Low End Theory: The Great Razr Swindle


By Brendan I. Koerner

For this week's column, I'm gonna ask y'all to jump in my Frink-worthy time machine and journey back to a bygone era: the halcyon days of late 2004. Ah, what a glorious time it was to be alive—the winds of change were blowing through the Ukraine, Ken Jennings' reign of terror on Jeopardy! came to an end, and Ireland had yet to fully adopt the metric system. But above all, the Motorola Razr V3 went on sale, for the whopping sum of $500 (after rebate!). Beyond my cheapo means, no doubt, but at least it was a Great Leap Forward for handset technology, right?

So how did the $500 Razr, the must-have for slinky models and the fat cats who love them just two years back, become today's $29.99 Razr, the default phone for pretty much everyone? Or, more succinctly, how did the Razr get so low-end, so fast? Though the economies of scale and the high-end trend toward data phones played their roles, I'd argue that the Razr was always the proverbial perfumed pig. And therein lies an important—nay, life-or-death—lesson on what really separates the pricey from the cheap. PLUS: A shameful admission about goofing on the Shuffle.

First off, perhaps some of y'all with short memories don't recall the Razr's initial incarnation as a luxury good. But indeed it was so—the slim handset was pitched as the mobilecomm equivalent of an iced-out watch, sure to spark envy among your less with-it pals. The Razr was also supposed to pull Motorola out of its sales doldrums, by helping it recapture the innovative rep it earned with the StarTAC phone way back in 1996. The company poured a lot of money into a clever promotional strategy, getting it into the hands of famous designers, celebrities, and their collagen-loving ilk. Tough to fathom, but folks actually debated over whether to plump for a Treo 650 or the Razr V3—even if they knew the former's obvious data advantages, the Razr's thinness still wowed 'em. And, hey, the prices really weren't all that different in those early days.

So what happened? Less than two years later, the wireless carriers are practically giving away Razrs—Verizon gave me one for $29 when I reupped my contract, and I just saw an ad pitching $49 Razrs for new customers. Okay, I know what a lot of you are saying—those phones are subsidized by the contracts. But that's a straight-up apples-to-apples comparison with the initial Razrs, which required two-year activation with Cingular. And, hey, let's look at the prepaid Razrs out there—this unlocked Razr is $159, and that includes the Mobile Phone Tools software (which Verizon wants me to fork over $39 for—right). Pop in $50 prepaid SIM card, and you're good to talk for a long, long time without getting hooked into an onerous contract.

The bottom line is, those folks who a) paid $500 for their early Razr and b) are still hooked into a Cingular contract as a result have gotta feel ripped off. The question is, was there any early hint that the Razr would become a low-end staple in less than two years? Or was everyone just so bewitched by the handset's unprecedented slimness that they didn't bother to step back and say, Hey, I'm paying a Treo-like price for a phone that lacks a QWERTY keyboard, a video camera (on the initial V3 model), or even a headphone jack—what gives?

An even more intriguing question is whether Motorola foresaw the incredibly rapid low-ending of the Razr back in 2004. Having fallen to number three in the handsets market at that time, they obviously needed a hit, and a high-margin hit at that. The Razr certainly did the trick, and you might argue that Motorola was able to bring the price down quickly as a result—y'know, that old chestnut about the more you manufacture, the cheaper the product gets. But let's face it, Motorola is run by some sharp cookies, and they knew that the initial premium they were charging was ridiculous even by the tech industry's oft-ridiculous standards. The company's Razr PR campaign succeeded where the Moto Pebl's failed—to be blunt, it managed to position the Razr as a phone that would help get you laid. (The Moto Pebl campaign aimed for this in a much more subtle way, but ended up coming off as the phone that will turn you androgynous.)

Low End Theory: The Great Razr Swindle

So for future reference, how can cheap bastards like myself know when a supposed "luxury" gadget is actually a low-ender in disguise, and I need only wait 20 to 22 months for it to tumble into my price range? Here's a few tip-offs, inspired by my experience with the Razr's descent:

Style Over Substance Gadgets hawked on their design superiority don't age well, especially in a fast-paced market like handsets. No matter how sleek the Razr was, it shoulda been obvious that it couldn't hang with pure data phones over the long-run.

Inattention to Details The thing that's always bugged me about the Razr is the lousy user interface—little things like the organization of menus (regardless of carrier), or the fact they make it so hard to switch Bluetooth on and off. A product that hasn't been thought through all the way? Definitely headed for the low-end bin once the hype's worn off.

Material Science Funny how folks always seem to forget that a gadget's only as good as the materials with which its built. I'm hardly the only person to discover that the Razr's plastic exterior doesn't stand up to much of a pounding, and that the "nickel-plated copper alloy" keys have issues. Let's just say I don't plan on taking a Razr with me into the Indo-Burmese wilderness (where I'm heading next month).

Other thoughts on harbingers of a high-end gadget's low-end fate? Leave 'em in comments, or drop me a line. Remember: You've got the power inside you right now. Eternal happiness is just a dollar away.

APOLOGIES TO THE SHUFFLE: A very Apple-savvy reader wrote in last week to point out that I was mistaken about the fate of the 512 MB iPod Shuffle. I wrote that Apple not only ceased making the small-sized Shuffle a while back, but that they'd stopped supporting it. Turns out that the 512er died this year, but Apple does still support it with firmware upgrades et. al. Our tipster also pointed out that, should your Shuffle break (like mine), you can probably just take it to an Apple store and they'll swap you a new one—hey, it's the lowest-end iPod they offer, so why not?

Apologies to Steve Jobs and his hard-working minions for the error. My only excuse is that I've gotten way too many spams offering 512 MB Shuffles if I complete an online survey. I've wished death upon these spammers many a time, and the neural wires must've somehow gotten crossed so that I wished death upon the baby Shuffle, too. Or something like that.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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