Motorola GONE

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Motorola – the original cellphone maker, and the only phone maker to make it to the moon – will be phased out, its new owner Lenovo announced last week.

It’s the end of an era. First Nokia (which Microsoft retired last year) and now Motorola. The two early pioneers of the mobile era. Their brands have been retired because they failed to stay ahead of the disruption that has come to epitomise this new digital era we live in.

Let’s stop for a moment and celebrate Motorola’s unique role in the  world, from the first cellphone, the processor used in Apple’s Macintosh, to televisions, radios and phonographs; and even the first iTunes phone with Apple in 2005.

In 1930 it sold the first radio telephone, which would be used first in American police cars, before this technology became widespread.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong’s immortal words first from the surface of the moon were spoken through a Motorola transceiver.

Those big walkie talkie radios you see GIs using in Second World War movies are the Motorola SCR-536, another ground breaking invention from 1940. It was where the phrase walkie talkie came from, although its real nickname was Handie-Talkie.

The DynaTAC 8000X was a breakthrough device. It was big and clunky, weighed 794 grams, came in grey and had a stubby antennae but it was the first commercial cellphone. Launched in 1984, this basic voice-only cellphone made the first mobile call in 1972; and was an iconic device used famously by Michael Douglas in Wall Street to typify the new high-flying mobile phone user.

Also in the 80s, its MC68000 microprocessor was used in the first Macintosh by then mostly unknown outside of geek circles Apple, as well as by Hewlett Packard, Sun, Commodore and Atari.

It was followed by the smaller but still clunky MicroTAC in 1989, which had a flip cover over the keyboard. A later version became very popular when cellular networks were launched in South Africa in the early 1990s.

The even smaller StarTac was one of the first flip phones, with its battery awkwardly on the top flip that housed the screen

Motorola also had some clangers. The first music phone that Apple did was the Motorola-made Rokr from 2005. And it was awful. Hard to use, clunky and complicated, it was a dismal failure.

Arguably the most beautiful phone Motorola ever made was the RAZR V3, which it launched in 2004 and would ultimately sell 120m units. This elegant, ultra-thin Razr returned Motorola to its lost glory, albeit briefly. It was an elegant flip phone made from premium materials, which reinvented phone design for several years, as thinner flip phones overtook the chunkier candybar handsets.

But that was arguably Motorola’s last great hit. It made several notable Android handsets under the shortened Moto brand but its floundering responses after the Razr breakthrough and in the face of the iPhone and other Android makers left it as a wounded former giant.

Until 1998, when it was overtaken by Nokia, Motorola had been the largest seller of cellphones in the world.

It was renamed Motorola Mobility when it was spun off from Motorola Solutions, the still profitable division that makes networking equipment. It was first bought by Google for US$12.5bn in May 2012, mostly for its stash of patents. It was then sold for $2.91bn in January 2014 to Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker that has profited so handsomely from buying IBM’s PC-making business in 2004.

Now, Lenovo is dropping Motorola – but keeping the Moto brand that have been used for its impressive handsets.

Motorola is a case study of rampant innovation, when it was pushing the boundaries from the 1930s to the 1990s with mobile telephony. Like so many tech companies that achieved great success, this went to the heads (and egos) of its corporate chiefs who allowed a sense of complacency and corporate arrogance replace its innovative spirit.

Motorola was a pioneer of the first cellphones, but rested on its (impressive) laurels when hungrier companies like Nokia began eating its lunch. The sad lesson from Motorola’s brand demise: you’re only as good as your last phone.

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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