Yesterday morning, before a packed house on the west side of New York, Motorola unveiled its cellphones of the future, as well as a conflicting message about what it’s trying to accomplish with the specter of the iPhone looming. Is the user interface the most important thing, or do people want their phones to make a fashion statement? Motorola claimed it was the former, but really only showed the latter.
It was one of those whiz-bang presentations, filled with the kind of corporate cheese that only Kraft could appreciate. (I’ve been to worse, though.) Ed Zander, Motorola’s CEO came out, and posited the questions “What’s after thin? What’s after the Razr?” He, along with Jim Wicks, director of Motorola’s consumer experience design (who was behind the Razr, arguably Moto’s last significant phone), started off speaking at length about the user interface of the phone, and how the software and the user interface trumps the design of the phone itself. “The design language is moving from the physical to behavioral,” said Wicks. “It’s about experience design, and not thin for thin’s sake.” (If you want to read a liveblog of the event, Engadget’s is pretty good.) And, to a large degree, they were right, as anyone who’s tried to use Windows Mobile knows.
Unfortunately, everything that came after contradicted what they had just said. Over the course of an hour, they showed off several new phones (and a few that are already in use overseas) whose major significance was a new hardware design, chock full of software that already exists in one form or another.
The Moto Q got a facelift–now it’s all black, and the keypad buttons are squared, and curved like a smiley-face. The smartest thing about this smartphone? The hotkeys that allow you to get to apps such as the music player, calendar, and camera with one button push. But that’s a hardware work-around, and no word on if this phone chews up batteries like the one currently out on the market.
Another phone, the Z8, touted as “The Ultimate Mobile Entertainment Experience,” features–wait for it–a new hardware design, called the kick slider: As the top of the phone slides upwards, it also angles in, to better fit the contours of a user’s face, which is pretty smart, but like the Razr, will probably cost you just $50 two years from now. Oh yes, there’s some multimedia stuff, like the ability to get live TV and watch movies (in fact, it’ll come preloaded with The Bourne Identity–if you buy it in Europe), but who’s going to watch movies on a screen that size that isn’t even widescreen?
To demonstrate some of the features of these new phones, Motorola rolled out the big guns: Indy racecar driver Danica Patrick, soccer diva David Beckham, and Fergie, late of the Black Eyed Peas. In a series of videos that rated pretty high on the Unintentional Comedy scale, a bemused Becks, a deadpan Danica, and a flatlining Fergie pretended to use all the swell new features on the phone. Like buying a snowboard for Ed Zander! How wacky! (Note to all corporate event planners: Just because you can use a celebrity to hawk your products doesn’t mean you should.)
But how was Zander’s original question of “What’s after the Razr” answered? Why, the Razr2, of course. Despite not being “thin for thin’s sake,” the phone is, well, 2 mm thinner than the original Razr. To be fair, it is a nice-looking phone, such as a larger display on the front (which, owing to its all-glass facade collects fingerprints like Columbo). But in the few minutes I had to play with it, didn’t notice any radical departures from the way I navigate through the current Razr.
I left the event feeling somewhat disappointed. For all their sound and fury, Moto’s event signified nothing. I realized, and this is what no one seems to get, why the iPhone, despite its $600 price tag, will probably sell very well: Like the iPod, It’s not just cool hardware, but intuitive, and innovative software that makes it popular, and will keep it from being commoditized like every other gadget out there. Sure, 98 million Razrs have been sold to date, but when they’re going for pennies on the dollar, you’re creating demand based on price, not performance. And that’s an easy call to make.