Motorola Bets on Handset CEO

Last Updated Aug 5, 2008 1:44 PM EDT

Razr HandsetWhen Motorola announced that it was hiring Dr. Sanjay Jha, former COO of Qualcomm, to be co-chief executive and head of the mobile phone business, shares jumped 11 percent. You might call it one of the largest collective sighs of relief that the industry has seen in years. But does that represent realistic expectations, or some wishful thinking?
Jha brings loads of industry experience and extensive familiarity with wireless investors, ending the Schaumburg (Ill.) company's five-month search for an executive to head the troubled cell-phone unit. "He is the perfect guy for Motorola," says Mark McKechnie, an analyst with American Technology Research, who worked at Motorola years ago. "If anyone can turn this handset division around, it's Sanjay Jha."
In the press release announcing the departure, Qualcomm's CEO Paul Jacobs credited Jha with being "instrumental in growing QCT into the number one wireless semiconductor supplier." That is a significant accomplishment, but one of the problems with Motorola is supposed to be its over-reliance on an engineering culture that doesn't take marketing into enough consideration. Jha came from an engineering background, joined Qualcomm in 1994 as a senior engineer, rose through the ranks, eventually headed engineering, and finally was group president and president of CDMA Technologies at the company.

In other words, although he's got great credentials, his background is in engineering and operations in a b-to-b company. Handsets are clearly a b-to-c type of product, and to be successful, a company must understand how to drive consumer appeal. Not only that, but he's used to the rhythms of a semiconductor company, which can mean years in design and roll-out. In consumer electronics, and I don't know what else you could call wireless handsets, business lives and dies on six month product lifecycles. When asked about his first plans for the company, he's understandably vague, but the answers should trouble those, like shareholders, who might want and expect a rapid attitudinal turnaround:

As far as Motorola's cellphones themselves go, Jha says he might yank some pending projects, but doesn't expect to make major changes to the roadmap until the second half of next year. Few specifics there, either. He notes that Motorola will need to make up for lost share in the 3G market and work on its distribution network, and that it'll keep its newish strategy of using chipsets from multiple sources.
No major changes in product roadmaps until the second half of next year probably means no major improvements until 2010. And yet he talks of increasing the number of phone models by 25 percent next year and the importance of UI design, form factor design, and market focus.

How does that happen without major changes to the product roadmap? Without those changes, it sounds like more of the same stuff that has left consumers lukewarm. He's talking like an engineer when he needs to be thinking, and feeling, like a marketer.

Clearly it is possible to prod the Motorola culture into action at times: The Razr was a hit a few years ago. But that was under Ed Zander, who came up through marketing at Sun with the reputation of being willing to shake things up and make them happen.

The question is how to sustain the innovation, and how to get the electrical and mechanical engineers to appreciate and want what good market research and superior industrial design can do. There's a big difference between innovation at a chip manufacturer and innovation in a consumer electronics company. Jha will have to bring on some consumer and product marketing talent almost immediately if there's a hope of turning things around even by 2010. Even then it will be a tall job, as Motorola's culture has shown itself to be remarkably resistant to any form of organizational medicine.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.