Motorola's ‘Back to the Future’ Play Needs More Future
Missing out on the holidays. (Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Motorola's ‘Back to the Future’ Play Needs More Future


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It seems like Motorola has invented a 2019 version of the Flux Capacitor. That fictitious device from “Back to the Future” made time travel possible. Now, the phone division of Lenovo Group Ltd. has to overcome the same kinds of struggles faced by the vintage film’s DeLorean-driving scientist.

Rather than racing to meet a lightning bolt, Motorola is rushing to make enough retro-inspired Razr flip phones to handle demand. 

Motorola unveiled the updated version of the classic 2005 handset in November, replacing the keypad with a foldable touchscreen and running the Android operating system. That flexible display pits it against Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy Fold, which faced its own problems when an early version was found to peel, and Huawei Technologies Co.’s Mate X.

“Motorola has decided to adjust Razr’s presale and launch timing to better meet consumer demand,” said Lenovo, which bought the handset brand of the U.S. electronics company in 2014. “We are working to determine the appropriate quantity and schedule to ensure that more consumers have access to Razr at launch.”

Presales were originally going to start in December for January shipping. That schedule would have made it difficult to capture Christmas demand, but further delay means the company will miss out completely. New timing wasn’t announced.

It’s hard to gauge how brisk the demand really is. At $1,500, the handset is 36% more expensive than Apple Inc.’s top-end iPhone 11 Pro Max ($1,099), yet is considerably cheaper than both the Samsung and Huawei foldable offerings.

Motorola's ‘Back to the Future’ Play Needs More Future

Beyond the price, though, there’s something compelling about the Motorola design that doesn’t exist in the rival incarnations. Its flip, which harks back to the golden era of pocket-sized handsets with three-day battery lives, appears to resonate with consumers more than the alternatives that fold along the long edge of the device.

It’s worth considering Samsung’s struggles. Despite being the world’s biggest and most-advanced developer of smartphone screens, Samsung still developed a display that couldn’t overcome the technical challenges of combining foldability with durability. The South Korean giant aborted an earlier launch schedule after demonstration models were found to peel and crack along a protective coating on the screen.

The bleeding edge of technology often doesn’t meet timetables. It’s somewhat easy to make one device that passes quality-control standards in a test factory. Scaling up, though, is what sorts the doers from the talkers. Many a tech startup has failed because its great idea couldn’t be manufactured in bulk or on time.

Apple itself faced similar problems with its iPhone X two years ago. A new 3D sensor, used for facial recognition, was to be a key feature of the 10th anniversary edition. But the main components proved to be difficult to make, forcing a delay and crimping supply in the early months of availability. 

That wasn’t the first drama Apple had faced with new technology. Its decision to use a new, lighter aluminium alloy for its iPhone 5 in 2012 meant that the outer shell scratched more easily, forcing a tightening of quality control at Foxconn Technology Group, which made the handset. This ended up causing unrest at Foxconn’s factories in China. 

Having demand outstrip supply sounds like a nice problem to have. Except that this means lost revenue and limits the ability to cover the cost of development. A bigger risk is that consumers eager to buy a new phone get impatient and decide to shop elsewhere. In the world of Android devices, the pace of competition means something better is just around the corner.

So while Lenovo might want to bathe in the glory of its nostalgic design being highly sought after, it better move like lightning before something newer and shinier comes along.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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