Off Their ROKR

Why Motorola’s new iTunes phone is a flop.

Not so ROK’n

My heart went out to the Motorola marketers at last week’s Engadget reader meet-up in San Francisco. Several hundred gadget geeks had gathered for some tech chatter and the chance to win shiny door prizes. Motorola’s donation: a ROKR phone that you can pack with 100 songs—the so-called “iTunes phone.” When Engadget’s editors held the ROKR aloft before the crowd, they were stunned by the reaction. It got booed.

The iTunes phone is a case study in form failing function. On paper, it’s a reasonable combo device. The price is OK—$250 plus a service plan from Cingular. The sound quality is the best I’ve ever heard on a cell phone. But for a gadget meant to break new ground, the ROKR sags behind the curve.

It seems like Motorola had to toss out a few parts to cram in the music player. It’s not powerful enough to keep up with its menu buttons. Worse, you can’t download songs by dialing in. Instead you have to buy the songs on your computer, then jack the ROKR into your PC and load your iTunes through a distressingly slow USB 1.0 cable. USB 1.0’s maximum transfer rate, 12 megabits per second, means a three-minute pop single takes a good 20 seconds to install. The ROKR will take nearly an hour to sync 100 songs; an iPod would inhale them in under two minutes.

Rumor blogs are buzzing with reports that the ROKR’s sales are as slow as its USB connection. But the phone’s belly flop isn’t due to poor tech specs. It’s just not sexy. Engadget editor in chief and disappointed ROKR reviewer Peter Rojas told me that a hot gadget “has to pretend to meet a need while actually fulfilling a want.”

In the gadget-lust department, the ROKR is more soccer mom than supermodel. It lacks the cutting-edge pizzazz of Motorola’s RAZR phone. Worse, it was upstaged at its own launch event when Steve Jobs pulled an iPod Nano out of his pocket.

It’s unclear whether the Motorola and Cingular execs who filed across Apple’s stage knew the ROKR would become the show’s forgotten warm-up act. For those of us expected to buy the things, that doesn’t matter. The Nano is sleeker, prettier, and tinier. If someone waves one in front of you, it’s impossible not to grab at it. You don’t need Yves Behar to explain why it’s an icon. The ROKR? It’s a phone that doesn’t flip.

Motorola CEO Ed Zander recently defended his phone—and slammed the Nano—by saying, “People are going to want devices that do more than just play music.” I think he’s wrong. If Gadget A does one thing well and Gadget B does another, combining them doesn’t make for an instant improvement. Camera phones were an instant hit, but I’ve almost never seen anyone use the video player on their Treo despite the fact that you can get free bootlegs of The Daily Show online.

My gut feeling is that Motorola might score if they aim higher next time. The same Engadget fanboys who booed the ROKR would probably part with a few extra bucks for a pricier model with a head-turning design and a USB 2.0 jack. But I still think marketing execs overestimate the appeal of music phones. In Cingular’s ads for the ROKR, hot young urbanites multitask between dancing and dating as calls come into their beat-blasting headphones. “I associate my BlackBerry with work,” a friend retorted to me. “I use my iPod to forget about work. I don’t want it to fucking ring.”