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Motorola president: We see foldable Razr as a new franchise

Exclusive: Sergio Buniac answered our questions about the new Razr, its late arrival and the broader foldable phone market.

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Motorola President Sergio Buniac shares his thoughts on the new Razr and foldables in general. 

James Martin/CNET

When Sergio Buniac took over as the president of Motorola in March 2018, he had his work cut out for him. The company boasted a portfolio of compelling budget phones that often got lost in the shuffle, and the business hadn't been profitable in years. More importantly, Motorola, the inventor of the cellphone, had become irrelevant thanks to larger, more deep-pocketed rivals such as Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

But the business, now owned by Chinese consumer electronics giant Lenovo, is counting on making a splash with the debut of a reimagined Razr smartphone that CNET got an early and extended look at. It features a long, 6.2-inch internal display that folds in on itself, like the original ultra-thin clamshell. It will launch as an exclusive phone for the Verizon Wireless service in the US. 

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The Razr is the latest in the crop of new foldable phones hitting the market. With the Samsung Galaxy Fold suffering early issues and the Huawei Mate X facing product delays, it's unclear how consumers will respond to these super-pricey devices.

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Buniac spoke to me ahead of the launch as part of our exclusive coverage of the Razr. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation. 

Why launch the Razr now?
Buniac: When we saw [the foldable phone market] coming, initially you have two options to fold the device. In our research, we saw many consumers were looking for pocketability.

First, let's fold inwards. Consequentially, when you think about how to go to market, Razr came in place. I think we're very happy with the solution.

We saw a consumer need for foldable. It's not like we decided to relaunch the Razr and figured something out.

There's a generation of users for who the Razr clearly resonates. But there's a younger demographic where the flip phone is completely meaningless to them and the Razr brand is completely irrelevant. How are you positioning this phone?
So that's the beauty of the solution. Foldable is a technology that's starting. We believe there are so many options and avenues with that so we have to think about new consumer segments as we move forward. Of course, those Razr users are an important cluster. But it's equally important to grab new customers as we move forward.

These groups are both equally important.

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

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Motorola President Sergio Buniac has high hopes for the Razr. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Is the Razr a one-off experiment or the start of a franchise?
We see it as a franchise. Of course we are very focused on launching the Razr. We'll see what's in store in the future. We'll explore more options, but today we're very happy where we are. We want to launch this one in the market and get consumer feedback and start from there.

Before we got the Razr, we explored more than 20 options. There is a lot of things. How much bigger can it get or do you want more battery? There were so many things we looked at.

How did you react when the Galaxy Fold review units started having issues?
Any new technology, you're normally more careful than with mature technology. The competition that came before us, we used as part of our learning. Of course, we have our own avenue, but we're humble enough to look at what's not so good and what's good and put it in our development path.

When we launched the Moto Z Force, we have been dealing with plastic OLED for probably the last two or three years. There's a lot of learning there.

Going back to your initial reaction, what was the first thing that went in your mind when you saw the Fold issues?
Motorola is an engineering company. We always obsess about those details. I don't see anything surprising. It's the face of new technology. That's what new technology is all about, solving issues.

You targeted a summer launch initially. This thing is now launching in January. What happened during those extra few months?
Well, I'm Brazilian and summers in Brazil are in January.

Haha, fair enough.
Look, our original plan was to launch around summertime. We are two or three months behind. That's OK. It's new technology. There are good days and bad days, but we want to feel that it's really mature before going to market.

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 to launch.

Give me your thoughts on the broader foldable phone market, which has seen its enthusiasm wane thanks to product delays and the high cost of these phones.
We are coming in cheaper than the competition.

Cheaper is relative, because it's still an expensive phone at $1,500.
I
t's new technology. There's a lot of investment research behind it. We believe we are at the right price point, and we'll see how it goes.

Some of our competitors announced and it took a little while. Our approach is a little different. We'll announced when we're in market.

This is a relaunch of the Razr brand. We see it as an exciting launch. We have to go at the right time.

This is the first premium phone you've launched for a while. How does this open up the premium flagship category for Motorola?
When I took over almost 18 months ago, our focus was on profitability. At that time, we decided to keep doing what we did well, which was the midtier space, with the Moto G and Moto E.

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The Moto G7 was one of the many midtier phones that helped Motorola get back to profitability. 

Juan Garzon/CNET

We're not profitable for four quarters, you'll see more results on Thursday. We are seeing our net promoter store growing to an interesting level. Our product development cycle has been reduced by 35%.

When you combine better time-to-market and much stronger profitable growth, we feel like the next step is entering the premium market. One step is to bring back the Razr in a meaningful way.

We're just starting with the premium launches. There are still more things coming in the premium space.

Will you follow up with more traditional phones in the premium space using top-tier components?
We're not commenting on future launches. But I think you'll be pleased.

You'll end the year with about 3% of the smartphone market, which is actually up. What's your goal with market share?
Our commitment was to raise the profitability of this business. Before I got here, it hadn't been profitable for eight to 10 years. We aimed for four to six quarters of profitability, and that timing is coming.

On top of that, we committed to play strong in our core markets. In Latin America, in the last 11 quarters, we grew market share. In North America, we have been growing for a while. Our profitability has been slowly going up.

Right now, we're looking for avenues to grow. We're now able to invest in more now that we're profitable.

There's a lot of work ahead.

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The Razr traces its roots back to the original flip phone, but with a new twist. 

James Martin/CNET

You're strong in Latin America, South America and Europe. These are markets where companies like Huawei are prioritizing. Can you talk about how you're addressing the heightened competition?
We don't talk about specific competitors. This is a competitive market, period.

In markets like Mexico, every single player is playing there, and in the last few quarters we were No. 1. The important thing is, consumer satisfaction is going up. Are we getting more competitive as we move forward? Yes.

Any last thoughts?
We've very excited about the launch. It's a very important launch for us, but it's not the first or the last. Let's see how it goes.

There are a lot of things that are very exciting that are coming in the near future.