As Motorola battles for device sales, its engineers hit the sandbox

Company wants Rokr E8 to take off like its Razr phone did

At Motorola Inc., dozens of designers and engineers are busy working in Libertyville, Ill., and downtown Chicago to create the next hot mobile device that could lift the device maker's sagging revenues the way the first Razr phone did.

It's not so much Motorola's financial health that motivates the design teams, but the desire to create something new and that solves a set of technical needs while hitting a new level of hipness.

Motorola's Rokr E8 (Photo courtesy of Motorola Inc.)

One of Motorola's recent creations, the Rokr E8, was unveiled at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month where it won several awards. It ships in March worldwide, but no price has been announced and it hasn't been widely reviewed.

The Rokr E8, the fifth in the Rokr line that started in 2005, features a new ModeShift technology that transforms the device from a phone to a music player to a camera with the touch of a button. A spokeswoman said the ModeShift "declutters" the device's face by requiring only the buttons needed for a certain function to be visible. That means when a user is in camera mode, only camera buttons are visible under a 2mm thick plastic covering. The same goes when a user is playing music with images or when using it as a phone.

Rokr E8 specifications

Size: 4.5 by 2 by .4 inches
Weight: 3.5 ounces
Wireless band: GPRS/EDGE, also Bluetooth
Memory: 2GB internal memory, with optional 4GB external support
Display: 2 inches; 240 by 320
Camera: 2 megapixel camera with 8x zoom
Other: ModeShift transforms device from phone to music player to camera with the touch of a button. FastScroll navigation wheel allows scrolling through songs, contacts and images with the slide of a thumb.
Source: Motorola Inc.

"It has a cool, wow factor," said Roger Ady, director of engineering for Motorola's design unit. Ady worked on the phone for two years with a core group of engineers and designers that swelled from 10 to 50. A dozen patents are part of the device, most devoted to the ModeShift concept, which was still under development four years ago.

Ady admits he is biased about the E8. When talking about the device, he brings the enthusiasm of a college student, even though he has been designing for 24 years.

When describing his team's E8 creation, Ady sprinkles in technical descriptions such as "transflexive" and "piezoelectric actuators" with more prosaic comments such as, "It took technical magic. It was a huge challenge. ... The end result was what the designers wanted and what the user interface team wanted, a very simple interface for a very complex device."

Ultimately, Ady said, user reaction is what counts. "We've done user research with the E8 and found it hits the sweet spot. People are jazzed by the way it changes modes. It is all about the surprise they have because it sits there totally blank at first on the shelf and as they get into it, it can shift modes, and they realize it really has no normal keys. There's a cool wow factor with it."

Ady is aware that mobile device sales slipped for Motorola last year, but said research and development is going full bore.

"We're highly motivated to find the next big thing," Ady said. "We continue to innovate no matter what the status of the business. Nothing is slowing innovation, and we're all really excited about that kind of stuff, of playing in our play box."

There is also an awareness by Motorola engineers of how important the first Razr phone was to Motorola. Analysts have noted that Razr's first successes need to be quickly followed by another device innovation.

Part of what happened after the Razr, Ady said, was that Motorola was developing incremental follow-ups in design, partly to please the wireless carriers that would be selling the phones.

"We've always had two development paths, and one was doing product for the carriers that was incremental, such as stepping up the battery life of a device. There were no breakthrough programs, but things we had to do. However, some other efforts like this one on E8 could be classified as a breakthrough, not necessarily collaborating with carriers.

"We said, 'Let's come up with something really different' because that's how Razr was spawned."

Ady said ModeShift will find its way into other Motorola products, helping users quickly adapt to a new device's interface.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about E8 as Ady. Jeffrey Kagan, an independent analyst who has repeatedly urged Motorola to find another device with the appeal of the Razr, said the first Rokr version was brought to market in 2005 as a music phone with other phone models "to take up where Razr left off ... but the market has not fallen in love with it."

Since phones and mobile devices are a fashion item for many, Kagan is the first to admit that finding the magic that works will be hard for Motorola. "I think [the E8 and ModeShift technology] will help rather than hurt, but it won't save them," he said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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