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Motorola’s puzzling weakness

Updated Oct 21st, 2012 4:43PM EDT

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ComScore’s August market share report showed Android gaining ground among US mobile subscribers at a healthy clip. In the three months ending in August, Android share among US smartphones ticked up to 52.9% from 50.9% in the period ending in May. But yet again, Motorola’s share slipped — down to 11.2% from 12% in the spring period.

This is not a new trend — but it is particularly puzzling considering that the iPhone 4S faded during the summer and Motorola had launched some well-reviewed, technologically impressive models that ramped up to full volume production over the summer. The DROID RAZR MAXX may be a crime against English language, but it was also a commanding summer blockbuster for Verizon. As a matter of fact, it may still be outselling Samsung (005930) Galaxy S III at Verizon (VZ) during October. The new RAZR MAXX M also looks like a solid success. Motorola has been extremely effective at eclipsing HTC in the Verizon mid-range and high-end portfolio.

But that’s the thing. While Motorola’s Verizon traction is impressive, the brand is astoundingly weak at Sprint (S) and AT&T (T), where it used to be a staple. Motorola’s decision to hand Verizon its most impressive flagship phones cemented its position with the Big Red. At the same time, the second-string models for other carriers are fizzling badly. The Atrix series never really recovered from its 2011 stumbles and is doing merely OK at AT&T. The QWERTY models Photon Q and Admiral are disasters at Sprint.

This is really odd, because Motorola has a deep history with QWERTY devices and had a couple of substantial hits in this category a few years back. Now the QWERTY leader RIM is collapsing in America and another niche rival, LG, is also stumbling badly. But the Motorola Admiral is getting beaten by weak-as-kitten rivals like Pantech and Blackberry Torch. This is remarkable – particularly since Motorola has decent QWERTY traction in some emerging markets like Brazil.

It is rare to see a brand doing so well with its flagship phone while foundering this badly with the rest of its slate. Motorola has essentially been in this jam for two years. But the danger it poses to the vendor is becoming acute as Samsung sucks up more and more of the oxygen in the mid-range Android market. 2012 was the year when Motorola really should have been able to capitalize on RIM’s implosion in North America. Instead, Motorola’s QWERTY model slate actually looks weaker than it was in 2009.

Motorola needs to rethink its AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile strategies right now — or the threat of Samsung, LG, Huawei, ZTE and Pantech simply shoving it aside will become acute in 2013. And T-Mobile’s acquisition of MetroPCS will not make things easier for Moto; the pre-paid specialist has particularly strong relationships with the Chinese challenger brands.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.