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Motorola’s Dumb Phone

A new mobile phone that’s rather simple bucks the trend toward more complicated, power-hungry devices.
October 26, 2006

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.

Motorola hopes to lure customers in emerging markets with new tech and a slick design. (Credit: Motorola)

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.

The display also allowed some flexibility with the design. It’s basically “a sticker applied to a circuit board,” Colorado says, which made it possible to limit the phone’s thickness to nine millimeters. That helped it achieve the same “slim and sleek” factor that has made its Razr line so successful, Reith says. And the display can be cut to shape, allowing designers to produce a distinctive curve at the top edge of the screen. Although E Ink technology can be used to make high-resolution megapixel displays, Motorola opted for a less expensive version using simple electronics that produce segmented numbers and fixed-shape icons like those on a wristwatch. This makes for a simple display–perhaps too simple for places such as the United States, where consumers are used to color screens, Reith says. But the screen is not buried beneath a pane of glass or limited to a clunky rectilinear shape. Not using glass also makes the phone more durable.

Motorola has incorporated several other features designed to make the phone simple to use. The characters on the screen are large and easy to see. To make it usable for those who cannot read, the phone has no text-based menus–just icons, along with voice prompts in the customer’s native language. The phone also features two separate antennas, which improves call quality in two ways: it ensures that at least one antenna isn’t blocked by the user’s hand, and it helps the phone pick up signals that are weak or scattered by buildings.

The company is already designing a successor; it could have features such a built-in LED flashlight, which would be useful in areas with unreliable electricity. But for these markets, don’t look for cameras, Internet access, or video-download capability in the near future.

Though the phone offers a sleek design, it will still face stiff competition from Nokia, which continues to offer new, inexpensive phones. And will it appear in the United States? For that to happen, Reith says, Motorola will have to find a willing service provider or agree to sell its product alongside no-name brands at drugstores.

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