No-one forecast the success of The Motorola Razr. It was a phone
which should never have been born. It broke all the rules within
the company and yet went on to define the company.
I worked at Motorola as the creative experience director. My job
was understanding people and technology then marrying the two.
For a time I worked in The Discovery Team, looking at new
business opportunities and is in part how I came to set
up Fuss Free Phones, a mobile phone network for seniors.
I can take absolutely zero credit for Razr. But I was around, in
meetings and hanging out with the people who made it happen.
The company had a religion: process. Everything had to happen to
defined milestones and goals. Nothing moved without opportunities
defined and risks assessed. Process was more important than
engineering, products or even marketing. Although marketing ran
Under the rules of Process, known as M-Gates, any new product had
to demonstrate the ability to hit key objectives. Motorola had
the ability to make about fifty new products a year, including
refreshes and regional versions, that meant about 30 core
products. Bear in mind that the world was very divided by
technology, principally with Europe doing GSM and America being
So making what all the 800 mobile phone networks in the world
wanted was a stretch. Battles had to be picked and only phones
which demonstrated significant margin would make it onto the road
map. That meant a minimum volume of 3 million phones. I sat
in on the meetings of the committee which made the decisions to
progress products and Razor (with the “o”) was proposed with a
volume of 800,000 units. It should have failed the M-gate
process. It was worse than that, not only was the volume too low,
it was very hard to make. The antenna was an engineering
challenge and the external screen would have to be monochrome if
it wasn’t going to bulge out. It relied on the strength of the
glass screen for structural integrity. The etched keypad could
only be made by one supplier and in limited quantities. It came
into the portfolio meeting with no operator commitment, without
meeting any consumer or carrier segmentation guidelines and at a
crazy price point of $1,000 (£776). I later found out that even
the volume projection was a lie, the team building Razor
estimated 300,000 units. Under the Motorola process it should
have been kicked into touch at that first portfolio meeting.
That it didn’t is a tribute to the vision of two men: Geoffrey
Frost and Rodger Jellicoe. Frost was the marketing man who
powered the decisions to make Razor, Jellicoe was Motorola’s
phone design guru, with MicroTac and StarTac under his belt. He’d
seen the concept model of the phone of the future produced by the
super cool team in Consumer eXperience Design, or CXD. Motorola
didn’t have anything as mundane as design department or drawing
The exclusive photographs here show the concept model. This is
the first time they have been published, I took them at an event
held in Kalamazoo to look at the future of the mobile industry.
Quite why I was allowed to take pictures at a secret off-site
workshop I’m not sure.
The original Motorola Razr concept
Razor wasn’t so much a design for a phone but a beacon for the
new design language. There were to be two main languages, the
sharp angular chamfered edges of Razor and the smooth sinuous
shape of Pebble. Razor was a boys phone and Pebble was for girls.
Jellicoe wanted to make the Razr, but that wasn’t possible. It
was a difficult technical challenge and that meant lots of
engineering manpower. Budget only came with projects which had
sign off through the M-Gates process. But he built it anyway. It
was a skunk works, done off the grid with his team devoting
evenings and weekends, with some of the costs of making
prototypes and testing hidden in other projects as Jellicoe’s
boss, Tracy Koziol, providing aircover. The work was done on a
need to know basis. The name Razor was a code-name given to
reflect how thin it was. Codenames which define the product are
pretty poor for keeping something secret. Indeed during the time
Razor was being made we instituted a process of using the names
of islands for GSM phones and cities for CDMA phones. But the
rules were different for Razor.
The Motorola Razr concept model.
The forcefulness of Frost was what saw it through the gruelling
process of development. He argued that it would serve as a halo
product, much as the V70 (codenamed Hummingbird) had before it.
To do this it only had to exist. Perhaps it didn’t need to do
800,000 units or even 8,000. Just 800 would be enough to get them
into the hands of the right celebs. Particularly through the
goodie bags handed out at the Oscars. The number 800,000 however
was chosen politically because that was break-even, it’s what the
V70 had done and Frost could claim it was a marketing campaign
which washed its face.
Others argued that the resources deployed on a vanity project
could be better spent on something which would do the volume and
make money, but Frost wasn’t just the CMO of the Motorola handset
division, but of the parent corporation, making him more equal
than the other VPs. He also had the deep trust of Ron Garriques
the president. As much as the regional chiefs might have said,
“well my region won’t take it,” it had the political firepower to
A side view of the Motorola Razr concept
Building a new phone is a significant engineering task, with
constraints on mechanical design such as the hinge and how well
it wears, on flexing, drop testing and a test where a ball
bearing is dropped onto the screen from height. The electronics
have to be able to cope with getting a radio signal out past the
hands of people holding it in all kinds of odd positions, and a
metal clamshell phone presents special issues. The cable running
through the hinge has to cope without wearing, cramming and
earpiece and microphone — both of which have moving parts — into
a small space has performance issues and back then mobile
networks were very fussy about approval.
Smartphones and the iPhone in particular has changed a lot about
the market. The skills to miniaturise are now less rare and where
once engineers who worried about on-network performance ruled
supreme, now the marketing departments will force through
decisions to take badly behaving phones and let the network
engineers clear up the mess afterwards. It wasn’t long before
Razor that networks insisted on a pull-up antenna. So this
revolutionary thin phone had to perform every bit as well as a
tried and tested design.
Perhaps it’s not a change for the better but can you imagine how
few phones would be on the market if the networks and shops
refused to take any where you could not drop a ball bearing onto
the screen from a couple of meters?
Razor was kept as a dark project, there were very few plans
shared with operators (who bought 80% of phones at the time) or a
consolidated launch plan. It was just one of the more interesting
things on the roadmap and it was launched as Razor. It was only
when someone popped up with a prior claim to the name that the
“O” was dropped and Razr was born.
Pretty soon we knew we had a hit. There was a buzz inside the
business and intense jealousy of anyone who could get their hands
on one. The corporate president Mike Zafirovski kept snaffling
stock destined for customers to give to his powerful Chicago
Pebble, which had been a parallel project, started to become a
lot less sexy. Like Razr the name came from its shape. It
was assigned the codename Virgin, as in the Virgin Islands, but
the head of engineering complained that her engineers thought it
sounded a bit rude and kept giggling. Then someone looked at a
map, found an island called Pebble and we gave up the codename
As a sidenote, the success of Razr led to a strategy of four big
hits a year, the Icons, and we convened the Icon accelerator
committee to oversee this. The first Icon was Razr, then Pebl and
the two to follow would have been Retro and Tattoo. Retro was are
re-visit of the classic Motorola StarTac and Tattoo had a huge
roller for the hinge and stickers to allow the youth consumer to
customise it. A CDMA version of the Retro stumbled into the
Korean market, Tattoo floundered on our software incompetence.
Beyond Razr was GD2, which came to the market as Aura.
pink Motorola Razr.
The scale of the hit of Razr is hard to comprehend. Charles
Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse ordered a quarter of a million in
pink. We thought he was mad, this was a third of the global
projected sales. He wanted this crazy volume of the “boys” phone
to sell to girls in the UK. We gave him exclusivity on the pink
colour. When he sold 3 million we bought the non-UK rights back.
The forecast of under a million units was so far wrong. In
various guises it went on to sell more than 100 million phones.
Two things conspired to ensure that the success of Razr was never
repeated. One was software. While Motorola had the best
electronic, electrical, and mechanical engineers in the world the
software management was appalling and so no smart programmer
would want to work for the company.
This was allied to the second problems which was the politics of
process. Constant consensus, research, and getting everyone on
board meant that far more effort was expended in deciding than it
was in doing. Once the Razr team had emerged from their skunk
works protected by Koziol and Frost they were expected to play by
the broken rules. Aura, which should have been months behind Razr
was over three years behind. It was perhaps the most beautiful 2G
phone ever made, shading Vertus for fit and finish, and it was
born into a 3G world.
Motorola’s solution to management, and particularly software
management, was to bring in the consultants McKinsey and to adopt
the Six Sigma process. Both proved highly ignorant of what it
took to make a phone, massive diversions from actually doing the
work and were ultimately responsible for the demise of the
company. When I worked for Motorola there were 80,000 people in
the phone business. Today, under Lenovo, there are 800. No-one
Simon Rockman founded What Mobile Magazine before going to
work for Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and the GSMA. He now runs Fuss
Free Phones, a personal mobile network for older and less tech