Switched On: Why Motorola's ROKR plays the humdrum

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|09.21.05

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Ross Rubin
September 21st, 2005
Switched On: Why Motorola's ROKR plays the humdrum image
Switched On: Why Motorola's ROKR plays the humdrum image
Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Motorola ROKR E1 iTunes phone

The once eagerly anticipated Motorola ROKR E1 has attracted more than its share of down beats since its launch. Yet the phone plays music well via its headphones and relatively loudly via its small speakers. Its battery life should allay concerns about MP3 listening cutting too deeply into talk time. And its much-criticized arbitrary song limit and slow USB connections can be worked around with a USB 2.0 card reader and Motorola's music application on the phone. The ROKR may look dated and even unattractive, but that hasn't stopped other rockers from enjoying phenomenal success. Isn't that right, Mick and Keith?

Alas, the ROKR is, according to the Motorola Dictionary of Trendy Abridged Spelling, MEDIOKR. The biggest surprise, though, about the disappointing handset was that anyone was surprised at how disappointing it was. Those who have followed Apple since the ascent of the iPod should have seen that this ROKR was going to hit the rocks for a variety of reasons.

From the launch perspective, it made no sense that Apple would generate a lot of hype around the ROKR, a product that had already been quasi-announced. Sure, rumors swarm around Apple announcements like flies at a picnic, but the notion of an iTunes phone created in (loose) partnership with Motorola had publicly been discussed by executives of both companies. So, one should have been on the lookout for something big, which turned out to be something quite small – the iPod nano.

Not only did Apple�s new fleshless flash player completely upstage its fellow FairPlay-compatible device at its introduction, but the ROKR may be the first product ever undersold by Steve Jobs. Apple�s CEO described it as an iPod Shuffle for your phone. Unlike the Shuffle, though, the ROKR has a screen, multiple playlists, and speakers.

From the development perspective, Apple has always maintained that the secret to the iPod�s � or any of its products� � success lies in its vertical integration or, as the company puts it, making the whole widget. The ROKR, on the other hand, was created using a traditional cell phone model � software by Party A (Apple), hardware by Party B (bat wings), and distribution by Party C (Cingular). It�s no wonder that Apple�s traditional attention to detail and integration are lacking.

Finally, from the market dynamics perspective, the ROKR is simply the offspring of a loveless marriage � or perhaps m?ge-a-trois. Apple wants to avoid fueling any threat to its standalone iPod business by the coming onslaught of digital music phones. Motorola sees a future of Linux-based software and carrier-courting services, neither of which is met by iTunes. Finally, Cingular fails to drive network usage or over-the-air downloads with the ROKR. While its network is probably not up to that task today anyway, this will likely become more of a battleground in the future.

With regards to Cingular�s marketing slogan, the ROKR has not raised the bar, but it has raised the profile of music phones. Music features will continue to factor far down the priority list of how consumers choose their mobile phones. However, should customers embrace the playback capabilities that marginal component costs will soon make a standard feature of their handsets, Apple will need to take a more active role if it wants to preserve the portable digital music experience it has executed so well. I�d write more on the subject, but for some reason Apple�s Pages word processor has capped this column at 600 words.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.
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