The Motorola Razr was a phone that should never have been born. It broke all the rules within the company and yet went on to define the company.
As a result of Motorola’s comprehensive development processes, only phones which demonstrated significant margin would make it onto the road map. That required a minimum volume of three million phones. At the initial meetings of the committee which made the decisions to progress products the Razor (with the "o" at the time) was proposed with a volume of 800,000 units. On this basis it should have been rejected. Not only was the volume too low, it was also very hard to make. The antenna was an engineering challenge and the external screen needed to be monochrome if it wasn't going to bulge out. The phone’s design relied on the strength of the glass screen for structural integrity. The etched keypad could only be made by one supplier and in limited quantities.
The phone also came into the ‘portfolio meeting’ with no operator commitment, without adhering to any consumer or carrier segmentation guidelines and at a crazy price point of $1,000. It was later revealed that even the volume projection was false, the team building Razor estimated 300,000 units. Under the Motorola process it should have been kicked into touch at that first portfolio meeting.
That it didn't was a tribute to the vision of two men: Geoffrey Frost
and Roger Jellicoe
. Frost was the marketing man who powered the decisions to make Razor, Jellicoe was Motorola's phone design guru, with MicroTAC and StarTAC under his belt. He'd seen the concept model of the phone of the future produced by the super cool team in Consumer eXperience Design, or CXD. Motorola didn't have anything as mundane as design department or drawing office.
photographs below (taken by Simon Rockman
) show the concept model for the Razor. They were taken at an event held in Kalamazoo, Michigan to look at the future of the mobile industry.
The Razor wasn't so much a design for a phone, but a beacon for the new design language. There were to be two main languages, the sharp angular chamfered edges of Razor and the smooth sinuous shape of Pebble (aka PEBL
). Razor was targeted at men while the Pebble was targeted at women.
Jellicoe wanted to make the Razr, but that wasn't possible. It was a difficult technical challenge and that meant lots of engineering manpower. Budget only came with projects which had sign off through the Motorola’s internal processes and approvals. But he built it anyway. It was a skunk works
project, done off the grid with his team devoting evenings and weekends, with some of the costs of making prototypes and testing hidden in other projects as Jellicoe's boss, Tracey Koziol
, providing aircover. The work was done on a need-to-know basis. The name Razor was a code-name given to reflect how thin it was. Codenames which define the product are pretty poor for keeping something secret. Indeed during the time Razor was being made we instituted a process of using the names of islands for GSM phones and cities for CDMA phones. But the rules were different for Razor.
The forcefulness of Frost was what saw it through the gruelling process of development. He argued that it would serve as a halo product, much as the Motorola V70
had before it. To do this it only had to exist. Perhaps it didn't need to do 800,000 units or even 8,000. Just 800 would be enough to get them into the hands of the right celebs. Particularly through the goodie bags handed out at the Oscars. The number 800,000 however was chosen politically because that was break-even, it's what the V70 had achieved and Frost could claim it was a marketing campaign that paid for itself.
Others argued that the resources deployed on a vanity project could be better spent on something which would do the volume and make money, but Frost wasn't just the CMO of the Motorola handset division, but of the parent corporation, making him more equal than the other VPs. He also had the deep trust of Ron Garriques the president. As much as the regional chiefs might have said, "well my region won't take it," it had the political firepower to get made.
Razor was kept as a dark project, there were very few plans shared with operators (who bought 80 percent of phones at the time) or a consolidated launch plan. It was just one of the more interesting things on the roadmap and it was launched as Razor. It was only when someone popped up with a prior claim to the name that the "O" was dropped and Razr was born.
Motorola soon knew it had a hit. There was a buzz inside the business and intense jealousy of anyone who could get their hands on one.
Pebble (see: PEBL
), which had been a parallel project, started to become a lot less sexy. Like Razr the name came from its shape.
As a sidenote, the success of Razr led to a strategy of four big hits a year, the Icons, and Motorola convened an Icon accelerator committee to oversee this. The first Icon was Razr, then Pebl and the two to follow would have been Retro and Tattoo. Retro was a re-visit of the classic Motorola StarTAC
and Tattoo had a huge roller for the hinge and stickers to allow the youth consumer to customise it. A CDMA version of the Retro, the Motorola StarTAC 2004
stumbled into the Korean market, Tattoo floundered due to Motorola’s software incompetence. Beyond Razr was GD2, which came to the market as Aura.
The scale of the hit of Razr is hard to comprehend. Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse ordered a quarter of a million of the pink variant of the Razr
. This was considered to be mad by the Motorola team as it equated to a third of the global projected sales for the Razr. On this basis, Motorola gave Carphone Warehouse exclusivity on the pink colour. When it sold three million units Motorola bought the non-UK rights on the Pink Razr back.
The forecast of total Razr sales of under a million units was dramatically wrong. In various guises it went on to sell more than 100 million phones.
Two things conspired to ensure that the success of Razr was never repeated. One was software. While Motorola had the best electronic, electrical, and mechanical engineers in the world at that time, the software management was appalling.
This was allied to the second problem which was the politics of process. Constant consensus, research, and getting everyone on board meant that far more effort was expended in deciding than it was in doing. Once the Razr team had emerged from their skunk works protected by Tracey Koziol and Geoffroy Frost they were expected to play by the broken rules. Aura, which should have been months behind Razr was over three years behind.
Thank you to Simon Rockman for these insights. Simon worked as creative experience director at Motorola at the time the Razr was conceived.