When it comes to the race to the first foldable smartphone, Samsung seems to be winning the media beat at the moment. The big idea? A device that can convert from small tablet to bulky candybar with just a push of the wrists. This little convertible will have envelope-pushing specifications that have yet to be fully conceived. And it could be revealed as early as February 20th.
There have been peeps once in a while from the likes of Apple, Huawei and others. Some companies are working on prototypes. A stray patent gets picked up on a news cycle or two with the hopes of improving the durability of a flexible phone. But we have not had any indication thus far that the competition is anywhere near ready to unfold a foldable this season.
Well, guess what The Wall Street Journal has reported this week? It has been told of Motorola’s own folding smartphone, one that will carry on the legacy of the RAZR brand which once stood for low-profile clamshell phones. Chinese parent company Lenovo is said to be planning for 200,000 units to sell from about $1,500 upwards. Verizon may exclusively carry the phone from next month, potentially beating Samsung to the finish line.
A patent dating back to August has also suggested that the company was working on the technology. However, this report is the first intel on a Motorola-branded folding phone slated for release this spring.
Is the company trying to gin up its relevance? You bet it is — it’s fifth place in the US smartphone market and barely registers a blip in the upper pack globally.
But in and of the concept of foldable phones, it looks like Moto has a plausible shot. Given enough time, a new RAZR would not stand alone in the market; only the name would. While we don’t know the intrinsics of this particular phone, Samsung’s offering — speculatively called the Galaxy F — sounds like it will also face tight supplies and a prohibitive price. And let’s not even start with how these bendables will wear and tear in real-world conditions.
In an ironic side note, the same company that produced the Moto Z, a 2016 device that measured just 5.2mm thick, will likely end up with a folding product edging back closer to its originator in thinness — at just under 14mm, the RAZR V3 was the thinnest of its category in late 2004.
The bigger question we should be asking is whether this struggling manufacturer will rejuvenate itself with a commercial upset on a brand-new vertical or firmly place itself as a hasbeen.
We know that the company is also planning a fourth iteration of its Moto Z series with the mainline model set as another Verizon-only push. The “Moto Mods” concept of modular accessories has not been enough to stir wide interest in what critics have called a series of basic phones with expensive accouterments. Development in Moto Mods has seemingly come to a crawl — it may ultimately be relegated to being a vessel to the 5G network.
Worse yet, Motorola Mobility’s Chicago headquarters appear emptier than ever as years of layoffs make themselves felt. The company started this decade as an independent firm with about 19,000 employees, was bought and then shortly sold by Google, and is currently purported to have very much less than 1,000. Even if we suppose the offices are still around just as an R&D engine for the greater company, Moto’s ribcage is showing.
On the flip side, we should acknowledge this greater company with a total of 54,000 workers in its ranks. Lenovo has pioneered in hinge designs to make most any of its laptops lie flat as well as the first convertible laptop series without a physical keyboard. It has demonstrated its flexible display technology and has started to produce foldable panels in earnest. The Hong Kong-based multinational is handling most of the functions that aren’t in the United States from assembly to logistics. It’s good to know that the resources exist, but it’s hard to deny the immovable continuity gap that opens up when they are outsourced.
Motorola’s shining spots in the smartphone era of its track record are with its value-oriented, few-frills phones. The Moto G series quickly took off as its best performer when it debuted and still holds good ground today alongside the leaner Moto E series. In contrast, the banner Moto Z series has been slow to grow with 5 million sales over shy of two years. As a standalone smartphone seller, Lenovo’s experience in the field has seen its share in its home market of China plummet to a fraction of a percent.
But sales are not indicative of overall investment. We do have some reason to believe that both Lenovo and Motorola stand as dark horses in the industry this year with the conformity to hardware trends.
Lenovo has a flagship phone set for release in China in the coming weeks: the Z5 Pro GT takes on many traits from other phones of its ilk, like a sliding deck that reveals the phone’s selfie cameras and nearly bezelless display. It will stand out, however, as being the first commercial phone with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset and also the first to come with 12GB of RAM. China has a large constituency of spec-heads in the consumer pools, so it will be counting on first adopters to book pre-orders.
With the folding Motorola RAZR, the company will be in a position to have its talking points out at the same time as its bleeding-edge product. I’m not going as far as to say that it will be the first, the best or the most popular. Samsung will likely outdo Motorola with carrier outreach and in direct-to-consumer marketing — hell, it definitely has the resources to make the better foldable of the two.
But I’m willing to bet that if Motorola is willing to price a new RAZR some $1,500 against the murmurs coming out of the beast of a chaebol, it is making a credible, sensible effort of making this foldable.