Mobile phones in the United States are more power-hungry and complicated than ever. But one of the latest phones from Motorola, aimed primarily at other markets and due out by the end of the year, is just the opposite. Looking for more customers, the company did extensive market research in poor countries. The result: the company’s slimmest phone yet, boasting cutting-edge technology that–rather than adding complexity–extends battery life and makes the phone simpler to use.
Called the Motofone, the new device is cheap. But it still retains some of the style of the company’s Razr, which can cost many times as much. Research showed that style matters “regardless of income or social status,” says Motorola’s manager for the phone project, Rafael Colorado, who is himself from one of the target countries, Colombia. The company hopes the design will help win new customers in large emerging markets, such as India, where there isn’t yet a “signature product” equivalent to the Razr, says Ryan Reith, a research analyst for the market research firm IDC. Currently, Nokia is doing better than Motorola in these markets, he says. The phone may also appeal to new users in countries such as the United States, he says, or to anyone who just wants a simple phone that works well.
The phone’s most distinctive feature is its screen, a high-contrast reflective display using a new technology invented at MIT. Commercialized by E Ink of Cambridge, MA, the display has been described as electronic paper. Like paper, it does not rely on a backlight, as in LCDs, or a constant supply of electricity, as in emissive displays based on organic light-emitting devices. Indeed, it uses no power to display an image–only to change the image on the screen. The image itself is composed of tiny spheres containing nanoscopic black and white particles. Russell Wilcox, E Ink’s president and CEO, says the particles are something like tiny bits of ink and paper. Whether the spheres appear black or white depends on the charge of an underlying electrode. A negative electrode repels the negatively charged black particles, forcing them to the top of the sphere, and attracts the positively charged white particles, pulling them to the bottom and out of sight. The result is a black dot. Dots of various shades of gray can be created by changing the charge at different intervals, allowing black and white particles to mix. The display is very easy to see even in full sunlight but uses much less energy than an LCD, Wilcox says.
The display technology has been in development for about 10 years and is starting to find its way into other products, such as the new Sony Reader and a thin, curved watch from Seiko. It is well suited in several ways to a phone designed for poor countries, says Motorola’s chief technology officer, Padmasree Warrior. The efficient display was attractive, she says, because, “power is an issue in rural India.” The saved power allowed Motorola to use a small, less expensive battery, even though the phone offers eight hours of talk time and 12 days of standby time. According to Colorado, a user could charge the phone by riding a bicycle, a dominant mode of transportation in India. In a bike equipped with an inexpensive dynamo-based system Motorola is also developing, it would take about two hours of biking at a leisurely pace.