Before Paris Hilton was photographed gabbing on her new Pebl at Sundance this year, before a batch of Pebls was in the works for Oscar nominees, before the TV ad debuted during the Super Bowl, before hundreds of thousands of the phones were in production—before any of that, Yoon Ho Choi, a designer in Seoul, South Korea, needed some inspiration.
It was 2003. Motorola had challenged designers to imagine the next mobile phone, something truly different. To brainstorm, Yoon Ho visited Apkujong-dong, the flashy high-fashion district in a city obsessed with glamour and technology. The way to set a new phone apart, he realized, wasn't by outglitzing the competition. Just the opposite: He sketched a small oval on a napkin, a phone that didn't look like a phone. It was the simplest, most organic Zen-like shape he could imagine, an intoxicatingly smooth river rock you could rub between your fingers.
When Jim Wicks, Motorola's vice president and director of consumer-experience design, reviewed the candidates with his managers, they agreed with Yoon Ho. Just how that sketch became a cell phone reveals much about the cultural and strategic evolution now taking place at Motorola. The 78-year-old company, based in Schaumburg, Illinois, outside Chicago, is one of America's oldest and most patent-rich tech giants and has long been an engineering innovator. Now it's trying to become a design innovator as well—and one with an audacious goal: "We want to create one iconic design a year," says Wicks.
If there was any doubt about what design could do for a company, even one as storied and vast as Motorola, its supersleek Razr erased them. In late 2004, the Razr entered a market crowded with hundreds of generic competitors and instantly stood out: a half-inch clamshell, or flip phone, with a flat, square metal body, etched keypad, and internal antenna. The Razr has sold more than 24 million units. It has done for clamshells what the iPod did for MP3 players, says David Steinberg, CEO of online phone retailer InPhonic. And it helped boost Motorola's revenues ($31 billion in 2004, more than half from mobile devices) and profits, solidifying its position as No. 1 in North America, No. 2 worldwide. "Motorola has had this reputation as being stodgy and conservative," says Kent German, CNet's senior editor of cell phones, "and all of a sudden, it's cool."
Over the past year, taking a cue from Apple and its iPod family, Motorola has been busily spinning off Razr derivatives—black and hot-pink Razrs, as well as the Slvr (a candy bar, or no-flip, phone) and the Q, a BlackBerry challenger. Though sharp, they're variations on the same theme, and there's no guarantee they'll wow the public: The iTunes-equipped Rokr, for example, was roundly panned in 2005, the first case of Razr burn since the original's debut. Even the overall design itself can become a liability if it becomes too ubiquitous. "Motorola has to do more than thin phones," says German. The handset-to-handset combat intensified late last year with the first wave of Razr imitators.
Lest we forget, Motorola—which introduced the world's first cell phone in 1983—has struggled in this market before. It scored big in 1996 with the StarTac, which sold an estimated 75 million units, but by 1998 Nokia was No. 1. Meanwhile, semiconductor troubles were hurting Motorola, which lost $6.4 billion in 2001 and 2002, closed multiple factories, and laid off 50,000 employees. The handset business had problems of its own, missing the switch to digital and the camera-phone trend. Analysts speculated whether it should sell its handset division altogether.
It dodged that bullet in late 2003 by bringing in Ed Zander, a Silicon Valley star, to be CEO, replacing Chris Galvin, the grandson of founder Paul Galvin. Under Zander, the company began reassessing its priorities. Product design was transformed from an afterthought into a mission. The company even went so far as to retool its own name for marketing purposes, junking the anachronistic marriage of "motor car" and "Victrola" (a reflection of its roots as a builder of car radios) in favor of the trendy "Moto." A year later, along came the Razr—and a big sigh of relief.
But now the company is at the inevitable crossroads again, forced to come up with another winning design in a bloodthirsty and innovative market (120 out of 135 handset makers lose money, according to one analyst). The time has come, in other words, for Wicks's next icon. And while there's no question that the Pebl is something novel, something aesthetically nuanced and pleasing, questions are hanging over it: Is it any good? Will consumers clamor for it the way they did for the Razr? Has Motorola's new emphasis on design come at the expense of engineering and/or execution? And is this $300 phone going to make a splash, or just quietly sink?
Rising by Design
If the Razr is a Ferrari, the Pebl is a Volkswagen bug: cute and curvy—a pet rock that makes calls, plays games, and records blurry video clips. It's black or red, with a smooth, rubbery surface and an understated external display. For a company churning out flashy thin phones, the Pebl is a dramatic departure. "The Pebl is critical for us," says Wicks. "We're saying not every consumer has the Razr mind-set."
Wicks calls the Pebl "almost an homage to subtlety." It opens like no other handset: Slide the top back with your thumb, and the top flips open in what Wicks calls the Pebl's "defining gesture"; he demonstrates, casually opening and closing it in quick succession, as mesmerizing a motion as playing with a Zippo lighter—or a switchblade.
Like the Razr, the Pebl doesn't evoke the old Motorola, where, for decades, engineers ruled the roost (and with great success: the first portable two-way radio, first pager, first rectangular picture TV tube, the list goes on). Design typically got short shrift. With handsets, says Daryl Armstrong, a Citigroup analyst, "the focus wasn't on form factors [shapes]. Motorola executives would boast, 'We created functionality that is so complex the carriers don't know how to use it!' " Hardly the criterion designers are looking to satisfy.
"We were those guys over there who draw," says Paul Pierce, the North American studio's creative director who joined the company five years ago. Even when designers did participate, they were at a disadvantage. "It was the classic situation: one designer in a room full of 40 engineers," says Jim Caruso, design's senior director of operations. Typical of companies that have yet to recognize the strategic value of design, Motorola didn't even include designers in key strategy sessions. It simply told them which products to make.
Wicks was brought in five years ago to help dislodge this way of thinking. With his mussed brown hair, wire-rim glasses, jeans, and wry sense of humor, he comes across initially as a shy hipster geek, not a VP at an international behemoth. But once Wicks opens up, he's as shrewd as any suit.
He got his start in Japan (he moved abroad after majoring in industrial design); there, he was one of Sony's first non-Japanese designers. Over 14 years, Wicks worked on Sony's first cell phone and other electronics. After being promoted to Motorola's head of consumer-experience design in 2003, he set about building a world-class design culture similar to Sony's—focused, strategic, and highly collaborative.
The elevation of design was a group effort. One of the early evangelists was the late Geoffrey Frost, a former Nike whiz who later became Motorola's chief of marketing under Zander. It was Frost who created the four-letter names and high-profile campaigns that help make Moto's phones memorable. Around the same time, Wicks and his team arrived at some core principles—surprise, honesty, richness, and simplicity—to better define what makes a handset unique to Motorola. There are unwritten guidelines as well, such as the "three-meter rule": With so many competing models littering the landscape, Motorola wants its devices to be identifiable by shape, finish, and lighting—from 10 feet away.
Like a Rock
One of the biggest imperatives at the new Motorola is longer-term, more coordinated product development. Moto's portfolio resembles a family tree: Below the Razr are branches to the Slvr and Q, and to future "children of Razr," as Wicks puts it.
"We don't think of a project, we think of projects," he says. He and Ron Garriques, the head of mobile devices and another champion of design, want devices that relate to one another, building on successful technology and design. Shared profiles and components help cut costs, of course ("the lowest cost structure in this industry always wins," says Garriques), but they also create identity. And it is that sort of methodical portfolio-building that distinguishes a design-driven organization.
"Nobody took the StarTac platform and turned it into a candy bar [phone] or an email device. If we had, RIM wouldn't be alive today." —Ron Garriques, Motorola's head of mobile devices
In hindsight, Motorola should have adopted this approach years ago. "Nobody took the StarTac platform and turned it into a candy bar or a QWERTY [email] device," says Garriques. "If we had, RIM [the maker of BlackBerry] wouldn't be alive today."
But a company can only spin off so many generations before it's time for a new idea. And with an increasing number of competitors flooding the marketplace, Motorola turned to Yoon Ho's Pebl sketch with a sense of urgency. Working at MotoCity, a slick new design center in downtown Chicago (created by Wicks and Caruso, his operations counterpart, to attract design talent leery of the suburbs), the team set about turning Yoon Ho's concept into reality. "The challenge was really steep," says mechanical engineer Jason Wojack. "You would come across a problem that seemed unsolvable and it would stay that way for a while. I don't think there was anything that wasn't difficult with this phone."
The initial problem was just opening and closing the thing. The line between the top and bottom halves was almost invisible, making it hard to pry them apart. But Wicks and company wanted to keep the seamless feel—and they wanted to make the Pebl the first easy-to-use, one-handed clamshell. So mechanical engineer Brian Hassemer tried solving the problem by combining elements from a flip and another phone type, a slider. He designed the Pebl's top to slide along two internal rails; the springs in the hinge then popped it open.
So far, so good. But how to counteract the springs and keep the phone closed? He ruled out the obvious solution, a latch, because it would ruin the smooth seam. Also, closing the phone would require two steps, which violated a key design value, simplicity. Eventually, Hassemer found the answer in his own kitchen cabinets: magnets. But even that breakthrough required refinement. In addition to the pair of attracting magnets that keeps the handset closed, he added another, opposing set; when the top slides down, they repel each other, pushing the halves apart. The springs do the rest. That mechanism is what "connects with people," says Pierce. "It's one of the things that makes a lasting impression, because you weren't expecting it."
Another challenge was fitting square and rectangular components—screens, battery, keypad—into a rounded container. Curves look great, but they're inefficient; because you can't wedge a component flush into a corner, you have wasted space, an engineering anathema. And unlike the Razr, which had an objective goal (0.54 inches thin), round is relative, another thing that sends engineers around the bend. The phone required certain features—color screen, camera, speakerphone, Bluetooth—that created agonizing trade-offs. The Pebl needed a screen big enough to display photos and video, but that used more juice. So you can't skimp on battery life, but if the battery gets too big, the oblong shape of the phone becomes wider or less curvy.
Difficult? Sure, but also exhilarating.
"The most interesting projects have the most constraints," says Giles McWilliam, the Pebl's lead industrial designer. After tweaking, he'd share the latest of dozens of prototypes with colleagues. "Sometimes it was clear, we're not a Pebl there, we're a rounded box," he says. "Other times, the change was 0.1 or 0.2 millimeters." In the end, there wasn't room for a megapixel camera, just a lower-resolution one. Design, not function, had become the higher priority; the Pebl's unique look and feel, Wicks and his team decided, trumped the latest camera.
That decision was based, in part, on consumer research, including hour-and-a-half, one-on-one consumer interviews. "We're digging deep," says Wicks. "It's not about asking, 'Which configuration do you want—this one or that one?' It's about finding out what different configurations represent to people."
But the research can tell designers only so much. Ultimately, he says, design requires a leap of faith. The data can define the parameters, but too much consumer feedback during development becomes counterproductive. "You have to have the guts to believe in what you're doing and what your brand stands for," says Wicks. "If you go back to the first Walkman, nobody was telling Sony, 'I want a Walkman.' "
Sink or Swim
Eventually, Wicks and his team had to stop psychoanalyzing the public and just start building. Wicks refers to his "business-driven design strategy": Design, after all, is no less important than marketing, sales, engineering, and the rest. Conversely, a beautiful product won't sell if its software or marketing is flawed. So how'd Moto do?
The early reviews are mixed—and suggest that the pendulum swing toward design might have left other aspects of the process to fend for themselves: On CNet, Pebl owners rave about its stylish appearance and feel but gripe about short battery life and sluggish software (an echo of the complaints about Motorola's V70, a striking but disappointing phone). According to Bryce Rutter, the founder and CEO of Metaphase Design Group in St. Louis, which specializes in handheld devices, one of the keys to the Razr's success was that it doesn't resemble "a tumor bulging in your pocket." The Pebl, though, is tumoresque and unlikely to make much of a pocket phone, which could narrow its audience considerably. Meanwhile, at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, it wasn't unusual to see people go from gasping to grumbling as they struggled to find the secret to opening the Pebl. And when it does open, the top flips so quickly that novices can struggle just to hold onto it—meaning that some phones hit the floor before they were even up and running. Rutter agrees that its "defining gesture" isn't intuitive, a flaw even if the learning curve is short. "But we're nitpicking," he says. He thinks the Pebl could ultimately have broad appeal by humanizing the cell phone—a design first. The Pebl is "for the person who lives with technology but wants to tame it," says Rutter.
Analysts, meanwhile, disagree on the Pebl's potential impact. Some say it's an icon; some call it a niche product compared to the Slvr, which targets candy-bar-phone customers, who make up more than half of the global market. And it couldn't have helped that Motorola spent two years developing the Pebl only to… miss the Christmas season. Due to parts shortages, the Pebl and Slvr didn't arrive in U.S. stores until January, missing out on countless sales, a failure that raises the question of whether the unsexy-but-essential details of engineering and manufacturing might have fallen through the cracks.
But the Pebl is here now, and Wicks is moving at full throttle to bring out the next generation. In January, the day after the Pebl arrived in stores, he's in his office, already thinking about the next derivatives and how to incorporate elements of the design into $40 handsets for emerging markets in India and China. The upcoming second-generation Rokr already has a rounder profile inspired by the Pebl; another phone incorporates its rubbery finish. More iterations are in the pipeline. As Wicks says, proudly: "We're already cutting steel."
Chuck Salter (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Chicago.
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A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.