Exclusive: Motorola executives discuss foldables, rollables and more on the 50th anniversary of the first cellphone call.
Fifty years ago today, Motorola's Martin Cooper -- widely regarded today as the father of the cellphone -- made the first cellphone call. To say that phones have changed since then would be an understatement. While making a simple phone call was an accomplishment back then, today's devices can stream movies, run console-quality games and capture nearly professional-level photos.
But the smartphone as we know it has largely remained the same for more than a decade. While their processors have gotten faster, their displays have grown larger and their cameras have become more sophisticated, the smartphone's overall shape hasn't varied.
Motorola and its rivals are seeking to change that by looking beyond the traditional phone, hoping to uncover the next major evolution of the mobile devices. Motorola's latest efforts were on full display at Mobile World Congress in late February, where it showcased a concept phone with a rollable display that can expand and contract with the press of a button. It also announced a new version of its Razr foldable flip phone in August 2022, although it's only available in China.
The announcements came as Samsung flaunted its own concept devices at CES, while OnePlus and Google are expected to get into the foldable phone race this year. Taken together, these developments signal that the mobile phone is going through yet another transformation, much as the market did when it was filled with phones with slide-out keyboards in the years before the smartphone. It's just unclear what this next era will look like or how long it will take to get there.
For Motorola, it's all about finding ways to make the smartphone more useful and less obtrusive at the same time. That's according to Jeff Snow, Motorola's general manager of product innovation, and Ruben Castano, executive director of customer experience and design. Both sat down with CNET virtually to discuss where the smartphone is heading next on the 50th anniversary of the first modern cellphone call.
"I think people will look back one day and say, 'I can't believe that I was carrying around this 7-inch piece of glass in my pocket,'" said Snow. "The device is getting a little bit untenable for most people based on their mobile lives."
When it comes to achieving that goal, Snow and Ruben discussed two general paths. The first is a more straightforward approach that we're already seeing today: changing the physical design of the smartphone to become more flexible and compact. That focus on portability is part of the reason why Motorola pursued a clamshell, flip-phone-style foldable like the Razr instead of a phone that converts into a tablet-sized device when opened. Motorola considered a large-format foldable, according to Castano, although the company couldn't discuss further details.
"There's certainly something to that form factor, if you don't make the user make too much of a compromise," said Snow.
Motorola's rollable phone, which is only a concept for now, is a different means of achieving the same general objective to make phones feel less cumbersome without taking away screen space. The prototype shown at Mobile World Congress has a display that can extend or shrink depending on what you're using it for. When it contracts into its smaller state, the phone provides a secondary screen on the back of the device.
Castano and Snow couldn't say when or if the rollable device would come to market. But showing the phone to a wider audience at Mobile World Congress was an important step in the development process, since it enables Motorola to gather real-world feedback.
For example, there's one critique in particular about the rollable phone that stuck with Castano: It takes too long to access the selfie camera. That means the company may have to consider making changes to the proof of concept, such as accelerating the speed at which the display can roll or adding a hole punch-shaped camera to the front of the device.
"As much as we can think and research with consumers internally, when we put it out there, there's just so much more that comes back," Castano said.
The other approach is to make new types of mobile devices that relieve your phone of some of the computing burden, so that you don't have to rely on your smartphone as much. Today's smartwatches and wireless earbuds are already designed to help with this, but Motorola has ideas on how to take that further. Its "5G Neckband" device is one example; the neckband houses certain computing components so that devices like smart glasses won't have to be as heavy.
Castano envisions a future in which screens are just "access points," and the myriad sensors we may be wearing on our bodies -- whether it be in the form of jewelry or a watch -- take care of the computing.
"You have a pane of glass that is only an access point, because the processing is happening outside the device," he said. "You don't need to burden the device or every single part of your ecosystem with a chipset and a modem."
Castano and Snow, however, couldn't get into specific products or concepts Motorola may be working on. But its competitors are expected to show off new devices that fall under some of these categories in the near future.
Apple could announce its first mixed reality headset as early as June, according to Bloomberg, although a more recent report from noted analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says mass production may have been delayed. Samsung, Google and Qualcomm also announced a partnership at Samsung's Unpacked event in February to work on a mixed reality platform together. Google, meanwhile, may launch its first foldable Pixel phone in June, according to reports from 9to5Google and WinFuture.
Apple and Google also are dominant in the global smartphone market, with the former claiming a 23% share in the fourth quarter of 2022 and the latter 19%, according to Counterpoint Research. Motorola didn't make it into the top five smartphone vendors and is instead lumped into the "others" category, which accounted for 29% of the market during that same time period.
For now, the foldable phone is the biggest glimpse we have at where smartphones may be headed -- at least from Motorola's perspective. Snow certainly believes foldables like the Razr could be very indicative of what's next for the smartphone, especially now that mobile devices are starting to replace our wallets and car keys.
"Getting this right, it certainly could replace the modern smartphone as the predominant form factor," he said.