Mobile Technology News & Mobile Fun

Facing down irrelevance: What Palm can learn from RAZR

By Carmi Levy, Betanews

The half-life of any piece of modern electronics, which was once measured in years, is now barely a few months. It’s no one’s fault, of course, but it’s a reality that vendors need to integrate into their own life cycle planning lest they get caught with the product line equivalent of grandma’s wardrobe.

Simply put, the half-life of today’s uber-hot phones is shrinking. Fast.

To wit, Palm’s Pre. Although Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said earlier this year that his company planned to bring “devices like the Pre” to market, more recent reports suggest the Pre may be ditched in favor of the Pixi. Early price cuts and less-than-enthusiastic messaging from current and prospective carriers reinforce the growing belief that the Pre is already old hat.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)Similarly, Research in Motion’s Storm, which bowed to great fanfare late last year as the first touchscreen-based BlackBerry, has spent much of 2009 enduring multiple rounds of price cuts. Don’t feel bad if you weren’t aware of this: the device’s marketing has also been virtually non-existent, another sign that the bloom is off the device’s rose.

As accelerating market forces turn formerly superstar devices into also-rans, product pipelines become more critical than ever. You’re in infinitely better shape if you’ve got a new device to sell before customers tire of the suddenly old one. But not even a packed-full pipeline will save you if you insist on hanging on to those old devices for too long.

Case in point

RAZR in PinkI remember my first RAZR. Well, it wasn’t exactly mine, it was my wife’s. It was pink. And it was oh-so-much more attention-grabbing than the dowdy old Nokia it replaced. When she’d take it with her to get-togethers, and pull it out nonchalantly to check in on the babysitter, her friends would deluge her with questions. For a while way back in 2005, the Motorola RAZR was the hottest mobile phone on the planet. And my wife — for a little while anyway — was happy to be riding the popularity wave.

Against that backdrop, I felt more than a twinge of sadness when, a few months ago, I happened across a pile of them in a discount bin at a local electronics liquidator. Even at apiece for an unlocked, pristine device in the buyer’s choice of colors, they all sat forlornly in a shadowy corner, with enough dust on the packages to suggest they hadn’t been touched in weeks.

Time had passed the RAZR by. So had my wife: When her RAZR’s battery finally stopped holding a charge last year, Motorola wasn’t even on her wish list when she went looking for a new phone. And to be frank, it wouldn’t have mattered even if it was, because our carrier no longer carried any Motorola products at all. Her new Samsung slider — also pink — may not be the life of the party, but it lets her call or text the babysitter without first having to hold court for the adoring crowd.

The post-RAZR reality

The Razr (which I refuse to spell in all-caps anymore, because companies that insist on such silly naming conventions deserve an eternity in OBLIVION) mimics the complete fall from grace of Motorola as a phone manufacturer. Any vendor that currently sells handhelds, or hopes to in the near future, should study the many lessons this unfortunate company learned during Razr’s short market lifespan, like an historian studies the Roman Empire. In so doing, it will come face to face with a number of difficult realities:

  • Time is your enemy. Today’s hottest phone is fodder for tomorrow’s bargain bin. Leaning heavily on fashion to sell phones makes an already tight market window of opportunity even tighter.
  • Milking is for cows. Motorola didn’t know when to say when. Years after its Razr had peaked, it was still basing the core of its product line on it. Even supposedly “new” devices were thinly disguised variations of the same old thing.
  • Customers aren’t stupid. They know if you’re milking. And they’ll stay away in droves at the first whiff of suspicion.
  • Fashion or function — not both. Devices based on sexy form factors often force tradeoffs in battery life or network performance that buyers discover only after getting home from the store.
  • Variety is the spice of mobile life. One device won’t cut it. Everyone’s got different needs and tastes, and vendors that offer more than one form factor stand to pick up sales from those that stubbornly stick with one offering.
  • Pipeline is crucial. A regular flow of consistently updated devices keeps offerings fresh until successive generations are ready. Keeping old units in the product line for too long damages the brand integrity of more recent offerings. Vendors need to get rid of the old stuff before it becomes a liability, and introduce fundamentally new offerings at regular intervals to prevent rot from setting in.

That last point is especially notable, as it illustrates why manufacturers have utterly failed to gain (like Nokia) or retain (like Motorola) traction in the North American market. The instant a two-year-old design (ancient by modern wireless standards) shows up in a shrink-wrapped package in-between the discount batteries, lip balm, and tube socks, any shred of high-end credibility in the mind of consumers is lost for good. Buyers who might otherwise have considered your device as an alternative to an iPhone or BlackBerry, for example, now avoid the entire brand like the plague because, while everyone loves getting a great deal at Wal-Mart, no one wants to run into their boss as they cart their purchases through the parking lot.

Until now, issues surrounding end-of-life management of devices haven’t garnered much attention because from where vendors sit, this isn’t what sells new hardware. Consumers, focused on looking forward toward the next big thing, don’t want to talk about stuff that’s on the way out. All they care about is counting down the months until they get their cheap or free upgrade. But when that day comes and they walk into the store, only to be surrounded by devices only a grandmother could love, vendors run the risk of turning them off of their wares before potential buyers even have a chance to pull them off the shelf and take them for a test drive.

Time to get mean

I’d like to humbly suggest a slight change in strategy. Vendors may not want to brutally end a given device’s life before its time, but they may have no choice. Product cycles are shorter than they’ve ever been, and the situation will only become more brutal as competition in the space intensifies.

As I look at my two-month-old BlackBerry Tour 9630 and idly contemplate calling my carrier and begging for an iPhone that it just announced this week, part of me says I should simply ignore the iPhone altogether. Barely-there-multitasking, non-exchangeable/sub-one-day battery notwithstanding, it’s a two-year-old design that, unless Apple reconnects with its mobile design mojo, is already flirting with yesterday’s news status among the fashion forward elite.

Like my wife’s Razr that not so long ago defined the state of the art in chic mobility, nothing lasts forever. And heroic efforts to milk a design long past its best before date often do more harm than good.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

Copyright Betanews, Inc. 2009

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