Tuesday, 15 November 2005

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.

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