Motorola is currently enjoying the fruits of a design-led renaissance prompted by the iconic status of its RAZR line-up. RAZR products have become the handsets of choice by virtue of their eye-catching industrial design, edgy marketing and their early acceptance among the fashionistas who set consumer trends. I’ve read several analyst reports which compare RAZR with Apple’s iPod: a ‘company-changing’ product with the power to alter overall brand perceptions, drive sales records and serve as a platform for new opportunities. It is a tempting analogy, but an inaccurate one.
There is no denying RAZR has been key to Motorola’s recent growth in the handset market. According to Strategy Analytics‘ figures, Motorola shipped 40 percent more handsets year-on-year in 2005, compared to overall handset market growth of around 20 percent. This pushed the company’s market share from 15.4 percent to 18 percent, more than its closest two rivals combined (Samsung and LG), although still some way behind market leader Nokia.
RAZR is a great product, but its greatness is imbalanced. The primary selling point is the industrial design. Put simply, people buy RAZR because it looks good. This is where the analogy with the iPod fails – the iPod may look very cool, but it is also part of a system, an overall experience which is greater than the sum of its parts. There is an interesting analysis of just how significant the iPod, or rather iTunes, could be for the wider consumer electronics and recording industries on Michael Mace’s Mobile Opportunity blog (Mace was formerly chief competitive officer at Palm).
If you talk to RAZR users (or, indeed, users of the PEBL), they actually complain quite vocally about their day-to-day experiences with the product. It may look the business, but they find text messaging difficult, they are still confused by the menu systems after several months of usage and – alarmingly – also voice concern that too many other people now own RAZRs. In one of its key areas of differentiation – design exclusivity – RAZR is losing its appeal.
This brings us to the topic of sustainable product design. In my opinion, Sony Ericsson currently has the most sustainable product design roadmap in the mobile business. Why? There are several reasons, but they can be summarised quite succinctly – Sony Ericsson’s range is designed around the needs of very specific segments. Nokia also demonstrates this approach and, while it may have lost the aura of invincibility which once characterised its reputation in the handset market, it will continue to succeed in the long-term because it starts with customer needs and builds products which meet them, from the hardware design to the software interface.
Motorola’s CEO, Ed Zander, famously quipped that 2005 would be the ‘year of the RAZR’. He was right. But being right doesn’t always mean you’re going to succeed in the long-term. While it doesn’t make nearly such a good sound bite, I would have been much more encouraged to hear Zander planning for the ‘year of the customer’.
I’ve written before about ‘purity of use experience’ and, on the surface of it, RAZR appears to be an excellent example. Motorola has identified a successful formula and is now developing it and has done a relatively good job of sticking to the fundamental principles. The difficulties will come when Motorola realises it is tied to a product design rather than a customer experience. There is little beyond the funky design to tie users into the RAZR. Nokia has its interface, Apple has iTunes – Motorola just has a cool looking form-factor. Form-factors can be easily imitated and fall out of fashion even more easily than that.
I’m sure Motorola’s design team is not standing still. The RAZR has been followed by the PEBL and SLVR, both of which are impressive designs in their own right. But I would assert that Motorola’s success in the market will not be sustainable in the long-term will it continues to focus on designing around form-factors, rather than designing experiences around users.