leaps to embrace Android. Still, the event sent out mixed signals and the message wasn't clearly received, which ultimately caused much more damage than AT&T had intended.

Preparing all channels

Now that it has the official name and made its way through the proper legal channels, the Atrix is ready to get a final review on the packaging and materials. The box, accessories, Quickstart guide, and so on are all given the thumbs-up here. Which accessories are included in the box is typically related to keeping the device cost as reasonable as possible, while accentuating certain customer experiences at the same time -- such as HDMI cables or stereo headphones, in some cases.

The last few weeks before a device's launch are the most hectic. It typically involves achieving FAI for the final go-ahead, getting all of the marketing materials ready to go, training employees, communicating the proper information to PR reps so they can talk about the device intelligently to the press, distributing review units and shipping out the Atrix to retail, third party and eCom channels. So many elements work together simultaneously to make sure everything is aligned correctly and the launch will be a success.

Launch day and beyond

Team Dante's hard work didn't stop the moment the Atrix 4G was released; far from it, in fact. The device was solid and in great working condition, but there were wrinkles that still needed to be ironed out after its official outing. So now what?

Rapid response

The first day of sales, February 22nd, was all hands on deck and a war room was set up for rapid response (we can't help but picture a standard red rotary phone in the middle of a conference room), so any snafus that show up could be worked out: if the SKU didn't ring up in the register at the corporate stores, for instance, it needed to be resolved immediately.

From that point on -- day of launch and beyond -- Dante was constantly on the lookout for any feedback he could get. Media reviews, social networking (Twitter, for instance) and word of mouth are very important to determining what went wrong and how to correct it in this device and in future models. This is where maintenance releases and bug fix updates become crucial.

Firmware updates

People begin using the phone in ways the product managers never imagined. Feedback on bugs and other issues gets back to the team. The next version of the OS comes out. All of these scenarios occur with every device, which means Dante and Chris need to be on the ball in cranking out updates and maintenance releases. As often is the case, these refreshes take a while to push through. Five moons had passed before the phone was ready to get Gingerbread. The main reason for this is that placing new firmware on existing hardware involves much more than just the click of a button. Chris told us:

Just like in the labs [the first time around], when new software is introduced we have to go through the full gauntlet of tests from this end to that end all over again. New software can always introduce new bugs in areas that were fine before, and the last thing you want to do is take a person who's happy with their phone, and they update it and it doesn't work as well anymore. People think with upgrades that they're getting more. You don't want to break anything. That's why we go through the same rigorous testing in these updates, we don't want to have a negative impact on a customer experience.

There's a fine line between ensuring a good upgrade experience without actually making it worse for the user. But because of this, updates have a tendency to take longer to roll out. Android devices, for instance, appear to be the most difficult. Google announces Gingerbread, OEMs finally get their hands on the source, they push it through their own development cycle to build their own UI onto it (such as MotoBlur, in the case of the Atrix), and then it has to undergo QA (Quality Assurance) tests to ensure the firmware update is good enough to get into AT&T's labs -- and that's when carrier testing can finally begin.

Sometimes, as the managers claimed was the case with the Samsung Captivate, new versions of the OS can take longer to push out on older hardware. According to Chris:

Dealing with devices that are mature in their lifecycle, getting software with new features that are built for newer hardware, means even more grueling regression tests to make sure it doesn't break the phone or any other aspect of the product. Anything that doesn't meet the criteria has to go through the process all over again.

Where's the 4G uploading?

Prior to the Atrix's release, Dante's team already had items on the list for a post-launch maintenance fix. One of these, if you may recall, was the enabling of HSUPA speeds. Here was a device advertised as having 4G capabilities, but only HSDPA -- the download portion of the next-gen network -- actually came enabled on the Atrix when it launched (as well as the HTC Inspire 4G, launched in the same timeframe).

We were left utterly confused as to why this was the case -- was it the biggest oversight in the world, or was AT&T leaving it out on purpose? No matter the answer, the carrier either looks stupid or mean. We asked Dante, who insists it was the latter, but not because the carrier wanted to be a jerk. Instead, it was a result of AT&T's last-minute addition of HSPA+ back in November; additional time was apparently needed to push it out.

We thought, what can we make happen in time? That's how we ended up where we did. We got our MR out as fast as we possibly could to address it, but my rationale was -- as long as you can download your videos at a good clip, you don't sit there and wait while you're uploading something... we wanted it in there. But we had to get the product out there; we didn't want to delay any further.
It's understandable that software changes can take a fair amount of time to implement correctly. But if the uploading capability had been done in concert with HSDPA, how much longer would it have been delayed?

Knowing the journey helps us come to a greater appreciation of the destination. It's not an easy job to come out with a smartphone lineup that pleases everyone, and we certainly got a sense of the pressure Dante's team felt in getting a landmark phone ready and in shipshape condition. The Motorola Atrix 4G wasn't a perfect handset, of course, but it reached its intended goal: it was supposed to be a game-changer, and it's hard to deny that it was. And don't get us wrong, we still -- and always will -- have our concerns about the extraordinary amount of influence carriers hold over phone manufacturers throughout this process, but we cannot refute the fact that Dante and Chris gave us a new perspective on what actually goes into creating a masterpiece.

[Engadget] How an AT&T smartphone comes to life: behind the scenes (part one)

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes to get a smartphone pushed to market? If you have, congratulations on advancing to the next echelon of mobile geekhood. We've often pondered the same thing ourselves, but the industry has been historically tight-lipped about the ins and outs of designing, testing and launching a smartphone. Fortunately, our thirst for knowledge was quenched by none other than AT&T, which happily loaned us the time of two senior product managers, the folks that make the magic happen. 

Dante and Chris (last names withheld, per request) have the ultimate geek dream job: they don't just play with the latest prototypes, they're the ones who make sure they get made. Pretty plush gig, right? They're the ringleaders -- the decision makers responsible for making AT&T's smartphone lineup come to life, and their duty is to do it in a way that keeps the carrier at the front lines of innovation. So what drives these two men? What goes into their thought process, and what exactly happens behind locked doors in order to produce a groundbreaking smartphone? Join us in this two-part series as we learn some of their secrets.

The life of a product manager

We met up with the duo at the AT&T campus in downtown Redmond, WA. This three-building facility is where much of the smartphone magic takes place; a large part of the product team and most of the testing labs are based here. Even though Western Washington was rainy and gloomy -- anyone who's paid Seattle a visit will know that this isn't anything out of the ordinary -- the weather didn't seem to affect anyone we met. There was no mistaking that these two gentlemen love what they do.

We'd like to think that being a product manager simply means that you get to play with cool gadgets that nobody else gets to see, but there's a lot more to developing the latest and greatest innovations than just playing around with prototypes: those in this position have a colossal influence on which devices make it into AT&T's lineup, and how well they're received once they get to market. Needless to say, it's a huge responsibility. Dante, the man calling the shots on the development of the Motorola Atrix 4G (which we'll cover more in-depth), lives or dies by how his products fare. He accepts the blame if the phone's a failure, but he's quick to dish credit out to everybody on the team when it's a success.

AT&T is a polarizing company, to say the least. Poll two different people on their opinion of its wireless network, and more often than not you'll get completely opposite answers. But whether you love or hate the company, the gentlemen we sat down with seemed genuinely concerned in how their products are received. "We have a service contract with customers," Chris said. "We have to honor that -- it's sacred to us." What exactly does this mean, though?

In short, it's the product manager's job to produce a phone capable of lasting the entire length of a customer's contract, typically a full two years. "There's a misconception that we want you to buy a new phone every six months," Chris told us. "On the contrary, we're trying to create a lifetime relationship with our customers." The terms "sacred" and "service contract" were brought up several times throughout our discussion, indicating that user experience is one of their primary focus points. Whether or not they actually succeed at this is a burden that rests squarely on their shoulders -- as hard as they may work to make it an enjoyable phone, all of the fingers of blame point back to them if you loathe your handset.

But producing a phone doesn't just happen overnight. The development cycle of a typical smartphone -- going from conception to a full-out launch -- usually ranges from ten to eighteen months, and each handset faces a long and arduous journey along the way. AT&T considers itself one of the toughest cookies in the biz, and won't slap its logo on just any 'ol device. OEMs that want access to 100 million potential customers are required to meet stringent criteria and submit their hardware to intense testing.

One of the most intriguing smartphones of 2011 was Dante's project, the Motorola Atrix 4G. It was going to be AT&T's crown jewel, a flagship product with groundbreaking features. It was the first dual-core mobile device in the US, it offered a fingerprint sensor that doubles as a power button, and the most unique part of the project was Motorola's new game-changing Webtop environment and laptop dock. But a phone like the Atrix doesn't appear out of nowhere, so we were eager to talk to Dante and Chris about the process.

RFP - Request for Proposal

The RFP cycle encompasses the full genesis of the device. It begins with the creation of a formal document that lists the various traits and features AT&T desires. Since it takes so long to crank out a phone, the company needs to predict what the market's going to look like over a year in advance. This means our friends Dante and Chris have to ask themselves a few questions to hone their forecasting skills. What will be considered state of the art by then? How can we offer a truly groundbreaking product at that time? What will be on the low-end? What are customers going to want their phones to do? Answering these questions isn't easy, which is why AT&T has an advanced planning group that looks into all of the chipsets, displays and other components on the horizon.

The length of time a phone takes from conception to launch depends on a few factors: if the project was initiated by AT&T and the OEM needs extra time to work all of the crucial conceptual stuff, there are loads of extra vetting, testing and refining that needs to take place before the final product is ready. However, if the vendor brings a phone to the table that's already in development -- like the Samsung Galaxy S II, for instance -- the testing phase can be considerably shorter. The same rules often apply for second and third-gen models, as they usually use the same platform and UI and have less wrinkles to iron out.

As for the Atrix 4G, it was conceived to be a truly game-changing and innovative product, something AT&T arguably hadn't had since it signed the iPhone exclusivity agreement. Its RFP began in the final quarter of 2009. To offer perspective, this was right when the HTC Tilt 2 -- a Windows Mobile 6.5 smartphone -- was released. AT&T didn't have a single Android device in its smartphone lineup at the time; the very first phone sporting Google's mobile OS was the Motorola Backflip, which didn't launch until March 2010. Yet Ma Bell desperately wanted a game-changing Android device that would revolutionize the industry. It wanted the best idea from each vendor.

AT&T didn't have a single Android device in its lineup at the time, yet it desperately wanted a game-changer that would revolutionize the industry.

Each request includes a list of the various attributes, features and characteristics AT&T is looking for. The carrier doesn't have a specific OEM in mind when the RFP is sent out; instead, it goes to every OEM that's expressed interest in participating. Each one has the opportunity to respond to the document with questions of their own, those queries get formally answered, and the process goes back and forth until the vendor's ready to submit its proposal.

In the case of the Atrix, Motorola met with senior AT&T officials (Chris and Dante's bosses) at CES 2010 to show off its concept, codenamed "Evora." It was far from a polished Atrix, of course -- at this stage in the game, it was just an image of the phone's screen with some electrical circuitry. But every phone has to start somewhere, and the cost to manufacture just a few fully-functional prototypes for each proposal is simply too high; cost naturally decreases with mass production, so most OEMs won't put a live model out until "marriage" (the magical time when carrier and vendor get fully committed to a product and it becomes an official project).

OEM proposals come in droves, and the phones submitted to AT&T will vary from crude drawings on a piece of foam all the way to a realistic dummy unit similar to what you'd see shown off in a retail store. During our meeting, we were given a rare look into a box full of proposed devices (shown above, phones blurred to maintain confidentiality). The one we peered into covered a three-month period and contained at least 60 different units, averaging out to one per business day -- and that doesn't even include proposals that don't come with a tangible portrayal. The team sifts through a lot of candidates before finally settling on a short list of devices that it really likes, and only a select few of those get to taste the sweet privilege of being displayed in front of 100 million customers.

After sharing the Evora concept, AT&T came back to Motorola with feedback: in short, it told the OEM, "here's what we like and what we don't, but we're interested enough to continue moving the concept forward." The two companies volleyed the idea back and forth -- the vendor refining it based on the carrier's preferences and receiving more commentary in response -- until by the time CTIA 2010 rolls around in March, Motorola's crafted Evora to a point where AT&T loves it and is ready to get married. All in all, the time between the original request and the happy couple exchanging vows is around three or four months.

While most products follow this kind of courtship, there are a few exceptions. The BlackBerry Torch 9800, for instance, was a product AT&T got the ball rolling on. Instead of making a mass request to every vendor, it instead approached the OEM with a specific idea: can you make a touchscreen BlackBerry with a full QWERTY slider? Not only did RIM take on the project, it liked the finished product so much that it floated the model to other carriers -- causing the lackluster Torch to spread around the world like a disease.

AT&T takes risks from time to time by throwing handsets against the proverbial wall -- not literally, of course -- in hopes that one or two will stick. These guys know it may not crank out stellar sales, but the only way to hit a home run is to swing for the fences, right? This strategy brings to mind the Motorola Backflip and Flipout, but the Pantech Pocket (seen above), with its 4-inch 800 x 600 SVGA display, is the most recent example of such an oddball device. We briefly spoke with Michael Woodward, Vice President, Mobile Device Portfolio (and Dante and Chris's boss), who explained:

We first saw [the Pocket] a year and a half ago and we thought, man, we've never seen something an aspect ratio like that before; we could see a youth-oriented person liking it, but we really had no idea. It's kinda cool, kinda different... we could be surprised.
There doesn't appear to be any set rules or parameters for the selection process, but that's unsurprising due to the dynamic nature of the mobile industry. After all, it's difficult to come up with a standard selection process when dozens of vendors are cranking out hundreds of phones every year, and hardware evolves at a breakneck pace. Thus, AT&T weighs all of the proposals and chooses the phone that it deems the best fit for the desired feature set or customer segment. The project managers convene to narrow the field of potential candidates down to a few of the team's favorites, and takes the finalists to senior management as their recommendation. It's then up to executives such as Jeff Bradley -- SVP of Devices at AT&T -- to give the green light. From there, carrier and OEM are bonded together in an oh-so-beautiful marriage.

Product Definition

Marriage license (award letter) in hand, it's now pedal to the metal for the remainder of the phone's development, all the way up until its launch. The goal for the Evora at this point was to get the handset on shelves in time for the holiday season, which made the project the company's top priority. Normally this kind of flagship phone project would take 18 months, but Dante's team was trying to shave over half a year off that timetable. So, the challenges facing the team were absolutely massive.

This is where the intense collaboration and negotiations began. For AT&T to tackle the Evora project, it wanted to exert considerable influence on all aspects of the phone -- its look, feel, and the component hardware as well. With every phone, the final product never turns out quite the same as the manufacturers envisioned, though. Dante explains:

We don't know of a single instance in which [the OEM] has shown us something and we say 'yes, we'll take that exact phone.' There's always compromises and iterations that we go through.
Evora's product definition took place between April and June of 2010. This is when the device went from a crude drawing on a piece of foam to a real-life prototype that's ready for testing. Teams on both sides sat down to hash out the nitty gritty details: form factor, colors, materials, display size, OS and basic pricing. It was rigorous and complex, and the negotiation was incredibly intense in this stage. 

Once the concepts and specs were set, the project turned its focus to apps and services. In a nutshell, it's where the user experience gets fine-tuned. The two parties work together to determine the UI -- MotoBlur, in this case -- and every element of the full user experience, down to little things like the available options in the firmware's menu structure. Every aspect of the user experience is examined and no stone's left unturned. An entire team on AT&T's side is dedicated to developing for the UX and working directly with Motorola. Chris sums up the complexities of this seemingly simple process thusly:

We want to give our customers latitude to learn new things about their phone, but we also don't want to be so loud and in the customer's face that it distracts from the basic utility of the device... we make judgement calls and weigh them, see if [each aspect of the UX] is too much or too little, and what can we do to make sure that we're putting out services compelling to the customer without being too obnoxious.

There's a fine line, it seems, between coming across as over-the-top and being too conservative -- in this case, an Evora with too much UI saturation versus a plain vanilla Android. 'Course, we believe the Atrix's entire MotoBlur experience should've qualified as too invasive, but admittedly Motorola's recently tweaked its UI to be less in-your-face.

AT&T also encouraged Moto to push the limits a bit further this time -- what's the bleeding edge in our industry, and how far can we push that? As it turned out, that approach resulted in a few significant improvements in the Atrix down the road, as we'll cover shortly. Early evaluation samples of the Evora were looked over, and the two product teams continued to flesh out the finer details and early bugs.

The team was ready to begin the official kickoff within the company, which basically means that the major details about the device were fleshed out and AT&T's internal testing teams could then be alerted to the project. Virgil -- the codename for Motorola's Webtop and LapDock -- remained highly confidential and wouldn't be brought up for yet another few months.


Speaking of overall user experience, August 2010 witnessed the final decision on what apps would come preinstalled on the Evora. Have you purchased a smartphone only to find a litany of preloaded games and programs that are of no interest to you, but you can't delete them? These apps, no-so-affectionately known as "bloatware" and "crapware," have become an ubiquitous part of the smartphone experience. Ironic, given the universal ire they draw from the general public. Yet carriers continue to include the stuff in nearly every single handset. Worse still, very few of them are removable, which means these apps forever remain on your phone, taking up precious storage space. So, what's the big idea?

Most customers want to do whatever they'd like with their own phones, and don't take kindly to apps that you can't get rid of.

Many of the apps, according to the gentlemen at AT&T, haven't been deletable in the past because they weren't available on the Android Market -- in other words, once they were gone there was no way to get them back (aside from wiping your phone and losing all of your other data and apps in the process). No matter the reason for their existence, however, eliminating choice doesn't help the user experience. Most customers want the option to do whatever they'd like with their own phones, and don't take kindly to apps that you can't get rid of -- regardless of what findings come up in UX research.

Fortunately, the problem isn't as rampant as it used to be: the carrier now has its own hub within the Market where it can offer re-downloadable bloatware. That's why (at least in part) the Atrix 4G was the first device offered by the carrier to feature deletable preloads. This wasn't a fluke, either -- many of the smartphones in the lineup, including the Atrix 2, now allow branded apps to be uninstalled. Much like its CDMA competitor Sprint, AT&T received a flood of negative feedback associated with preinstalled apps and is working to streamline their numbers (compare the Atrix with the amount of bloatware Verizon releases on its typical Android phone and you'll see the difference).

Believe it or not, there's method to the madness: AT&T put the Evora through a vetting process to determine the breadth and scope of the apps and services to be featured. First, the carrier came to an agreement on a cap. After all, there's such a thing as too much, so they figured out where to draw the line. If there were too many apps, it'd be time to re-evaluate what got placed on the device and pull something out. Dante told us:

We'll go to the app team and say there's one slot for games, two spots for entertainment apps. Normally, I'll take in what they recommend unless it conflicts with the positioning of the device, and that rarely happens.
Dante goes on to explain that phones with large screens, for example, should feature games and apps that showcase its display size in order to enhance the user experience. Let's Golf 2 and Asphalt 6 were featured on the LG Thrill to accentuate the phone's 3D capabilities. As long as the customer has the option to get rid of these types of apps, that idea holds a lot of traction.

We were curious as to why certain apps were featured more often than others, but there doesn't appear to be any hidden revenue-generating partnerships between carrier and dev -- if any exist, the company's doing a good job keeping them hush-hush. AT&T's app team works directly with both high-caliber development companies like EA and Gameloft, but it also sponsors hack-a-thons and device giveaways to stimulate and encourage smaller developers. The carrier seems to gravitate toward a few preferred apps for the majority of its lineup, but Dante and Chris insist that no special partnerships or agreements are negotiated between them and the developer.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Goodbye Pre, Hello Epic! [REPOST]

I just ran into my very first blog post ever - and it was on Sprint.com. Thought I'd re-post it here.

- September 1, 2010
Two weeks ago, as I was finishing up a late lunch my trusty old (?) Pre buzzed with the good news. I had been selected to participate in the Product Ambassador Program for the shiny, new and monstrous Samsung Epic 4G. I was elated! I spent most of the next week waiting eagerly for the phone to arrive. On Thursday, it finally did, and I could not wait to put it through its paces. What my poor old Pre didnt know was that - good news for me, meant bad news for it. It was going to be replaced - at 4G speeds!
I am not going to walk you through the unboxing experience which you can view in all its glory on YouTube and the like. What I'd like to share with you today is how I made the transition from my Pre to the Epic, and my experiences along the way.
The first thing I needed to do was to activate my device. I logged on to my account at www.sprint.com and clicked on "activate a new phone" The rest of the process was pretty seamless and painless, and a breeze to complete. After a couple of simple steps, my new Samsung Epic 4G was now active.
As I powered on the phone, it struck me the Palm Pre's "Synergy" feature merges my Facebook and LinkedIn contacts with my Exchange contacts (on the device). Since I was so accustomed to seeing all my contacts on my phone, I realized that I'd miss this feature on the Epic. Hmmm.... So this is what I did: Precentral has a very nice "How-to" that shows how you can export all of your contacts as a CSV file. (http://forums.precentral.net/palm-pre/250835-guide-export-your-contacts-csv-pre- pixi.html). Once I used these steps and exported my contacts, I downloaded the CSV on to my computer. I then went into my Gmail account, cleared out all of "My Contacts" and then imported the CSV into "My Contacts" I then went back to the Epic, signed into my Gmail account, and lo & behold all of my contacts were now on my Epic! Pretty sweet, I thought ....until I realized I have a couple of thousand contacts in there that were completely useless (people I had emailed once or twice over the past five years or so). Since the Epic is my first ever Android device, it took me a while to figure out that all I had to do was click on Contacts > Menu > Display Options > Google. On the box that pops up, select "My Contacts" and de-select everything else. Finally, a clean Contacts list! (Notes: (1) Android merges similar contacts into one single contact entry, thereby eliminating duplicates. (2) If all of this sounds painful, you can make your life really easy by taking both your old and new devices into our Ready Now stores and having them take care of this for you; while you drool over our other cool devices )
Next: Email setup. This one turned out to be much easier than I thought. If you aren't sure on what to enter into the boxes that come up, just open up the Email app on the Pre, drill-down to its settings and then just type the same details into the corresponding boxes on the Epic email setup boxes. Easy, breezy! You can then tweak the email programs (both Gmail and Exchange) to optimize email sync. General rule of thumb: More frequent the email syncs, lower the battery life; and vice-versa. (Once again: Ready now stores should be able to help you with this one)
Third, it was time to load some of my music on the phone. This one is unbelievably simple. No more hand-wringing over Apple vs. Palm iTunes battles (yeah fellow Pre owners, that one was painful, wasn it?) Just pull out the included 16GB micrSD card, put it into its included SD adapter, plug it into your laptop/desktop and add your music to the media folder. Once the microSD card is loaded back on the phone, Android will automatically add your music to the default music player on the device. I'm not sure how to sync my playlists but I really don't care about that because I rarely use playlists. If you really prefer an iTunes-like experience, I am told that (our old friend) DoubleTwist is the way to go (they have a free Android app as well)
Some take-away after a few days of using the Samsung Epic 4G:
  • What you have read in the reviews is true - the Samsung Epic 4G screen is truly beautiful and crystal-clear
  • The phone is FAST! - Thanks to the 1GHz Hummingbird Processor. Pre owners, prepared to be blown away!
  • Battery life for a phone with these specs is phenomenal. Once again, Pre owners this one going to take you by surprise (I have always viewed my Pre as a 3-o-clock phone - meaning it needs to be charged every day at 3-o-clock for it to make it through the day. Not the Epic - at least not so far)
  • Swype (pre-loaded on the device): When I first saw the commercials and the videos, I was skeptical. It is truly amazing how easy it is to use, and how quickly I grown to love it. How fast can you type on it? Well, here is an example - I was chatting with one of my friends on Google Talk last night. He was using a computer and I, the Samsung Epic 4G and I could actually keep up!
  • Finally: No matter what the fanboys say, Android has definitely grown up to be a very serious contender. After a pretty thorough comparison (I have an iPod Touch), it is my opinion that the iPhone's days are numbered.
The bottom-line: It been a few days since I have given up my Pre, and I don't miss it at all. Don't get me wrong; I think the Pre is a great device. It just that the Epic is ... well, ....EPIC!
Disclaimer: Like many of you, I am new to Android. If you feel like my statements are wrong, or if there are easier way to do things - please let me know.