Is ROKR Missing That Special "Magic"?

Motorola announced big third-quarter profits this week, fueled by sales of its hit Razr cell phone (see BW Online, 10/19/05, "Motorola's Razr Thick Profits"). The surprise in the numbers was that 250,000 ROKR E1 cell phones, developed jointly by Motorola (MOT) and Apple (AAPL), have shipped to wireless carriers. Analysts at Piper Jaffray and a host of blogs and gadget sites had criticized the ROKR as the partnership's orphan child and predicted poor sales.

Were they wrong? Will customers buy the phones Motorola is shipping? Its fourth-quarter earnings report will have the definitive answers. In the meantime, BusinessWeek Assistant Managing Editor Bruce Nussbaum, asked three of Design Continuum's top designers to critique the new ROKR' design. They are Rajesh Bilimoria, principal design strategist; Michel Arney, principal industrial designer; and Alexandre Hennen, senior industrial designer. Following are edited excerpts:

There's a sense of being underwhelmed by the Motorola ROKR E1, even though it delivers quite a lot. Why is there a perception that the phone doesn't come close to Apple's new nano or the older iPod?

The level of expectation was extremely high for an Apple/Motorola collaboration. Consumers expected a radically new product, but the ROKR is seen by many as just a tweak of an existing Motorola design.

What about that lack of Apple branding on the ROKR product or package? What does it imply?

It suggests that Apple is trying to dissociate iTunes from the iPod and Apple brands in order to grow its business separately, though in the consumer's mind, iTunes is closely associated with the iPod -- and the iPod is inseparable from Apple. The company may have underestimated the strength of this association.

Apple products almost don't need to say "Apple" -- the design says it all. How is the detailing of the ROKR inconsistent with Apple's brand and design equity?

Much of Apple's design equity and brand equity comes from a singular vision in Steve Jobs. It's a vision that allows its development team (and its designers in particular) to work unburdened by existing products.

It was virtually impossible for the ROKR, a joint venture with many visions, to deliver at the Apple level. This may be a lesson for business today on the value of deep, rather than applied, design. You cannot create an Apple-level product or emotional connection without allowing design to drive.

So what do you think about the ROKR design?

While new Apple products tend not to reference any other products, the ROKR is a standard brick phone. Its user interface is standard and busy. Apple's interfaces are simple beyond belief at first sight -- and magical upon use.

The ROKR's 100-song limit just screams stepchild. Apple products are not constrained. The ROKR reveals how it's assembled. Apple products (especially the iPod) appear to be held together magically. The ROKR earbuds are off-the-shelf. An Apple/iPod product would leverage the icon of the custom white earbud.

Apart from what the ROKR does for its creators -- Motorola, Apple, and Cingular -- does it work for the consumer?

The short answer is probably no. The carriers like to control the devices on their network. We think that Apple succeeds best where it can deliver a total experience (e.g., iPod + iTunes application + iTunes Music Store).

Until it has control over the UI [user interface] and interoperability between devices (phone, iPod, computer), Apple won't be able to deliver the consumer experience we think it wants to. Apple exploits these same dynamics with its closed iTunes-only music store and closed iPod-only encryption scheme, FairPlay. The difference is that Apple's closed systems are good executions, and the carriers' are not.

Which of the partners comes out ahead in this relationship?

If Apple had offered this product to Cingular by itself, the consumer benefits would only increase. Even though this product doesn't carry any Apple brand marks, I think Apple gets more credit than Motorola does for the ROKR.

The next question is whether or not this is good for Apple. If consumers think that they're getting an Apple brand experience (simplicity, ease of use, magic, etc.), then they will be disappointed, because this is a Motorola experience with a drop of Apple.

If consumers think that owning a ROKR is going to position them as a cool iPod user, they will likely be let down, as association with this product will likely not carry the same cachet.

So, who wins? Apple is exposed to the risk of getting blamed for bad user experience. Motorola might not be affected -- consumers tend to associate the whole phone experience with the carrier. Cingular collects the big upside here because it gets a brand boost from the Apple association, it gets a unique (for now) product, and perhaps increased customer loyalty.

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