March 29, 2007 11:44 AM PDT
Motorola: A CTIA wallflower
This week's CTIA Wireless trade show in Orlando, Fla., was a coming-out party for innovative new handsets, mobile carrier features and partnerships.
Motorola unveiled a handful of new phones, most of which are expansions on the company's tried-and-true Razr style. The response to the new lineup from the second-biggest handset maker was underwhelming, with one tech blog, Gizmodo, even calling it "a yawner."
Now some industry watchers are saying that the iconic flip phone, which reinvigorated Motorola and pushed cell phone design to a new level, has "run its course" as a style leader. An ultrathin form factor is no longer unique to the Razr, they say, and Motorola will have to come up with another dramatic idea to stand apart from the crowd again.
"You always run the risk in the handset business that when you have a hot phone that has been identified strongly with a fashion statement, what happens when that fashion goes out of style?" said Ross Rubin, an analyst with The NPD Group. "That's what they're wrestling with."
That's not to say the Razr is going the way of the Apple Newton. It's been able to maintain strong subscriber market share, especially in the United States, where it leads with 29 percent. LG is the next closest, with 18 percent of U.S. mobile subscribers, according to the most recent data from NPD.
In fact, Motorola's CTIA lineup was hardly a disaster. The company stayed with the thin, clean concept that made it a darling of the industry for the last two years. The latest Razr is called the Maxx VE, and its improvements include faster network speeds, a 2-megapixel camera and GPS capabilities. Also announced was the Rokr Z6m--initially talked up at the Consumer Electronics Show as part of the Rizr family, but now switched to the Rokr lineup--a Bluetooth-enabled slider phone with a 2-megapixel camera and 2GB of removable memory.
Surveying the handsets introduced this week, the Razr's legacy is obvious. But imitators aren't just copying the Razr's style--the rest of the industry is jumping ahead with an intense focus on media-enabled phones and accompanying form factors, as well as increasingly intuitive user interfaces.
But much of the CTIA buzz this year went to Samsung's dual-sided candy bar phone, which Sprint announced it would sell as the UpStage. Other talked-about handsets included Sony Ericsson's new lineup of Walkman music phones, and LG's media-focused form factors, such as the VX9400, which is a phone also allows television viewing--it even includes a retractable TV antenna to improve reception.
Motorola, for its part, says there's more to come later in the year.
"I think what's important to note is that not every announcement can be a knock out of the park," said company spokesman John Wernecke. "We announced seven or eight really solid products (at CTIA). The majority are for the lower end of the price spectrum and emerging markets, but I think we've solidified our portfolio."
Solidifying is good, but moving forward is better, since the future of Motorola may hinge on the success of its mobile-devices unit and the Razr, according to Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst. On one hand, "there aren't many phenomena that come around like the Razr. But that said, I think Motorola has run its course here. A lot of its competitors are producing product that have thinness and are competitive in design," Dulaney said.
Others say that honing the Razr brand is perfectly acceptable, but it needs more a more coherent message. "I think the (Razr) brand message has been diluted," said Charlie Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research. "I don't think it's a bad thing they're sticking with the Razr. But they have to be more clear that their brand is about design, style and thinness."
While he acknowledged that Motorola didn't break any new ground at CTIA, Golvin said he didn't think the lineup for the show is indicative of where the company is going, and that future improvements should be expected.
A promising direction might be to start looking inside the company's devices. Mobile software is not viewed as one of Motorola's strengths, and Apple "laid down the gauntlet" in the arena of mobile software with its announcement of the iPhone, according to Gartner's Dulaney. That could be one reason Motorola was rumored to be taking a hard look at acquiring Palm.
Improving the Razr's user interface is a huge opportunity for Motorola. "Most people cite their interface as being the weakest. Do they continue as before in a Linux Java environment...or do they begin to think about using other software from outside and taking it to another level?" Dulaney asked.
There are a couple of directions it could go, but the company's established relationships with Symbian and Microsoft are a good place to start, he said.
That being said, a slight design adjustment could help too. "A Porsche in 1979 and a Porsche now--you can tell they're in the same family, but it's been modernized," Dulaney said. "I think Motorola needs to do that."