Motorola Razr: Reinventing the classic flip into a foldable phone

Exclusive: Motorola, in need of a comeback, wants to bring back the buzz with a foldable Razr that's equal parts retro and cutting edge.

David Beckham. Paris Hilton. Bono. Everyone who was anyone in the early 2000s owned a Motorola Razr. With its sleek edges and metallic keyboard, it stood out from a crop of generic flip phones and made the company cool again. And it wasn't just for the elite. In its four-year run, the chic, ultra-thin handset sold 130 million units on its way to becoming one of the most beloved and iconic pieces of technology ever.

Then Apple's iPhone came along and absolutely destroyed it, along with the memory of so-called dumb phones.

Now more than a decade later, Motorola, which invented the cellphone but now toils in mobile obscurity, is staging a comeback with a reimagined Razr. It combines the retro clamshell design with Google's Android software and an innovative foldable touchscreen display that puts a new twist on the classic flip phone. CNET reviewer Jessica Dolcourt, after an early and extended look at the Razr, describes it as "Streamlined. Utterly pocketable. Nostalgic, with a sharp futuristic edge."

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"We see it as a franchise," Motorola President Sergio Buniac said in an interview ahead of today's launch.

At $1,500, the new Razr is too expensive to go after even premium phones, including the iPhone 11 and Samsung's Galaxy S10. But Buniac and company are hoping that its ability to stand out from the pack -- once again -- will bring buzz back to Motorola and get consumers excited about foldables. 

We could use the jolt. Foldable phones arrived with massive hype and high expectations earlier this year. They were supposed to reinvigorate the wireless world and represented a potential sea change in how we use our mobile devices. The new category was also going to serve as a bridge to the kind of sci-fi tech we see in films such as Minority Report or shows like Westworld.

That hasn't happened. Concerns about durability, exacerbated by the Samsung Galaxy Fold's early defects and Huawei's Mate X delayed launch, tanked excitement. Even Motorola missed its original target of a summer launch for the Razr. The company now will take preorders starting on Dec. 26, with Verizon releasing the phone in January as a lifetime exclusive in the US. It will launch elsewhere next year.  

Eye-popping prices don't help. The Razr is five times the price of the midtier Moto G7 phone. And that's still a bargain compared with the $1,980 Galaxy Fold or $2,400 Mate X.

Unlike those two devices, which are positioned as the future of their respective franchises, Motorola is reaching back to one of its best-known icons as a way into the market for super-premium smartphones. It's hoping that the nostalgic chords it tugs at, combined with a seamless 6.2-inch display (when unfolded) and a compact design (when folded), can generate awareness not just for the Razr, but its larger stable of phones.

Motorola, which has about 3% of the handset market, faces an uphill effort. The company now specializes in budget phones, so price remains a question. It's unclear whether that Razr name, so beloved by an older generation of consumers who grew up on flip phones, will even register with a majority of younger users, who view the first iPhone as the iconic phone.

Then there's the question of durability. 

What's certain is that Motorola and parent Lenovo have large ambitions with the Razr. They've placed a unique bet on foldable screens, making the device smaller as opposed to Samsung's and Huawei's devices, which open up into larger tablets.

"If the goal is to create a splash with a foldable phone, that could be very effective," says Avi Greengart, an analyst at consumer research firm Techsponential. "Anything Motorola can do to break through the clutter and remind people that they still make desirable phones will only help."

Back to the future

"We didn't know back then we were creating these iconic devices," says Mike Jahnke, global industrial designer at Motorola.

I'm chatting with the 21-year Motorola veteran at the phone maker's headquarters in the historic Merchandise Mart building in Chicago. Jahnke is decked out in a matching purple patterned bowtie and sweater, which pop in front of the gaggle of different-colored Razr phones behind him.

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The classic Razr next to the new version. 

James Martin/CNET

As someone who built the first non-working models of the original Razr project, Jahnke shares stories about celebrities who dropped in requesting special variants of the flip phone. The device had taken off as a status symbol after Motorola took the savvy step of slipping a special black edition of the Razr into the swag bags at the 2005 Academy Awards. Shortly after, every power player needed to have one -- customized to their tastes.

Tennis star Maria Sharapova had her own signature edition. Motorola made versions for the Miami Ink TV show and Dolce & Gabbana. Bono requested a red variant for his "Product Red" charity.

After its initial run as a $600 exclusive at wireless provider Cingular, Motorola added new carriers and new variants and dropped the price. 

Motorola pulled off the then-impressive task of making a flip phone cool and accessible.

By 2006, the company owned more than a fifth of the global handset market, according to Neil Shah, a Counterpoint Research analyst. The Razr spawned a number of imitation thin phones from rivals such as Samsung and the Sanyo Katana. Motorola tried to follow up the Razr's success with phones like the Rizr or Slvr, which featured a similar aesthetic. Soccer legend David Beckham served as the face of the Razr 2.

"Everybody else had to struggle to catch up," said Roger Entner, a consultant for Recon Analytics. "The copycat devices turned the Razr into a more iconic device."

But a year later, Apple CEO Steve Jobs released his iPhone. And Motorola's slow and steady slide into irrelevance began.

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A new Razr origin

The next several years proved eventful, if punishing. Motorola never found a worthy successor to the Razr, despite Beckham's best effort. The company split its consumer handset business and its enterprise radio operations into separate entities (confusingly, both continue to use the Motorola name and iconic "batwing" logo). A decade ago, Motorola Mobility launched the first mainstream Android phone, the Droid, bolstered by the massive marketing dollars of Google and Verizon. Motorola tried to bring back the Razr once before with the Droid Razr

Yet its market share and profitability slid as Apple's and Samsung's fortunes rose, and, in the fall of 2011, Google scooped up the business. Three years and even more losses later, Google unloaded Motorola to Lenovo, best known for its laptops.

It was around the time that Google took the reins that Motorola started playing around with plastic as a material for the display. Most phone makers used glass because it offered more heft and a premium feel. But plastic could bend and flex, and when treated with a special coating, proved to be surprisingly durable.

So despite a rich history of landmark devices, from the first cellphone, the DynaTac, to the first flip phone in the StarTac, it was the Droid Turbo 2 that may have provided the key inspiration for the new Razr. 

I'll forgive you if it doesn't immediately spring to mind. 

The Droid Turbo 2, which launched in 2015 as a Verizon exclusive, is notable as the first phone to use that specially hardened plastic display, which Motorola called Shattershield. It withstood an impressive amount of torture before succumbing to a pickax. Later phones like the Moto Z Force used the technology.

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Motorola and Lenovo started thinking about foldable around 2015. 

James Martin/CNET

Around the same time, engineers and designers were looking at foldable devices and started collaborating with their counterparts at Lenovo, whose Japanese unit lent its expertise in hinge designs used in its Yoga laptops. The teams showed off the early fruits of that endeavor at Lenovo's Tech World in 2016, which included a phone that wrapped around your wrist. The working prototype still sits in Motorola's design labs.

"The new Razr is a design and innovation icon reinvented," Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing says in a statement. "It is also a powerful reflection of the engineering and technology prowess that exists across our company."

Internally, Motorola went through more than 20 different prototypes, and by the end of 2016, settled on a phone that folded down into a smaller device. Motorola executives saw the similarities between the final prototype's clamshell design and the original Razr.

All of a sudden, the comeback was on.  

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Motorola played with many prototypes before settling on the final design. 

James Martin/CNET

"We didn't directly set out to do the Razr, but it made sense," Ruben Castano, vice president of design for Motorola, says as he stands over a large pile of different prototypes of the new Razrs.

The team even took a page from the original Razr's design scheme of shoving components into its thicker chin at the base. This time around, Motorola had even more hardware to add, including antennas for 22 bands of cellular airwaves for 4G LTE (there's no 5G connection), a fingerprint sensor, Wi-Fi radio and GPS.

Over the next two years, Motorola designers and engineers quietly worked on the project. In 2017, Motorola brought an early prototype to Verizon, which snapped it up as an exclusive. 

"It's one of those devices you put down at the dinner table and it's an eye-catcher," says Brian Higgins, vice president of device and consumer product for Verizon Wireless. 

In January, a Wall Street Journal report outed its return and hefty price tag. It was the latest iconic product to ride a wave of nostalgia, following Nintendo's NES Classic and the Nokia 3310 candybar phone.

The timing was auspicious. Excitement over foldable phones hit a fever pitch after Samsung led off its Unpacked presentation with a tease for the Galaxy Fold, stealing the spotlight from its flagship Galaxy S10 smartphone. A few days later, Huawei floored attendees of the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona with the Mate X. The market for these devices – despite their prices – was shaping up.

Then, after a rushed launch, early review units of Samsung's Galaxy Fold began breaking.

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Closing the gap

If Motorola's executives had freaked out over the Samsung incident, they didn't show it when I asked one after another about their reactions.

"I don't see anything surprising," Buniac says. "That's what new technology is all about, solving issues."

Castano said the news assured him that his team was on the right track, since one of his early prototypes looked similar to the Fold.

But Verizon's Higgins acknowledged there was an impact. "When the reports came out, I immediately went back to Motorola," he says, noting he had the company rerun all of its specification tests.

Samsung ultimately came back with a reinforced Galaxy Fold, but the reputation for folding phones had taken a hit. 

What had Motorola feeling confident was the unique hinge design it created for the new Razr. The ultimate goal was to create a mechanism that would allow the screen to close in on itself. But here's the dilemma: If you fold a sheet of plastic or paper completely flat, you inevitably get a crease.

That's why the Galaxy Fold, which folds inwards, has a large gap in the middle. It's also why Huawei chose to position its folding screen on the outside. By increasing the folding radius, you decrease the stress on the display and the likelihood of a crease.

It wasn't an easy process. Early prototypes had the phone with giant hinges jutting out from each side, giving it Dumbo-like ears that would've ruined the aesthetics.

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You can see the exposed gears of the hinge on each side of the new Razr. 

James Martin/CNET

Finally, the designers were able to accomplish a complete fold with what they call the zero-gap hinge. As with the earlier prototype, the hinges remain at the side, but not as far out. In fact, you can see some of the gears exposed, getting a glimpse into the mechanics of the construction, similar to a luxury watch. It also added space for the display to bend inward. If you could look into a cross-section of the phone when it's folded, you would see the screen bend in an intricate teardrop shape rather than a flat fold.

Tom Gitzinger, director and principle engineer of innovation and architecture for Motorola, walked us through the different components of the Razr, noting that the display panel, which featured five layers, including one made of stainless steel, was only 360 microns thick.

Gitzinger, who went from college straight to Motorola's R&D team 23 years ago, also said that a similar hard coat used in the Shattershield display was added to the Razr display so it could withstand the scratches that plastic displays are prone to get. But the team dialed back the coating to allow for more flexibility.

Motorola also added steel plates behind the display on each side of the bend point, reinforcing the display and straightening out any creases, a step Samsung took with its reinforced Galaxy Fold

"We looked at the ways this could fail and would account for it," Tom Gitzinger says. 

Bigger isn't always better

Unlike Samsung or Huawei, which showed their products early, Motorola has kept the Razr close to the vest.

Motorola had initially set a target to launch the Razr in the summer. When asked about the delay, Buniac cracks, "I'm Brazilian, so my summers come in January," before acknowledging that the company missed its deadline.

"Of course, we want to be fast to market, but we are not in a hurry or desperate to launch so we believe now is the right time," Buniac says.

Beyond timing, the Razr stands out from the Mate X and Galaxy Fold because its design allows the phone to go from normal size to small. Laura Joss, global director of design research, says that consumer surveys showed the contradicting trend of people wanting larger displays, but not the massive devices required to house them.

Motorola is positioning the Razr as the ideal compromise.

The clamshell design meant Motorola could incorporate a second, 2.7-inch outer "Quick View" screen when folded, just like the original. It's designed to handle notifications, control your music and work as a selfie display, since the main 16-megapixel camera is housed right underneath.

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The Quick View screen offers easy access to notifications. 

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Jeff Snow, general manager of innovation products at Motorola, says he often doesn't even flip open his Razr, which he's been using since July. Instead, he opts to triage his messages and other notifications from the tiny secondary screen. 

Motorola isn't the only one thinking about this approach. Samsung showed off a mockup of a horizontally folding phone at its annual developer conference last month. TCL showed off prototypes of foldable flip phones while at Mobile World Congress. 

Within a year, flip phones could become the new black.

Tapping into nostalgia

The original Razr design, with those metallic keys and that 10 millimeter-thick chassis, still evokes an emotional reaction when you hold one. It's a callback to a simpler time when we actually used our phones for phone calls. 

It's also a reminder that Motorola was once a titan of innovation, pouring the kind of massive dollars into R&D that only the likes of Apple and Google are able to do now. 

Motorola is hoping the new Razr will stir some of those memories. It even got some of the little details down, like the satisfying sound the phone makes when you snap it shut -- hanging up on someone hasn't felt this good in a long time. There's also an Easter egg in the form of an Android skin designed to make the touchscreen look like the original Razr's smaller display and metallic keyboard. 

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The Razr isn't a literal interpretation of the classic phone. But it shares many of the same traits. 

James Martin/CNET

While the Razr brand does strike a nostalgic chord among older consumers, fond memories may not be enough to justify the $1,500 price tag.

"Nostalgia can only get you so far," says Ramon Llamas, an analyst at research firm IDC.

Note: While the NES Classic and SNES Classic were hits for Nintendo, Sony's own retro play with the PlayStation Classic was a flop. Capitalizing on our rose-tinted memories is no guarantee of success.

The Razr brand may not even register with younger users, with smartphones all but wiping dumb phones from our memories. Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said she would recommend that Motorola emphasize the new design and the foldable trend rather than dwell on a past fad. 

That's going to be important, since the new Razr lacks some of the key features that other premium phones offer, including a second telephoto lens, wireless charging and official water and dust resistant ratings. 

"The Razr was all about design," she says. "People used the Razr because it was cool, not because it was great."

Motorola says it expects the Razr to last the average lifespan of a smartphone but wouldn't specify an exact length of time. To help assuage customers, the company will offer a 24-hour turnaround time on replacements if the unit or display fails, although it didn't say how long the warranty lasts. 

The business has been on an upswing, having posted four quarters of profitability after years of bleeding. Still, it will end the year with about 3% of the market -- largely driven by budget phones -- underscoring that it is a far cry from heavy hitters Samsung and Huawei. While Buniac is starting to turn his focus toward growing the business and introducing more premium devices, he has realistic expectations for the Razr.

"I don't see it as a silver bullet," Buniac says. "We see it as a journey that's just started."

This time around, the new Razr likely won't have celebrities lining up to nab an exclusive edition. When asked if Beckham would return with the new foldable version, Jhanke retorts, "We'd be happy to sell him one."

Originally published at 8:11 p.m. PT on Nov. 13.
Updated at 8:05 a.m. and 3:18 p.m. PT on Nov 14. 

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Motorola hopes the Razr name will resonate with some consumers. But some analysts believe the company should focus on the new design. 

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