FEATURE – As commonplace as the smartphone is today, in particular, the iPhone, before Apple ever changed the world with its iconic device, there was another popular phone in the hands of consumers which was setting the trend for its day.
The iPhone — which turns 15 years old today — was unveiled a decade and a half ago on this day back in 2007 by then Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, during his keynote address at that year’s Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco, California. Released in June of that year, the groundbreaking device was a very expensive phone for the standards of the day and out of the reach of most consumers, starting at $499 with a 2-year contract (initially on Cingular, which later became AT&T, the exclusive wireless carrier at the time) for an entry level model featuring 4GB of storage (Apple eventually discontinued that version only three months later, infamously slashing the price of the high end model with double the capacity by $200 to just $399… much to the chagrin of the phone’s early adopters).
While Apple may have reinvented the phone with the iPhone? Before the Cupertino, California-based company ever entered the smartphone arena, other companies that specialized in manufacturing mobile phones (e.g., Nokia and Samsung) were trying to do the same with the phones which were very popular at the time, specifically, the Uber ubiquitous “clamshell” style flip phone.
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‘Thinnest Phone In The World’
Back in 2019, in anticipation of Motorola announcing an RAZR-branded smartphone with a foldable screen designed to compete with the Samsung Galaxy Fold, PhoneArena published a retrospective on Motorola’s “clamshell” style flip phone: the original Motorola RAZR (or, the Motorola RAZR V3, the company’s official branding for the product… a bit of a misnomer since it was not the third generation version of the phone).
“At the time of its release, it was the thinnest phone in the world. Sure, a thickness of 0.54 inches would impress no one today (an iPhone 11 is just 0.33 inches thick) but next to other phones of that era, the RAZR V3 looked like it came from another planet.”
According to PhoneArena, the original Motorola RAZR didn’t only look great, it truly felt like a premium device. Unlike its plastic counterparts, the phone was made of metals like aluminum and magnesium, while the external display (which showed users the time and who was calling) was protected by a layer of glass.
The “chin” at the bottom of the device (picture an iMac) made the original Motorola RAZR easier to hold and operate. The phone itself could play MP3 files as ringtones. Most notably, the RAZR’s keypad — a unique design which featured a blue, electroluminescent glow — was, as PhoneArena described it, “a piece of art inspired by tech.”
However, when it was released in 2004, the original Motorola RAZR (like the iPhone that came years later)was very expensive — it cost $499 with a 2-year contract (the price was eventually lowered to $449) — meaning that people would mostly see the phones in the hands of celebrities. Additionally, as PhoneArena noted, this initial exclusivity made the premium device even more desirable for consumers who went out and bought a phone they didn’t necessarily need, – but knew that they definitely wanted.
An ‘Influential’ & ‘Impossibly Thin Phone’
Also in 2019, for the 15th anniversary of the original Motorola RAZR, Fast Company delved into (in the first installment of its special series, “The Design of Y2K”) the secret history of what the magazine described as, “the impossibly thin phone that would go on to change everything” and become “one of the most influential pieces of hardware ever created” (in this century).
In 1996, Motorola — which, per the publication, created the world’s first cellular phone in the 1970s and, two decades later, the radio towers that enabled the wireless and mobile phone revolution of the 1990s — had a hit on its hands with the release of its first “clamshell” style flip phone, the Motorola StarTAC. However, after seven years on the market, in 2003, a year before the original Motorola RAZR hit store shelves, the company knew that it needed a modern makeover but didn’t want its successor to be, as Fast Company put it, yet another thick phone on the shelf.
According to Fast Company, before the original Motorola RAZR came onto the scene, mobile phones had evolved into what the magazine called, “chunks of expensive plastic.” Whether it was a “candy bar” phone from Nokia or a “clamshell” style flip phone from Samsung, the devices were positioned as functional technologies. As the technology evolved, such as the introduction of handsets with bigger screens featuring color displays and built-in cameras, they kept getting thicker, slowly pushing consumers in the direction of much larger phones that barely fit into a user’s pocket (which pales in comparison to today’s phablet-sized smartphones which feature even bigger screens).
Fast Company noted that the objective of the new phone was built around a single premise. Motorola wanted a phone that was 10mm thin, or, as reported by the publication, what became casually referenced internally within the design team as “razor thin.” At the time, competitors were pushing devices that were 20mm thick and Motorola’s engineers and designers, including the company’s executives, planned to cut that number in half in order to, as the magazine put it, “make a splash.”
In addition to this new phone being extremely thin, it also had to be very usable. Fast Company reported that, despite the fact the U.S. (at the time) was lagging behind in this regard, Motorola knew from global ethnographic research that consumers around the world were using mobile phones in a different manner (as in, not just for making phone calls). Because people were texting more and more, the keyboard had to be really big, and, per the publication, for early internet browsing and some of the first downloadable games, the screen had to be just as big, too: all while still being able to fit into a user’s pocket!
iTunes ‘Right On Your Phone’?
Fast Company noted that the original Motorola RAZR was such a hit that in 2005, Apple partnered with Motorola on a mobile phone featuring iTunes, the Motorola ROKR, a device that Steve Jobs himself described as, per the publication, “an iPod Shuffle right on your phone.” However, the partnership between the two companies wasn’t enough to build, as the magazine put it, “the next breakthrough phone” (e.g., the iPhone).
In a related story that was published last year, iDrop News reported that the built-in iTunes software which came with the Motorola ROKR was basically acting as a replacement for the file-based MP3 music players that were commonly found on the mobile phones of the day (such as Motorola’s own digital audio player) and this — namely, the ROKR’s popularity among consumers (specifically, those who already owned an iPod) — would eventually lead to Motorola updating its flagship phone, the original Motorola RAZR, with a new model featuring iTunes: the Motorola RAZR V3i.
“This was a far cry from what would eventually become the iPhone, but it also generated a lot of enthusiasm for the very idea of Apple getting into the mobile phone market, and kicked off months of rumors and speculation of what an Actual Apple phone would look like. These first false starts, however, were more about melding iPod capabilities into Motorola’s hardware and software ecosystem. It’s unclear how much input Apple had into the overall design of the ROKR, but at the end of the day, it was ultimately still Motorola’s baby, and it showed.”
Fast Company reported that the original Motorola RAZR would go on to sell 130 million units in the years following its release. Unfortunately, instead of investing in the innovations that enabled, for instance, the RAZR’s iconic industrial design, Motorola opted to, as the publication put it, “run the RAZR brand into the ground.”
Before we had the iPhone, in what the magazine described as, “the premium smartphone for everyone”? Fast Company noted that we had the original Motorola RAZR, a premium “clamshell” style flip phone for everyone. Motorola’s RAZR was a turning point for the technology industry where consumer electronics began to assume a new role in society and culture, not to mention, a groundbreaking device that eventually, per the publication, “changed the world.”
A Note from the Author: on this 15th anniversary of the iPhone, read how this writer missed out on the very first Apple smartphone and what brand of mobile phone he was using before getting one (plus… why, when he owned a Motorola RAZR V3, it was only for a short period of time).