Blog Post

Did Apple Sabotage the ROKR?

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. ROKR can only support up to 512MB memory card so if you upload about 100 full time songs aprox. 3-5 min it will much less take all the memory, or you will have around 100MB additional mem. for video. Is that such a bad thing.

    Everybody’s complaining about the 100 songs limit but in reality it’s close to memory limitations of the phone.

  2. Bubba TBone

    LOL, yeah lets use a cell phone to play our music. Bye Bye battery life.

    Look, Apple didn’t sabatoge this by putting a 100 limit on this device. Um iPod 512 shuffle? Do these not get sold because of the song limit? No. Nano kill these? No.

    Facts.
    (1) Price is to expensive for halfwit, ugly, bricklike phone.
    (2) Design wise its about as attractive as a wheelbarrow full of cracked cinderblocks and frog manure.
    (3) It’s like carrying a brick around. Clunky.
    (4) Poor marketing
    (5) If it held 1,000 songs it still wouldn’t sell because its about as fashionable as you grandmother’s leotards.
    (6) Razor will do better depending on price and promotional marketing.
    (7) Motorola should let apple design the phone and do the marketing.
    (8) I don’t think Motorola is so stupid in business that they would let someone take this much advantage of them as implied in this article. I think Motorola is trying to get better licensing arrangements from apple so when they do put it on a phone such as the razor they wouldn’t have to pay as much becuase they could cite the fact that the Rokr was such a failure.
    (9) Conspiracy theory….ooh Apple next move
    iToilet. Every time you flush it picks a random song from your playlist and you get your own refreshing music to cover up the noise of the toilet flushing.

    LOL
    PS: Comparing APPLE to MSFT is like comparing a scientist to a serial rapist.
    If it was MSFT it wouldn’t be iPod it would be
    iOWNU

  3. Personaly I couldn’t give a toss about a phone being iTunes compatible (i.e. being able to download songs using the phone and being able to transfer songs to the phone using the iTunes player). All I want is a phone with 10gb+ worth of storage space and a decent library navigator/player that can play MP3/AAC files (someone make a Java music player that anyone can use on any CLDC1.1/MIDP2 compatible phone?) so I can listen to my existing music collection on my phone and save an iPod’s worth of pocket space (phone + wallet + camera + iPod = big pockets needed).
    All an iPod can do at the moment is store your tunes and play them. It can’t download them from the net for you. You still need to connect it to a PC to do this, as you probably would do with a phone player (why you’d pay huge costs for downloading over a phone when you have pay per month broadband line at home is beyond me).
    Bottom line: Not eveyone likes the iTunes store and not everyone is an existing iPod owner/iTunes user. By just making a good player for a good phone with good storage, good looks and a good phone-to-pc interface people will buy it.

  4. Why do you guys care so much about the poorly executed ROKR when several other iTunes enabled phones will be coming out? That’s like looking at the first airplane and saying, “Man, this thing really sucks; I hope they don’t make any more of these because these Wright guys have really screwed up this whole flying idea.” Motorola’s competitors will have iTunes enabled phones and they will be better; Motorola will also put out new models that will supercede the ROKR. Dwelling on the first issue of any gadget is usually a bad idea; it stymies the creativity put into the execution of future iterations.

    As far as the point of Apple vs. phone manufacturers, yes, they are competitors; granted, the phone manufacturers have to license components from Apple. Furthermore, how many people do you think are going to buy a ROKR that don’t already have money invested in iTunes? The ROKR isn’t average joe material but more geared for the Apple-head who has invested time and money into their iTunes collection and doesn’t want to buy an iPod Shuffle to go with their cell phone, iBook, and regular iPod (for the videos, of course). Most people will take the free phone that their cell phone provider is offering and not spend $150 on a phone. That leaves them with $150 to invest in an iPod device or more songs through iTunes. This isn’t even for us, the computer nerds, because we can see what a piece it really is. Instead, the ROKR is just the tip of the iceberg that gives the masses an idea to have wet dreams over and us something to complain about because any press is good press.

    I mean, damn, how much time have we now spent on talking about a bad version of a possibly good idea?

  5. A Nony Mouse

    I doubt it was sabotage, although the fact that Apple mandated the 100-song limit certainly indicates they were protecting their iPod products.

    Consider this… the name of the phone was stupid.

    ROKR. It conjures visions of Guitar Center, of Otto “likes to get Blotto” from the Simpsons, it’s reminiscent of maladjusted, unpopular kids in school.

    RAZR sounds okay. A razor is sharp. A razor is cool. Cut. Cut. Cutting edge. Even the word sounds good. Full of positive mental associations. Sleek, sharp.

    You wouldn’t be embarrassed to say you own a RAZR phone. You’d be afraid the other person would laugh at you if you said you owned a ROKR phone.

    Mr. Zander is a bit silly. I mean, he managed to be succesful at Sun during the internet bubble… a time when a babboon might have done as well (in his place).

  6. I think you overestimate the effect the failure of the ROKR had on Nano sales, although its all specualtion at best. The Nano is a killer device that Apple has had on the drawing board for some time. The ROKR was a poorly planned, slapdash MP3-player/phone desperately seeking a sales hook. So Motorola sought out Apple, and Jobs obliged. Not vice-versa. Apple was prepared to annouce the Nano with or without an iTunes-compatible phone on the agenda. And I think you’re reaching a lot if you belive the Nano wouldn’t have sold as well were it not for the crummy design of the ROKR.

    I think it is more likely that Jobs saw an opportunity to make a little extra lisencing cash, but wanted to protect his own product…thus the 100 song limit. But making the claim that Apple intentionally sabotaged a product they didn’t seek out for the sake of boosting Nano sales, is pretty ridiculous. The ROKR investment is reported on Apple’s report to their shareholders. EBad investment decisions, with or without a windfall, do not encourage investor confidence, and ultimately undermine a company’s credibility.

    Say what you will, but its also impossible to make the case that the Nano sold well because the ROKR sucked. A Motorola product just doesn’t have the market play that an Apple product does. And iTunes-compatible phone, no matter how well designed, just doesn’t have the sex appeal of an iPod. Even if the ROKR rocked, the Nano was going to be giant.

  7. It can be a receipe for success because a bad ROKR definitely helped boost the appeal of the nano. And you don’t think that Apple hadn’t been planning a second special event to announce the 5th gen iPod just a few weeks after the ROKR/nano unveiling? It’s clear that Steve Jobs knows exactly what he is doing.

    I don’t think Jobs is a great fan of Swiss Army knife devices. But yet, the momentum was building about how “critical” an iTunes phone was to the iPod’s future. Apple needed to show that it was relatively trivial for them to get into the cell phone business and thus deflate some of the “cell phones will kill the iPod” talk that had been going on for a while. Now everyone suddenly realizes that cell phones can’t do music as well as a dedicated player, especially since most people probably prefer saving their batteries for making important calls than draining it by listening to music.

    As the ROKR shows, it takes more than just music capability to make a truly compelling device. The 100 song limit? The real reason is more practical than that. Just like the Shuffle has no scrolling Click Wheel because of its limited capacity, it would become impossibly frustrating to navigate through a list of a 1000 songs with push buttons or paddles. By limiting the songs to 100, Apple can at least hide this flaw in the hardware interface. Don’t underestimate how much Apple values the total user experience, because even though the idea of having 1000 or 5000 songs on your cell phone may seem compelling on paper, it’s very difficult to navigate through a long list by repeatedly pressing buttons, and people are only gong to end up feeling frustrated with the feature.

    It’s like the common geek complaint about the “wasted” space on Apple’s 17″ PowerBook. Why, with all that extra surface area, doesn’t Apple put in a numeric keypad? More keys are better, right? It seems like a stupid omission until you realize that putting a numeric keypad would shift the regular keys all to the left. Imagine trying to type off-center for an extended period, your wrists angled non-ergonomically to the left while the PowerBook is sitting centered on your lap.

    It all comes down to user experience.

  8. Oops…dropped a word or two in my excitement…the sentence should read, “Is Apple also in cahoots with JFK, Elvis, and the CIA to convince us that the switch to Intel is a good thing, with the secret plan to put Intel out of business and soldify the PPC chip’s market share?”

  9. Oops…dropped a word or two in my excitement…the sentence should read, “Is Apple also in cahoots with JFK, Elvis, and the CIA to convince us that the switch to Intel is a good thing, with the secret plan to put Intel out of business and soldify the PPC chip’s market share?”

  10. For the conspiracy theorist among you…you’re all idiots. Motorola proposed the deal, designed the phone, and begged for iTunes support. In the end, they did a lousy engineering job, and it didn’t sell.

    What next? Is Apple also in cahoots with JFK, Elvis, and the CIA that the switch to Intel is a good thing, with the secret plan to put Intel out of business and soldify the PPC chip’s market share? Give me a break.

    And who really gives a rip about the 100 song limit on a cell phone anyhow? Its a phone people…a phone.

  11. hope i’m not repeating anyone else’s statements…
    I think it’s much more likely that the failure was orchestrated by all parties involved. Motorola has a wide array of phones, the sales of all of which would suffer if they actually produced an iPod phone that was worth a shit.

  12. When I saw the video in which the iPos nano would be introduces, I heard about the “iPod phone” and thought: wow, that must be a cool phone.

    Then I saw the phone. Argh. Just another ugly cheap-looking phone. I’ll never gonna buy that one.

    How is this Apple’s fault?

    Has the iPod not proofed that people want to pay extra for good design and ease of use. How hard is this to understand? Motorola messed up. Not Apple.

  13. John Sample

    I bought a ROKR, I returned it. Honestly the best thing about the phone was iTunes. Every other part of the phone basically sucked. The idea that Apple sabotaged this phone is like saying Apple sabotaged Windows by porting iTunes to the platform. Absurd.

  14. I’ve posted some rampant speculation on my site about what Apple’s up to with the whole iPod+Phone thing:

    http://jurgen.ca/archives/000490.html

    I think they’re sucking Moto’s brains a bit here, learning from them. I won’t be surprised if Apple releases an iPod that includes a phone… but it would be an iPod first, not a phone first like the Moto. The Moto is a phone with iTunes in it. Apple would want an iPod with a phone in it. Subtle difference, but vital to the success of any iPod+Phone combo.

  15. i think the idea that the 100 songs killed the ROKR is ludicrous. sure it contributed to the suckitude, but a bad design of the phone, terribly and slow UI, USB 1.1/”lowspeed” only syncing, etc were what really did it in…

  16. Frits van der veen

    My opinion is that Motorola is low profile on the memory size. Since this is mini-SD, this will most probably easily be upgradable. So Motorola does not have to press this hard to not offend Apple.

    So Motorola, in my view, will allow larger memory sizes, and without mentioning, they pose a certain threat to the small iPods.

    I for myself, I would opt for a cell phone with 1.3 camera and 9 times zoom with video capabilities AND the iPod Movie capabilities. Finally not carrying all these adapters, connection cables, camera supplies, power supplies etc. etc.

    Motorola will most probably have a hit on their hands with the RAZR II.

  17. while i think that motorola sabotaged themselves, it also has to be said that unlike any other company on this planet they were able to get apple’s ok to use the itunes drm. microsoft was not able to do this for the new xbox. so while the phone sucks, they have access to itunes and now with the new razr things might get interesting.

    also there is another question, why should a phone have a mp3 player? i would buy an itunes razr, but i would still use my ipod. but then it might just be me liking specialized devices over all in one things that can do many things but nothing really good.

  18. I haven’t played around with the ROKR, so I was wondering, can you assign songs in iTunes as ringtones? I have a Motorola V265 right now and I can put a few mp3 files on it, but I can’t use them as ringtones.

    Perhaps Motorola realized that if they released a phone with iTunes player capability, the next logical step would be to release a phone with iTunes Music Store functionality. If you can get a whole track for 99 cents, why would you pay $1.99 and up for a 5 or 10 second ringtone clip?

    I think that a successul iTunes phone will be developed and released by Apple. That’s really the only way you can get the full “integration” that everyone is after. Once you start involving other companies, everyone starts demanding their cuts and everyone starts demanding concessions.

    I personally don’t mind carrying a phone and an iPod. I’d rather have two devices that serve both their purposes extremely well than one device that sucks at both all for the sake of “convergence.”

  19. I wonder why no one designed a cell phone *add-on* for the iPod. I mean, why not make the iPod act as a cell phone instead of trying that hard to turn a cell phone into an iPod?

  20. Scout Zen

    Oh, Apple failed at something…they must’ve done it on purpose!

    Typical Mac fanatical response prompted by the far reaching Steve Jobs reality distortion field.

  21. I’m in the camp that thinks Apple should design an MP3 phone from the ground up. It would no doubt be slick in form and function. They ought to market it under the ipod brand. Would this cut into sales of media-only ipods? Yes. Are media-capable phones going to do this anyway? I think so, most definitely.

    I recently purchased a SonyE. k750i, and have to say it’s the finest digital gadget I’ve ever owned. Inspiring more love, even, than my beloved G5 imac (which is also pretty wicked.) It uses memory stick duo for storage, which is currently available up to 2G, competitive with the nano, albeit at a higher price–but you also get–a phone (not to mention the best camera-in-a-phone on the market).

    As an aside, I personally have found smaller storage capacity to be more conducive to active listening. 40gigs of music is too much information.

    As a smaller and less relevant aside, I also enjoy watching Simpsons, South Park episodes, etc. on my phone’s tiny screen.

    I’m all for an all-in-one device. If it only had 3G (as does the most recent Walkman phone).