Recently, a lot of the buzz around foldable smartphones has started to grow quieter. Samsung's recent troubles have cast a serious shadow over the future of the foldable smartphone. While there are those who might say that the first generation of any new technology is going to have its ups and downs and that this is the price you have to pay for being a first adopter, it's never good when you have to apologize for a product before its launch. Still, even though it is starting to look a bit gloomy out there, there is hope yet for the foldable smartphone market: the Motorola RAZR.
Expected to launch around August, the Motorola RAZR is a foldable smartphone from a company most of us haven't heard from in years; but what we do remember is good. As such, Motorola may have just landed in the driver's seat of a major, brand-new technology launch for the first time in over a decade. Whether they planned on it or not, for many people around the world, the first foldable smartphone they ever see may be the Motorola RAZR, and that first impression could make or break the foldable smartphone market for years.
The State of the Foldable Smartphone Market
Even before the Samsung Galaxy Fold's PR disaster this month, there was already some skepticism of the whole idea of a foldable smartphone. When people don't know why they need to buy one, watching tech journalists and influencers reporting that the displays of their review units were breaking within days of receiving them just confirms and hardens their suspicions. Everybody likes to think they were right before everybody else and that is a hard thing to overcome.
Apple has filed a patent for what sure looks like a foldable iPhone, but have otherwise been tight-lipped about any plans for whether they plan on releasing one. Apple is famously insistent on glass screens over plastic, and while Corning is working on a type of glass that can bend in the way Apple would need for a foldable phone, that is some years off, if ever. Glass doesn't bend, so for now Apple can either have its glass screen or it can fold, it cannot do both.
Meanwhile, the world's third-largest electronics company, Huawei, is releasing the Huawei Mate X foldable phone around June or July and so far is getting rave reviews. This would normally be a good sign for the market, the problem is that it's a Huawei phone. Even before the US government began indicting Huawei officials on what amounts to espionage chages and has essentially called Huawei an arm of the Chinese Intelligence Service in all but name, other countries, not just Western ones, were raising similar concerns about the company.
Fairly or unfairly, the cloud of suspicion that hangs over companies like Huawei and fellow Chinese tech giant ZTE are out there. Yes, they are pushed heavily by governments that have a real incentive to watch a fair competitor who will challenge existing, domestic industries go down. Everything these governments say needs to be taken with a huge grain of salt.
Regardless, these fears are out there in the markets where Huawei hopes to sell their products. The reputational hurdle that Huawei needs to surmount just to have access to Western markets will be a huge struggle for the company regardless of the product and the Huawei Mate X isn't going to be the phone that bridges that gap. Because of that, it is all but guaranteed to struggle in several major markets, assuming Huawei is even allowed to sell the phone at all.
This is the state of the industry as one-time mobile device champion Motorola gets set to roll out reboot of the Motorola RAZR and it's success or failure will reverberate widely. If the Motorola RAZR can't succeed in the foldable smartphone market, no one can.
What Happened to the Old Motorola RAZR?
Motorola has genuinely struggled to get a solid foothold in the smartphone era, losing its once dominant marketshare to Apple and Samsung over the years. But as I said back in February, the foldable smartphone market was destined to be the stage for Motorola’s return to prominence.
If there is one thing Motorola—technically Motorola Mobility, a separate spin-off from Motorola’s enterprise products brand—has a lock on, it is the foldable phone. When they released the original RAZR back in 2005, it wiped the floor with the other phones on the market with its design and its aggressive campaign to push the phone out to as many people as possible. The strategy paid off, making it one of the most popular phones ever produced. And for a phone that Motorola was practically giving away to everyone who wanted it, it still felt cool to have one.
That dominance was short lived however. The iPhone was released in 2007, followed by the HTC G1—the first phone in the US to run Google’s Android operating system—in 2008. Now, it wasn't an issue of being cool or not, the RAZR just wasn't a smartphone, so everyone flocked to the iPhone and Android devices. Motorola tried to shift gears into the new smartphone era with the Droid RAZR, but it had none of the original RAZRs appeal and it definitely wasn’t an iPhone.
Motorola lost out to Samsung and LG in Android marketshare, and they were eventually reduced to being purchased by Google in 2012 for around $12.5 billion. While the new Moto brand, as Google would call it, would build new Android phones, including the Google Nexus 6, that wasn’t really the point for Google. Google primarily wanted to take ownership of Motorola’s gi-normous patent portfolio as a weapon in it’s Game of Thrones-style conflict with rivals Apple and Microsoft while fending off the endless army of patent trolls streaming over the Wall bearing Cease and Desist letters in their hands.
Stripped of all but a couple of thousand patents— a fraction of their once extensive back catalog of technology—, Google sold Motorola to China-based technology firm Levono for around $3 billion in 2016. While this isn’t a complete fall from grace, the path Motorola has taken hasn’t been a glamorous one from those heady days of the original Motorola RAZR, but if there’s anything we love to see it’s a good comeback story, and in light of Samsung's troubles, Motorola just might be the perfect phone maker for this moment.
Samsung’s Loss is Motorola’s Path to the Top
What Samsung and Hauwei and even Apple have been trying to do is essentially find a way to make this new technology, foldable touchscreens, fit their device designs when these designs have no place for a foldable screen. Samsung and Apple as well as other smartphone makers make tablets that can make phone calls and fit in mens’ pockets, but not women's.
Folding these phones makes no sense. It doesn't make them smaller, it makes them harder and bulkier to handle. Their designs were never meant to be folded just as Motorola’s RAZR was never meant to be flattened into a tablet—which is why Motorola’s smartphone designs flopped a decade ago and why Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is threatening to do the same now, even before its issues with their display.
The fact is, we already know what a foldable phone should look like, we had them for years before smartphones’ tablet design shifted the paradigm—and let’s be honest, the design of the Samsung Galaxy Fold ain’t it, chief. We learned more than a decade ago that the best design for a foldable phone was the clamshell. The only reason we abandoned them was because you couldn't make a smartphone fold.
Well that technology now exists and the only phone maker releasing a foldable phone this year whose design properly utilizes this technology is Motorola. Google stripped Motorola of most of their patents, but they didn’t take the RAZR brand. Motorola has had it sitting in a drawer for a decade, not realizing that they were just waiting for this moment to match a proven and extremely popular phone design with an emerging technology, something that will probably make it the only one on the market with a workable design for another year at least.
The RAZR is also a known brand that people genuinely liked back in 2005, but it couldn’t adapt to the new technology back in 2008 and so we had to move on, it wasn't anything personal. Now, Samsung, Apple, and others are seeing emerging technologies start to out pace their designs. These companies make great phones, but so did Motorola back in 2005. What they don't make, if recent offerings are any guide, are great foldable phones that gives the majority of customers a reason to care, especially not at a $1,500 price point.
So right now, this moment is Motorola’s to screw up. The culture genuinely feels like it needs a break from debates over the fractions of millimeters difference between one phone’s bezels and another’s. Honestly, that’s where we are today. Even jokes in The Onion about tech's lack of innovative ideas are getting old. We've all been hoping to see something genuinely different for years now and every year we are impressed by better specs, but never excited.
A return to a foldable, clamshell design that has all the capabilities of the smartphones we have come to rely on is definitely something very different. After a decade of tablets of varying sizes, it could be just the sort of change we’ve all been hoping to see but haven’t been getting.
Motorola spent a decade in the smartphone wilderness trying not to get devoured by stronger smartphone competitors and only survived because it was never considered a threat and was largely ignored. Now, this might be their opportunity to not just have the coolest smartphone on the market this year, they have a shot at effectively having the entire foldable smartphone market to themselves for a long time. Other phone makers who were dedicated to the unworkable book-fold design, which inexplicably appears to be all of them, will need to come up with their own clamshell devices and get them to market. It is the only design that works.
Now all of this is assuming that Motorola doesn’t completely blow this chance at a comeback by putting out a junk smartphone. We're not giving up smartphones, and as Gizmodo pointed out, the allegedly leaked images of the RAZR doesn't appear to have a selfie camera, at least none that they could see. If true, it would be a major gamble. I could care less about a selfie camera, but for many, it matters. If other essential smartphone features are also missing from the new Motorola RAZR, this phone will almost certainly crash and burn.
There was a reason we abandoned the original RAZR for the smartphone in the first place and no one is going back at this point. We've already seen one major failure to launch in the foldable phone market, a second one in less than six months might be enough to kill any excitement for this technology for the forseeable future.
Fortunately for Motorola, they don't have to blow Apple or Samsung out of the water on the specs front and, honestly, they almost certainly won't, they don't have that kind of money. What they must do, however, is put out a high quality phone with respectable specs that gives us the same experience we expect from a smartphone. If they can pull that off, the phone could be a game changer for Motorola.
Most of the really impressive features on smartphones are used by a small percentage of consumers. Most of us use it for texting, browsing the internet, checking emails, social media, casual gaming, and yes, selfies. Every one of these things should be easy for even a passable Motorola RAZR smartphone to pull off and that will be good enough for a huge majority of smartphone customers out there.
The Motorola RAZR's real market advantage, however, is something that no other smartphone maker seems capable of doing right now. The RAZR will finally let customers dump the bulk of the modern smartphone, something many people have been asking for for years. Not only have smartphone manufacturers failed to deliver this one thing people have repeatedly asked for, the other foldable phone offerings we've seen actually make this problem worse.
Motorola is likely to announce the phone at an event this August, so there'll be a lot more details to come in the next three months, but every one of us should be hoping Motorola pulls this off; it could be the first real innovation we've seen in a decade. Otherwise, we'll all be back here next year having the same debate over bezels and megapixels like we always do.
Don't blow this, Motorola.