How Motorola's new Razr reinvented the classic flip into a foldable phone

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in November and has been republished before the launch of Motorola Razr.


David Beckham Paris Hilton Bond. Everyone who was someone in the early 2000s had a Motorola Razr. With its elegant edges and metallic keypad, it stood out from a series of phones with generic covers and made the company great again. And it wasn't just for the elite. In its four-year career, the smart and ultra-thin phone sold 130 million units on its way to becoming one of the most beloved and iconic pieces of technology in history.

Apple then iPhone arrived and destroyed it absolutely, along with the memory of the so-called dumb phones.

Now, more than a decade later, Motorola, which invented the cell phone but now he works in mobile darkness, he is organizing a comeback with a reinvented Razr. It combines the retro design of the cover with Google's Android software and an innovative folding touch screen that gives the classic folding phone a new twist. CNET reviewer Jessica Dolcourt, after an early and extended look at the Razr, describes it as "aerodynamic. Fully bagged. Nostalgic, with a futuristic edge."

"We see it as a franchise," Motorola president Sergio Buniac said in an interview before its launch in November.

Priced at $ 1,500, the new Razr is too expensive even for premium phones, including the iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy S10. But Buniac and the company hope that its ability to stand out from the package will once again bring Motorola back and excite consumers with folding items.

We could use the shake. Folding phones arrived with great expectation and high expectations last year. They were supposed to revitalize the wireless world and represented a potential change in the way we use our mobile devices. The new category would also serve as a bridge to the kind of science fiction technology we see in movies like Minority Report or programs like Westworld.

That has not happened. Concerns about durability, exacerbated by the initial defects of the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the delay in the launch of Huawei Mate X, excited. Even Motorola lost its original goal of a Summer launch for the Razr. The company began taking orders in advance in January, with Verizon launching the phone as a lifetime exclusive in the US. UU. It will be launched elsewhere later this year.

Amazing prices do not help. The Razr is five times more expensive than the Moto G7 phone. And that is still a bargain compared to the $ 1,980 Galaxy Fold or $ 2,400 Mate X.

Unlike those two devices, which are positioned as the future of their respective franchises, Motorola is turning to one of its best-known icons as a way in the super premium smartphone market. He hopes that the nostalgic chords he plays, combined with a 6.2-inch transparent screen (when deployed) and a compact design (when folded), can raise awareness not only for the Razr, but also for its greater phone stability.

Motorola, which has about 3% of the phone market, faces an uphill effort. The company now specializes in cheap phones, so the price is still a question. It is not clear if that name Razr, so beloved by a previous generation of consumers who grew up with mobile phones, will even register with most of the younger users, who see the first iPhone as the iconic phone

Then there is the issue of durability.

What is certain is that Motorola and Lenovo, the father, have great ambitions with the Razr. They have made a unique bet on folding screens, making the device smaller compared to Samsung and Huawei devices, which open on larger tablets.

"If the goal is to create a splash with a folding phone, that could be very effective," says Avi Greengart, an analyst at consumer research firm Techsponential. "Anything Motorola can do to break the mess and remind people that they still make desirable phones will only help."

Return to the future

"At that time we didn't know we were creating these iconic devices," says Mike Jahnke, Motorola's global industrial designer.

I'm chatting with Motorola's 21-year veteran at the phone manufacturer's headquarters in the historic Merchandise Mart building in Chicago. Jahnke is dressed in a bowtie and a matching purple print sweater, which appear in front of the flock of Razr phones of different colors behind him.

Motorola Razr Flip folding phone

The classic Razr with the new version.

James Martin / CNET

As someone who built the first models that didn't work from the original Razr project, Jahnke shares stories about celebrities who stopped requesting special variants of the folding phone. The device had been removed as a status symbol after Motorola took the smart step of placing a special black edition of the Razr in the loot bags at the 2005 Academy Awards. Soon after, each powerful player needed to have one, customized according to their likes.

Tennis star Maria Sharapova had her own exclusive edition. Motorola made versions for the television show Miami Ink and Dolce & Gabbana. Bono requested a red variant for his charity "Red product".

After its initial execution as an exclusive $ 600 in the Cingular wireless provider, Motorola added new operators and new variants and lowered the price.

Motorola performed the then impressive task of making a foldable phone great Y accessible.

By 2006, the company owned more than a fifth of the global phone market, according to Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research. The Razr generated a series of thin imitation phones from rivals such as Samsung and Sanyo Katana. Motorola tried to follow the success of the Razr with phones like the Rizr or the Slvr, which presented a similar aesthetic. The football legend David Beckham was the face of Razr 2.

"Everyone else had to fight to catch up," said Roger Entner, a consultant at Recon Analytics. "Copycat devices made the Razr a more iconic device."

But a year later, Apple CEO Steve Jobs launched his iPhone. And Motorola's slow and steady fall towards irrelevance began.

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A new Razr origin

The following years were agitated, although punishing. Motorola never found a worthy successor to the Razr, despite Beckham's best effort. The company divided its consumer telephone business and its business radio operations into separate entities (confusingly, both continue to use Motorola's name and the iconic "bat" logo). A decade ago, Motorola Mobility launched the first conventional Android phone, the Droid, reinforced by the huge marketing dollars of Google and Verizon. Motorola tried to recover the Razr once before with the Droid Razr.

However, their market share and profitability declined as Apple and Samsung's fortunes increased and, in the fall of 2011, Google picked up the business. Three years and even more losses later, Google downloaded Motorola to Lenovo, best known for its laptops.

It was around the time that Google took the reins that Motorola began to play with plastic as material for the screen. Most phone manufacturers used glass because it offered more weight and a superior feeling. But the plastic can bend and flex, and when treated with a special coating, it is surprisingly durable.

So, despite a rich history of iconic devices, from the first cell phone, the DynaTac, to the first foldable phone on the StarTac, it was the Droid Turbo 2 that could have provided the key inspiration for the new Razr.

I will forgive you if it does not come to mind immediately.

The Droid Turbo 2, which was launched in 2015 as a Verizon exclusive, is notable as the first phone to use that specially hardened plastic screen, which Motorola called Shattershield. He endured an impressive amount of torture before succumbing to a peak. Later phones like the Moto Z Force used the technology.

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Motorola and Lenovo began to think about folding around 2015.

James Martin / CNET

Almost at the same time, engineers and designers were looking for folding devices and began collaborating with their counterparts at Lenovo, whose Japanese unit lent its expertise in hinge designs used in their Yoga laptops. The teams showed the first fruits of that effort at Lenovo Tech World in 2016, which included a phone that wrapped their wrist. The functional prototype is still in Motorola's design laboratories.

"The new Razr is a reinvented design and innovation icon," Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing says in a statement. "It is also a powerful reflection of the engineering and technology skills that exist in our company."

Internally, Motorola went through more than 20 different prototypes and, at the end of 2016, it was installed on a phone that was folded into a smaller device. Motorola executives saw the similarities between the cover design of the final prototype and the original Razr.

Suddenly, the return was underway.

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Motorola played with many prototypes before deciding on the final design.

James Martin / CNET

"We did not set out to do the Razr directly, but it made sense," says Ruben Castano, vice president of Motorola's design, while standing on a large stack of different prototypes of the new Razrs.

The team even took a page from Razr's original design scheme of pushing components into his thicker chin at the base. This time, Motorola had even more hardware to add, including antennas for 22 wave bands of cellular radio for 4G LTE (no 5G connection), a fingerprint sensor, Wi-Fi radio and GPS.

For the next two years, Motorola designers and engineers worked silently on the project. In 2017, Motorola brought a first prototype to Verizon, which included it as exclusive.

"It's one of those devices that you put on the table and attracts attention," says Brian Higgins, vice president of consumer devices and products at Verizon Wireless.

Last January, a Wall Street Journal report revealed its return and its high price. It was the last iconic product to ride a wave of nostalgia, after Nintendo's NES Classic and the Nokia 3310 candybar phone.

The moment was auspicious. The excitement for folding phones reached a high point after Samsung began its Unpacked presentation with a provocation by the Galaxy Fold, stealing the focus of attention of its Galaxy S10 smartphone. A few days later, Huawei dragged attendees to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona with the Mate X. The market for these devices, despite their prices, was forming.

Then, after a hurried launch, the first review units of Samsung's Galaxy Fold began to break.

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Closing the gap

If Motorola executives had been scared of the Samsung incident, they didn't show it when I asked one after another about their reactions.

"I don't see anything surprising," says Buniac. "That's what new technology is about, solving problems."

Castano said the news assured him that his team was on the right track, since one of his first prototypes looked like Fold.

But Verizon Higgins acknowledged that there was an impact. "When the reports came out, I immediately returned to Motorola," he says, noting that he had the company rerun all its specification tests.

Samsung finally returned with a reinforced Galaxy Fold, but the reputation of folding phones had been affected.

What Motorola had confidence was the Unique hinge design that you created for the new Razr. The ultimate goal was to create a mechanism that allowed the screen to close on itself. But here is the dilemma: if you fold a sheet of plastic or completely flat paper, you will inevitably get a fold.

That is why the Galaxy Fold, which folds inward, has a large gap in the middle. It is also the reason why Huawei chose to place its folding screen outside. As the folding radius increases, the tension in the screen decreases and the probability of a fold.

It was not an easy process. The first prototypes had the phone with giant hinges that protruded from each side, giving it Dumbo type ears that would have ruined the aesthetic.

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You can see the exposed gears of the hinge on each side of the new Razr.

James Martin / CNET

Finally, designers were able to completely complete what they call the zero-space hinge. As with the previous prototype, the hinges remain to one side, but not so far. In fact, you can see some of the exposed gears, and take a look at the mechanics of the construction, similar to a luxury watch. He also added space for the screen to bend inwards. If you could look at a cross section of the phone when it is folded, you would see that the screen bends in an intricate tear shape instead of a flat fold.

Tom Gitzinger, director and chief engineer of innovation and architecture at Motorola, showed us the different components of the Razr, and pointed out that the display panel, which had five layers, including one made of stainless steel, was only 360 microns thick.

Gitzinger, who moved from the university directly to Motorola's R&D team 23 years ago, also said that a similar hard coat used on the Shattershield screen was added to the Razr screen so it could withstand scratches that plastic screens are prone to suffer But the team recovered the coating to allow greater flexibility.

Motorola also added steel plates behind the screen on each side of the point of curvature, reinforcing the screen and straightening wrinkles, a step Samsung took with its reinforced Galaxy Fold.

"We analyzed the ways in which this could fail and we would explain it," says Tom Gitzinger.

Bigger is not always better

Unlike Samsung or Huawei, which showed their products before, Motorola has kept the Razr close to the vest.

Motorola had initially set a goal to launch the Razr in the summer. When asked about the delay, Buniac says: "I am Brazilian, so my summers come in January," before acknowledging that the company did not meet its deadline.

"Of course, we want to be fast in the market, but we are in no hurry or despair to launch, so we believe that now is the right time," says Buniac.

Beyond time, the Razr stands out from the Mate X and Galaxy Fold because its design allows the phone to go from normal to small size. Laura Joss, global director of design research, says consumer surveys showed the contradictory trend of people who want larger screens, but not the massive devices needed to house them.

Motorola is positioning the Razr as the ideal compromise.

The shell design meant that Motorola could incorporate a second 2.7-inch "Quick View" external display when folded, just like the original. It is designed to handle notifications, control your music and work as a selfie screen, since the 16-megapixel main camera is just below.

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The Quick View screen offers easy access to notifications.

James Martin / CNET

Jeff Snow, general manager of innovation products at Motorola, says he often doesn't even open his Razr, which he has been using since July. Instead, choose to classify your messages and other notifications from the small secondary screen.

Motorola is not the only one who thinks about this approach. Samsung showed a model of a horizontally foldable phone at its annual developer conference last fall. TCL showed folding phone prototypes while I was at the Mobile World Congress.

Within a year, flip phones could become the new black.

Taking advantage of nostalgia

Razr's original design, with those metal keys and that 10 mm thick chassis, still evokes an emotional reaction when you hold one. It's a callback to a simpler moment when we really use our phones for phone calls.

It is also a reminder that Motorola was once a titan of innovation, investing the kind of massive dollars in R&D that only Apple and Google tastes can make now.

Motorola expects the new Razr to stir up some of those memories. It even has some of the small details, such as the satisfactory sound the phone makes when it slams shut: hanging someone has not felt so good in a long time. There's also a Android skin-shaped Easter egg designed to make the touch screen look like the original Razr Smaller screen and metallic keyboard.

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The Razr is not a literal interpretation of the classic telephone. But it shares many of the same traits.

James Martin / CNET

While the Razr brand plays a nostalgic chord among older consumers, good memories may not be enough to justify the price of $ 1,500.

"Nostalgia can only take you so far," says Ramón Llamas, an analyst at the IDC research firm.

Note: While NES Classic and SNES Classic were hits for Nintendo, Sony's retro game with PlayStation Classic was a failure. Capitalizing on our rose-colored memories is no guarantee of success.

The Razr brand may not even register with younger users, since smartphones almost erase dumb phones from our memories. Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said he would recommend that Motorola emphasize the new design and the folding trend rather than stopping in a past fad.

That will be important, as the new Razr lacks some of the key features offered by other premium phones, including a second telephoto lens, wireless charging and official water and dust resistant ratings.

"The Razr had to do with the design," she says. "People used the Razr because it was great, not because it was great."

Motorola says it expects the Razr to last the average life of a smartphone, but will not specify an exact period of time. To help calm customers down, the company will offer a 24-hour response time for replacements if the unit or display fails, although it did not say how long the warranty lasts.

The business has been on the rise, having published four quarters of profitability after years of bleeding. Even so, the year will end with approximately 3% of the market, largely driven by cheap phones, which underlines that it is far from the big Samsung and Huawei hitters. While Buniac is beginning to focus on growing the business and introducing more premium devices, it has realistic expectations for the Razr.

"I don't see it as a silver bullet," says Buniac. "We see it as a journey that has just begun."

This time, the new Razr probably won't have celebrities queuing to get an exclusive edition. When asked if Beckham would return with the new folding version, Jhanke replies: "We will be happy to sell you one."

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Motorola expects Razr's name to resonate with some consumers. But some analysts believe that the company should focus on the new design.

James Martin / CNET

Originally published last year.

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