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Did Apple Sabotage the ROKR?

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An artificial limit of 100 songs? What the heck? Motorola CEO, Ed Zander doesn’t think anyone needs more than that…at least according to a rant that he spewed when the ROKR went over like, well, a rock. But was Zander’s frustration directed toward the poor reception his new iTunes-capable phone got – or at Apple?

The iPod has been a force that has brought about the second coming of Apple. Millions sold in each of the past couple of years. New models introduced seemingly every month. White ear buds adorning every other person on the streets. The “Halo Effect”.

What could possibly topple the reign of Apple’s iPod? Microsoft hasn’t been successful in championing any competitive products. Who else could? What else could? While every other person may be sporting white ear buds, just about EVERYone has got a cell phone in their pocket. MP3 capable cell phones aren’t a new idea, but they’ve been around long enough that it seems like high time they really take off. And what then? What happens to Apple’s mighty iPod when everyone’s cell phone is playing music on the go?

A couple weeks back, WIRED ran an article detailing the start to ‘finish’ of the Motorola ROKR iTunes phone, as well as all planning and interaction between Motorola, Apple, and Cingular – the eventual carrier to pick up the iTunes phone. Definitely go read the article. There are some great insights as to the obstacles and hurdles that stood in the way of the “iTunes phone”.

So obviously cell phones pose a valid threat to the venerable iPod. Whatever is Apple to do? How about get an iTunes enabled cell phone on the market and lure people towards the phone version of their favorite mp3 player? Sounds like a great idea, and that’s just what they went a head and did with a friendly partnership with Motorola. Unfortunately, Motorola found out that Apple will have things their way, period.

If you’ve already popped over and read the WIRED article by this point, you found that Apple mandated the artificial 100 song limit on the ROKR. Why would they possibly do that? There doesn’t seem to be a good, or real explanation in WIRED’s article. Come launch day, a 1,000 song iPod nano was announced which subsequently trounced the ROKR in sales and popularity.

So try this on for size:
Could Apple have possibly gone into the ROKR project with a hidden agenda to sabotage the final product’s success? Why not? It may serve to sway public opinion of mp3 cell phones. If the Apple iTunes cell phone flops, how great could mp3 cell phones really be? Might potential mp3 cell phone buyers take a step back and choose to stick with carrying their iPod in tandem with their cell phones? It might be worth another few million iPod units sold before someone comes along with the killer mp3 phone. Maybe. Maybe?

Well today Motorola announced a new version of the RAZR which will be iTunes capable. There’s no confirmation (that I’ve been able to find) that there’s a 100 song limit imposed on the forthcoming RAZR. Might it be the late-to-the-party hit that Motorola was hoping for in the ROKR? Possible. Much more likely I’d say.

Is any of this really plausible? Possibly. Probably not. It’s largely based off my wild imagination and a slightly suspicious psyche. But you can’t argue that Apple – at the very least – made a poor decision in releasing a mobile iTunes app that’s limited to 100 songs. How could that possibly be a recipe for success?

What do you think?

62 Responses to “Did Apple Sabotage the ROKR?”

  1. I think we’re overlooking things here. Did Apple restrict the phone to 100 songs? Perhaps. Did they sabotage the ROKR by doing this? NO. Ask yourself this:

    Knowing that the ROKR is antiquated (no EDGE support), has a clunky design, cheap feel, poor data transfer rates, substandard camera, and limited Bluetooth capabilities, BUT it could play more than 100 songs, would any of you honestly buy it?

    Motorola is solely responsible for the failure of the ROKR. Let’s not start in with the conspiracy theories just yet. Occam’s Razor, my friends;)

  2. Todd Dwyer

    While this theory does sound plausible, let’s not forget that the cell phones companies are in the business to have their customers to spend money on new phones every 1-2 years. Phones are going out to the market with issues and defects left and right, and the customer has no choice but to pony up the money and roll with the punches.

    Does anyone remember the Startac phones from Motorola? They were some of the best phones ever made. If they still made Startac phones, I’d still keep that over my current phone (the really nice, but still buggy e815). Cell phone providers were not happy with this phone series, as they had some of the lowest return rates. Now we are forced to get phones from providers that have features stripped from them such as the infamous v710 and its crippled Bluetooth capability.

    iTunes might not take over 100 songs, but you can use the imbedded Motorola Media Player to play extra songs stored on the memory or transflash.

  3. It’s not “sabotage”, it’s “market stratification”. Apple is so paranoid about canibalizing its own precious market share for its golden goose that it’s going to be very cautious about entering into the cell phone market. However, as an economist, I have to believe that this will bite them in the ass, as there are plenty of phones that outpace the ROKR (and even the ROKR RAZR) in terms of interface, form factor, and technical specs, such as the aforementioned Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones.

    It irritates me that cell phone companies are hesitant to pick up on these clearly superior devices because they don’t have the iPod name, and don’t sync with iTunes. Apple is using clear MSFT tactics here, leveraging its dominance on the desktop and portable music market to gain a foothold in the mobile phone market, but it’s not offering a competitive product. I hope this makes consumers and cell phone providers wisen up to the fact that the iTunes interface is not enough to justify using a horrible phone, but I guess I’ve seen more illogical crowd mentalities in the past.

  4. Bernard Johnston

    Apple did not subotage, and not for this motivaion. Nokia and Sony are on track with their music phone roadmap, and their demand is strong from the mobile operator. Keep in mind operators have a conflicting agenda to iTunes and ROKR was hard-pressed to find a friendly operator until Cingular succumbed.

    Apple is a design centric company, including industrial design and interaction design. They do not make compromises on the user experience and focus on certain personnas in their usability process. This sometimes includes sacrifizing functionality which is dear to users who are not the exact target audience. Personally I was amazed that the Shuffle could not play albums or playlists, which is my primary mode of listenning. but Shuffle was doing good because it was designed for someone else.
    I have no clue who would want the 100 song limit, but regardless no-one ever expected the first wave of music phone to support gigs of storage. That’s not the issue.
    When Motorola chose the hardware pltform for the ROKR, they went with the e398 model which was THE up-and-coming music device at the time. Later on the e398 flopped while the RAZR took off. Now in retrospect, they should have used the RAZR platform, but things looked totally when decisions were made.

    While Apple is totally focused on user experience, Motorola is an engineering company. Their products are as exciting and friendly as the military walkie talkie systems they make so succesfully. Motorola is going thru transformation in this field, and it is a shame for them that ROKR did not give them a push but a pushback.

    When he launched Photo, Jobs put down the need for video on a player device. Now Video is all the rage. If apple is not seeing succes with Motorola, they could move into this field themselves. They would do a great job. There are some good companies in Korea which they can buy or partner with. The tricky part would be facing the operators, who control 80-90% of the handset market.

    Next thing to look out for is Nokia’s emerging music phone, the N91 ( Next year…

  5. Looks like a very important detail of the whole Motorola, Apple deal has been overlooked. Regardless of whether or not
    Apple wanted the product to fail, they gave license to Motorola for some-odd number of phones to be produced, at a flat-fee per license. That means, even if it doesn’t take off, it still makes them fat cash. On the other hand, if it does take off, they don’t make constant revenue from it.

  6. It wouldn’t be the first time apple has crippled something they’ve seen as a direct challenger to their profits.
    See USB2 which runs at half the speed it should under OSX whilst firewire runs at full speed.
    I keep hearing stories about apple more and more regularly which make me start to wonder about their business ethics.
    Slippery slope to microsoftdom i reckon.

  7. Carsten hit the nail on the head. The ROKR was ill conceived from the start. It was butt ugly, large and not too intuitve to use. If Motorola really wanted to make a home run, they would have let Apple design the phone, but due to Zander’s disdain for Apple, he would never let them actually get close to his R&D department. The irony is i’ts not like Motorola doesn’t know how to make a sexy product like the Nano. The RAZR looks hot and they should have started with that phone or a variant of it instead of the candy bar shaped ROKR.

    So in short, like it always does, Motorola sabotaged itself.

  8. BS! Why would apple tarnish their rep by putting the idea into people’s heads that anything iTunes/iPod related is bad. When I talk with non-techies they just heard it was “a crappy iPod phone”… they dont say “this makes me want an iPod”, rather they look at Dell’s Jukebox, etc.

  9. The ROKR is ugly because Apple wanted it to be… Its exactly right that Apple wanted to increase sales for the nano. Motorola could have released the ROKR as this sleek phone. Looks kinda like the nano doesn’t it? Chew on that…

  10. The OTA and the MiniSD/USB transfer speeds are completely unrelated. GPRS/EDGE networks are entirely too slow to download songs over the air. HSDPA will fix that, eventually with speeds similar to EV-DO.

    The USB issue is that if you HAD a usb2 interface, the phone couldn’t transfer the data to the miniSD card much faster than USB1.1 speeds anyway, so the transfer rate is still slow.

  11. Jim – Why in the world do you think anyone would need any more than 12Mbits/s (the theoretical maximum of usb 1.1 on a phone when downloading from over-the-air.

    EV-DO enabled phones have download speeds of up to 2.4 Mbit/s. The Nano uses flash memory which does not require the use of a hard drive. They didn’t have any problems finding massive quantities of this memory for the Nano either. You would only use transflash to carry data over from one phone to another anyway. Nobody said you had to be able to transfer the songs using flash memory cards. If you wanted to backup the songs you can attach it to a PC by USB or Fire Wire.

    USB Info –
    EV-DO –
    or EVDO Info-

  12. Peter Ehat

    I, on the contrary, believe that introducing an MP3 player/phone with the specific purpose of jading the public’s opinion of MP3 phones is improbable. You’ll see that competitors will benefit from the ROKR song limit by simply giving the consumers what they want—more capacity. The only way to turn the entire market off to the idea of a cell phone that plays MP3s is to maintain the ROKR as the only such device on the market—which already is not the case (try Googling MP3 phones and you’ll see).

  13. Alexander Kniffin

    I don’t know… I think you are second guessing a little early. When the IPod photo came out, I thought it was completely useless – a gimic to sell the IPod at a higher price. Why would anyone want to look at pictures on such a small screen? I now have an IPod video because I found my self thinking the same exact thing about a 2″ TV screen… Apple pushes the limits of technology. They did not wait for cheap LCD screens to come out before releasing the Photo, and they didn’t wait for a perfect storage media before comming out with the ROKR. The technology was there to innovate, and they did it – perhaps as just a test and testimate to their ability to innovate, but with the hope that it leads to newer and better things (How many uses can you now come up with for an iPod photo?)

  14. unfortunately the 100 song limit is there, whatever the flash card size. The V3i will accept interchangeable flash cards (micro SD), hence of virtually unlimited size, yet will have the 100 song cap. How sad.

    p.s. the (apple == evil) means “check the condition”, and not “evil is assigned to apple” or “apple equals evil”.

  15. Maybe Apple has a longer memory than most people on the Internet. Perhaps this has nothing to do with iTunes, MP3, or the iPod.

    At one time, every single Mac was powered by a Motorola CPU. Then, Motorola “standardized” on Windows. Imagine Microsoft mandating that only MacOS could be used by MS employees. Finally, Motorola stopped making the PPC. That left Apple dependent on IBM for its chips – which was a very bad place to be.

    I’m not saying Apple sabotaged Motorola. Motorola needed something to follow up on the successful RAZR. Apple threw them a small bone and Motorola let Apple dictate the terms – never a good move.

  16. did apple sabotage the ROKR? sure, but not by limiting the number of songs on it, but by introducing the Nano during the same event. that was a case of the beauty and the beast.

    what i don’t get is why motorola didn’t use the RAZR as the first phone instead of the thing (ROKR).

  17. Whining about the 100 song limit is as silly as having it in the first place. Everything’s stored on the Transflash card, which is only 512 meg. You can’t get much more than 100 songs in that space anyway. Apple of course wouldn’t ever agree to a hard drive based phone as it’s a much greater threat to their precious cash cow.

    The transflash also is responsible for the slow transfer speed. The maximum transfer rate of the cards is only slightly above that of USB1.1, but way below USB2 – a USB2 interface wouldn’t make a difference.

    And anyone that thought this would have over-the-air purchasing ability as a GPRS/EDGE phone is crazy. You need the speeds that won’t show up until HSDPA. There’s an evolution path here.

    That said, apple == evil and I wouldn’t put sabotoge past them.

  18. I think it is pretty obvious when you have competition that is in everybody’s pockets you can’t squeeze in more stuff. Could you imagine how big pockets would be in the future? Apple could partner with Levis for IPants.

    There is no doubt in the world that a cell phone with 4GB of flash memory and mp3 capability wouldn’t put a dent in the Nano’s sales. On top of this add to the fact that all the cell providers have upgraded their networks to EVDO to allow for faster data transfer and you have a power house of an idea going. 100 Song limit is for the birds. They just wanted to waste money developing a product so they can say they tried it and it failed to write off for a loss. Apple is getting too big for our britches so to speak. Makes you wonder how many other cool ideas have they killed lately.

  19. Did Apple kill it or did Motorola? I can live with the 100 song limit, but I want a good looking phone with the features I’m use to. I played hands on with a ROKR, but it had some big limitations compared to my p900. The transfer rates to fill the card were also quite sad. I don’t mind 100 limit if I can change my songs without waiting an hour.

  20. Either they don’t want the phone thing to take off, or they’ve got something else around the corner. I mean, look at the ROKR, it’s ugly, not Apple’s style at all. If they came out with something that looks like an iPod but works as a phone, they’d wipe the market out. The same way they did by actually giving the MP3 player some style.

  21. Is that sabotage? Maybe they view the ROKR as an add-on to your apple kit. It should not be viewed as a replacement for the ipod, because it isn’t. Consider the user that has no need for a big ipod, he can get a shuffle or he could get the ROKR if he happens to be in the market for a new phone at the time. You wouldn’t want a hard disk based phone would you?

    Ok a nano with a phone would be something else but maybe the phone makers wouldn’t be happy with that level of foray into the phone business… just like Apple isn’t happy about the Sony Walkman phone foray into the MP3 business…