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Motorola Rokr Phone Not Basking In iPod's Glow

Posted by iMark - 2005-10-26

Apple Computer could hardly have asked for better reviews for its first iPod digital music player four years ago.
"There's hardly anything not to like about the iPod," wrote the Houston Chronicle.

"IPod is fast, looks great," wrote The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette.

Such praise didn't spill over to Motorola's just-released Rokr cell phone, the first mobile phone equipped with Apple's iTunes software.

"New Rokr's lack of choices not cool," wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"Limits to iTunes phone disappoint experts," wrote The Buffalo (N.Y.) News.

Though it had been on a roll in releasing slick phones, Motorola doesn't appear to be grabbing much buzz with Rokr.

Worse, the Rokr faces two other major challenges.

For one, more music-capable phones are coming to market.

And two, analysts say the high costs and limitations of music-playing cell phones make those devices a nonthreat to digital music players.

"This is just the first generation of music capable phones," said Eddie Tapiero, an analyst at research firm Strategy Analytics. "We expect a lot of improvements in future models."

Motorola won't give any sales figures, but says it's shipped 250,000 Rokr phones to various carriers. Cingular Wireless is the only carrier selling the Rokr in the U.S.

In an Oct. 12 earnings conference call, Motorola Chief Executive Ed Zander says he's pleased with results for the Rokr in Europe and Asia. But the company has "got more to do in positioning it in North America," Zander said. "We got off to mixed results.

Expectations for the phone got ahead of the actual product, says Rob Enderle, who heads consulting firm Enderle Group.

Potential buyers wanted and expected something like Motorola's unique Razr phones. But the Rokr looks like most any cell phone.

"People wanted something iPod-like and ended up with a design nowhere near Apple's," Enderle said. "One of the top reasons why people like the iPod is the design."

Enderle says Sony Ericsson may get the design edge with an upcoming version of its Walkman-branded cell phone. This phone, the W900, has a round navigation wheel on the front similar to what the iPod has. The top portion of the phone swivels to reveal the numeric keypad.

Sony Ericsson, the joint venture between Sony and Sweden's Ericsson, says its Walkman cell phones have been "exceptionally successful."

The company plans to have four versions of the Walkman phone for sale by year's end.

The new Walkman phone is also a 3G phone. This third-generation device is capable of getting high-speed data. That will let users download music over wireless networks. The lack of downloading capability is one shortcoming in the current crop of music phones.

The Rokr can download songs only indirectly by connecting the phone to a computer, which actually downloads the songs.

Nokia , too, is trying to put high design into its new music-capable phone, the N91. Like the Walkman, the phone's music controls slide to reveal the keypad.

Nokia tries to surmount another criticism of the Rokr -- limited storage. The Rokr can hold 100 songs. The N91 has eight times the memory capability of the Rokr.

The Nokia phone, like several others already available overseas from Samsung, has a small hard-disk drive, as is used in some iPods and other digital music players.

But Enderle says cell phones put up with a lot more abuse than music players in terms of being dropped and generally manhandled. Hard drives don't like such treatment.

"Considering how a phone gets treated, having a hard drive in them doesn't make much sense to me," Enderle said.

The Rokr also caught flak for issues around Bluetooth, the short-range wireless technology used to connect such devices as a cell phone to stereo headsets.

The Rokr has Bluetooth for listening to cell phone conversations. But the Rokr lacks stereo capability in Bluetooth.

It's not certain whether other music-capable cell phones will have stereo Bluetooth capability.

"People would like to use Bluetooth in cell phones for their music as well as conversations," Tapiero said. "But they're disappointed it's in mono, not stereo."

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