In 1992 Motorola had been working on a project with Swatch (which did not proceed) but as part of this Motorola proposed to Swatch that colour and customisation were going to be key in driving consumer adoption of mobile phones. At that time were no coloured phones available for use on either 1G analogue or 2G digital networks (GSM had only just started). (In the end Swatch offered the Nokia-made Swatch TCE 123 in 1993 which featured a variety of colourful variants
Unfortunately, the idea was not well accepted within Motorola which was very focussed on corporate and business customers with 70 percent of the phones sold being installed into vehicles.
The Motorola Microtac (e.g. Motorola Microtac 9800X
) was the company’s most iconic product and its flip design was very popular. However, Motorola, did not regard the Microtac as a consumer device so the Motorola team needed to create a new form factor. Given the lack of support for the idea of a colourful consumer-centric phone by Motorola’s HQ in Chicago, the team in the UK, led by Hugh Brogan
, decided it was worth the fight to get approval to create a product. The UK team tried to keep the amount of engineering effort down to reduce the cost of the project and it was subsequently approved by Bob Wiesshappel, the CEO of Motorola’s world-wide subscriber business.
At the time, retailers used a lot of price-promise type promotions claiming that consumers could not buy an electronics product cheaper anywhere else. This was achieved by the retailers having custom products for their channels. Manufacturers made slightly different variants of products (for example headphones, portable music players etc.) for each retailer. Furthermore, different colours or package contents were also used as differentiators and sometimes for big customers physical differences such as the number of buttons could be made.
This had never been done in mobile phones as the design of a handheld phone was so intrinsically linked to the software via the keypad and display. Also, the housing needed to be standardised due to the antennas and other electronics that were subject to regulatory approval. It was also reflected in the manufacturing lines which were specifically set up to build a particular type of phone. Consequently, the only differences between mobile products such as a Motorola Microtac were case colours and whether the phone came with one or two batteries in the package. The Motorola team recognised that it would need to produce many different channel variants in order to adapt the mobile phone to the retail market that had developed in the early 1990’s.
As a result, the Motorola Flare was developed. It had the ability to be customised into many different “looks” by changing the front face of the product. This was flexible enough to allow a different numbers of keys and also changes to the shape and style of the keys. However, this necessitated different phone software to deal with keypad mapping so the entire front aspect of the phone could be changed to create a very different looking product whilst allowing the factory to build one base unit. Consequently, despite each channel requiring different colours and designs of products, the factory could build one product all the time centrally and the product could be customised to a specific retailers order at a configuration centre closer to the customer. To overcome the regulatory restrictions, Motorola negotiated with the standards body ETSI
to allow it to type-approve a generic device that could be customised into many different physical types of end products under one type approval.
This helped Motorola achieve significant economies of scale because the Flare used the same electronics as the Microtac products and also used the same battery and accessories. Motorola had made it possible to address the huge (and yet to be created) market for consumer mobile phones.
The Flare was a revolutionary product that decoupled high-volume manufacturing from consumer customisation. Rival phone makers such as Nokia later took the idea a step further allowing consumers to change the front housing of the phone (see: Nokia 5110
The Flare concept was initially rolled out in Europe and Asia in digital and analogue markets and later in the USA.
Motorola created around 15 different designs of the Flare, which were offered in four or five colours delivering around 75 different end products. These were sold as either open market or exclusive products in each market. For example, a network operator or major retailer could get an exclusive on a particular design in one market or a global exclusive or no exclusive, based upon the volume it would commit to buy.
The introduction of the Motorola Flare was key to evolving the commercial approach to mass-market mobile phones. Motorola’s sales teams was able offer different levels of exclusivity to either retailers or operators driving volumes and delivering choice to customers.
The Flare had an LCD screen that could display two rows of 12 alphanumeric characters and additional icons. The phone's address book could store up to 100 telephone numbers and associated names. Call logs recorded the last 10 calls made and received and call meters recorded duration of a call and a running total of all calls made. The Flare could receive but not send SMS text messages. Colours variants included yellow, blue, green, fuchsia, black and more.