Motorola Rokr: Instant Failure

I did an online search today for the words “Rokr” and “failure” together in the same article. There were 49,700 hits.

I don’t want to pick on Motorola, but the speed at which its two-month-old product was labeled a failure is fascinating -- and a great object lesson for companies that want to play in the mobile space. Here are some thoughts.

First off, it’s hard to be certain that the Rokr actually is a failure, since there are no official industry stats on phone sales by model. But the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning. Most importantly, Cingular cut the phone’s price by $100 in early November. I can tell you from personal experience that no US hardware company ever introduces a device expecting to cut its price just a couple of months after launch. It causes too many logistical problems, and pisses off your early buyers.

Also, several reporters have noticed that Motorola and Apple both gave very telling comments about the product. Steve Jobs called it “a way to put our toe in the water,” which is about as tepid an endorsement as you can get. Ed Zander famously said “screw the Nano” about the product that upstaged the Rokr’s announcement (some people claim Zander was joking, but as one of my friends used to say, at a certain level there are no jokes).

Wired has even written a full postmortem report on the product.

If we accept that the Rokr is indeed a failure, then the next question to ask is why. There are a lot of theories (for example, Wired blames the controlling mentalities of the carriers and Apple itself). But my takeaway is more basic:

Convergence generally sucks.

People have been predicting converged everything for decades, but usually most products don’t converge. Remember converged TV and hi-fi systems? Of course you don’t, neither do I. But I’ve read about them.

And of course you have an all in one stereo system in your home, right? What’s that you say? You bought separate components? But the logic of convergence says you should have merged all of them long ago.

Remember converged PCs and printers? I actually do remember this one, products like the Canon Navi. It put a phone, printer, fax, and PC all together in the same case. After all, you use them all on the same desk, they take up a lot of space, so it makes a ton of sense to converge them all together. People use exactly the same logic today for why you should converge an MP3 player and a phone. And yet the Navi lasted on the market only a little longer than the Rokr is going to.

The sad reality is that converged products fail unless there is almost zero compromise involved in them. It's so predictable that you could call it the First Law of Convergence: If you have to compromise features or price, or if one part of the converged product is more likely to fail than the others (requiring you to throw out the whole box), forget about it. The only successful converged tech products I can think of today are scanner/fax/printers. They’re cheap, don’t force much of a feature compromise, and as far as I can tell they almost never fail. But they are the exception rather than the rule.

(By the way, I don’t count cameraphones as a successful converged product because they’re driving a new more casual form of photography rather than replacing traditional cameras.)

Looked at from this perspective, the Rokr was doomed because of its compromises. Too few songs, the UI ran too slow, the price was too high. You won’t see a successful converged music phone unless and until it works just like an iPod and doesn’t carry a price premium.

The other lesson of the Rokr failure is that if you do a high-profile launch of a mediocre product, you’ll just accelerate the speed at which it tanks. If Motorola had done a low-key launch of the Rokr and had positioned it as an experiment, there might have been time to quietly tweak the pricing and figure out a better marketing pitch. But now that 49,700 websites have labeled the product a failure, rescuing it will be much, much harder.


Michael said...

Michael, I'm curious if you view the Palm Treo as a converged device? Since it's a PDA and a mobile phone, I tend to think of it as such, but I'm curious on your take on it.

Anonymous said...

I remember many eons ago when Apple actually came to the small design form where I worked, asking questions about all-in-one business level products.

I remember telling them that while combo converged products seemed great, the big problem is that once one part of the combo device dies, the whole device becomes much less useful.

I think converging 2 features fully works reasomably well depending upon what those are. I think the Treo is a good exaple of a phone and PDA merged pretty well... but Handspring and Palm worked for many years to get the Treo 650 where it is now and that's often forgotten.

In the end its about finding two things that are compatible and work together fully well -- and that's often hard to get right.

As for the Rokr, I think Jobs was much less excited about the device than the Nano -- and I do think Jobs would love to do an MP3 phone right, but he also realizes the timing isn't there yet -- much like his statements about handheld video.

Maybe if device makers at some point have a better balance against carriers, then we may see decent devices like this emerge that are not crappy.

Michael Mace said...

Do I view the Treo as a converged device? Yes I do. I view it as a converged handheld and Blackberry with a phone thrown in for good measure. It's a lust device for high-end communication-centric people.

The interesting thing to me is that it's still getting to only a very tiny percentage of the communication-centric folks (they're maybe 11% of all adults). So either the ultimate communicator isn't here yet, the price needs to drop, or Palm just needs more time to get everyone to buy.

I think it's some of each.


Anonymous said...

I've had quite a lot of recent experience with this whole "convergence" thing... It's great when it works, and lousy when a part fails.

We are in the process of replacing a cordless phone/answerer/speakerphone at home. The answerer and speakerphone work great. The phone has developed problems dialing and in sound quality. This is now the THIRD cordless/answerer we've had to replace with a perfectly fine answerering system. But we keep buying...

The second recent issue is our HP all-in-one (printer/fax/scanner) stopped faxing after a lightning storm. HP says they don't repair them. We have to buy another one (which they will give us a discount on). Here I'd really, really like the concept of a single device to do all three functions, and I don't have the desk space for three devices. So soon I'm sure I'll be springing for another all-in-one, and praying they all continue to work. In the meantime, I'm getting by with an old fax machine bought used.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful comments Michael. In my opinion there's a factor you didn't mention in relation to converged phone/MP3 players, and that's the proprietary headphone socket.

All the phone companies are wedded to the idea of making incremental revenue from selling headsets over time... but that proprietary connector is the #1 reason a phone/MP3 hybrid is WAY less convenient than a dedicated music player.

Forget your proprietary headphones? Forget listening to music. It totally undermines the convenience of having an MP3 player that's "always in your pocket".

Of course, handset manufacturers argue it's so that a headset can be a handsfree microphone, and have track navigation controls on it. You can't do that through a headphone slot, they say. Well, that's easily fixed... just use a standard headphone + proprietary 'sit beside' connector for your proprietary accessories -- much like the first generation iPod and it's clip-on accessories.

Or, you could do down the path that Apple has with the new Shuffle, and redesign the 3.5mm mini DIN connector, so that when standard headphones are plugged in they work as expected, but if a custom 3.5mm mini DIN device with extra rings on the jack is plugged in, additional capabilities are available.