08/02/2013 12:39 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

Google's Moto X Phone Shows Innovation Now Means Customizable Phone Covers

From the hype surrounding the launch of the Moto X, the first Motorola smartphone designed from the ground up under Google's supervision, one might have expected genuine innovation. And we got some, provided you're willing to use that word to describe customizable phone covers.

The Moto X seems like merely the latest in a parade of new smartphones that, despite being packed full of appealing features and cutting-edge technology, are not easily distinguished from the ones they are seeking to replace.

The ho-hum state of smartphones was neatly summarized by Motorola's senior vice present of product management, Rick Osterloh, during the unveiling Thursday of the Moto X. "We see a lack of innovation," Osterloh declared. "And we see that because we think there's a lack of imagination right now."

He's right. Yet the Moto X didn't reflect an overabundance of either. Despite intriguing new features, like the ability to boss the phone around just by speaking to it, the Moto X's most distinguishing quality is the ability for buyers to personalize the phone's color scheme. Forty years ago, Osterloh noted, Motorola, a mobile phone technology pioneer, "imagined a different future" -- one where people could speak on the phone anywhere at all and stay connected at all times. Today, the objectives are less ambitious: From the appearance of Moto X, Motorola has imagined a "different future" where people can pick between a phone with a pink case and green trim, or a yellow case with blue trim. Revolutionizing communication has been downgraded to revolutionizing how people pick out their cell phones' color scheme.

The focus on personalized colors reflects Google's need to set its phone apart from all others and the challenge it faces in doing so underscores a crucial transition in the evolution of the smartphone: The miraculous has become mundane. The smartphone -- as powerful, indispensable and promising as the technology might still be -- looks more and more like the television and PC, and is entering a new phase of life as a commodity device.

Motorola is hardly alone in struggling to set its glass rectangles apart from the pack. The best phones are now only a bit better than the just-fine phones, and the latest offerings from Nokia, Microsoft, HTC, Samsung and BlackBerry all blend together. As in the PC market, smartphone makers are delivering more and more of the same, and are having to compete on price. In a year, the average price of a smartphone has dropped to $375, down from $450 in early 2012, according to IDC, a research firm. Even Apple, known for its design prowess, has elicited yawns from once-ardent fans and questions about its ability to innovate in light of its minor tweaks to several generations of the iPhone. There's a slimming here, a squaring-off of a corner there, but as Bloomberg reported recently, "about half of the iPhones sold by Verizon Wireless in recent quarters were iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S models." As the New Yorker's Matt Buchanan pointed out in the title of his March story on the launch of Samsung's Galaxy S4, "phones are boring."

For all the impressive technology that allows the Moto X to listen, at all times, for the sound of our voice, or pay for goods with a swipe of a phone, the smartphone ultimately underscores an uncomfortable question consumer tech companies are skirting around: When it comes to smartphones, are we out of ideas? Is there really nothing more to be done with the 3-by-5 inch rectangles we carry in our pockets?

Hardly. Tucked inside Moto X is, in fact, the clue to the innovation that could be the next battleground for tech companies in their quest to set their smartphones apart: the virtual assistant. Google Now, which leverages artificial intelligence and personal data to anticipate what someone might need to know next, is Google's answer to Siri and, at present, isn't too dissimilar (nor unique to the Moto X). Google Now and Siri each excel at different tasks; while Google's assistant can, for example, be summoned without ever touching the device it runs on, Siri requires less time to make a restaurant reservation. Though still in their early stages, these voice-controlled assistants rely on sophisticated artificial intelligence software that isn't easy to build and, once refined, could prove a powerful aid that helps smartphone owners manage all the tasks that would otherwise require them to be poking and peering at their phones.

In the past decade, smartphones have shifted from competing on hardware, to duking it out over which had the most intuitive software, or most robust ecosystem of apps. But rather than demonstrate what they let you do, the next smartphones will have to prove what they can do for you. And it'll have to be more than merely switching around their color.