The Motorola Razr is back as a smartphone with folding screen

The new Motorola Razr.
The new Motorola Razr.
Image: Motorola
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Besides the iPod, Von Dutch hats, low-rise jeans, and pop-punk, there are few things that conjure up such vivid memories of the mid-2000s as the Motorola Razr.

The slim flip phone looked like nothing before it, and the tiny device is still to this day one of the single most popular phones of all time, selling over 130 million units after its introduction in 2004.

But the Motorola that launched the Razr looks nothing like the company today. After a brief, unfruitful period of ownership by Google, Motorola’s mobile division was sold to the Chinese conglomerate Lenovo, which also purchased another flagging US tech icon, the IBM Thinkpad computer line, around the time when the Razr went on sale.

The mobile industry itself isn’t very recognizable, either, versus the one predating the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. When its debut effectively ushered in the smartphone era singlehandedly, many of the incumbent market leaders were caught flat-footed; they were too busy improving their flip phones or putting better batteries into their email machines while Apple took charge. Motorola has yet to come close to regaining its position in the smartphone industry. Globally, Lenovo holds about 3% of the market, but much of that is down to sales in China, rather than Motorola devices selling in their home country.

But the company seems to think that the best way forward for the Motorola brand is to look backward. At an event in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, executives unveiled the new “razr”—all lowercase this time—an all-screen version of its one-time cultural touchstone.

The Razr folded and open
The Razr folded and open.
Image: Motorola

The new device features a foldable plastic display that fills the phone when unfolded. It unfurls much like the original phone did, but instead of revealing a small screen and a keypad, there’s now a high-resolution OLED display and a selfie camera. The phone is a fair bit wider than the original Razr, and when it’s open, it feels roughly the same size as many of today’s popular smartphones. When it’s closed, it’s—amazingly—as thin as the original device.

Motorola said it did not set out to redesign the Razr. In fact, it had already brought the brand back to life before, to mixed results. Ruben Castano, Motorola’s head of design, said the company had been trying to answer some of the frustrations that modern consumers have with their smartphones. For example, they enjoy their large screens, but don’t enjoy how bulky they are in their pockets and hands. Eventually, the team decided that the best way to address this was to make use of a foldable display, something the company had been researching since 2015, and that led to the rebirth of the Razr. The hope is that some of the nostalgia for the original Razr will intrigue consumers to check out the new model, which runs a modified version of Android.

The new Razr will face an uphill battle to take on popular incumbents like Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Note and Galaxy lines, and in the US it will only be available on Verizon, a big hurdle from would-be buyers who are loyal to other carriers. But the device is also butting up against perceptions of folding phones.

The nascent category has already had issues. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold device had to be recalled before it even got into customers’ hands, when the displays in review units began to fail. Similarly, Huawei’s Mate X folding phone has been delayed multiple times but will apparently go on sale before the end of the year.

The display of the Razr pulls away from the body of the phone
Seeing light between the Razr’s screen and the body.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy

In a brief hands-on with the device, it seems like the Razr faces similar challenges. As the phone closes, the foldable display actually pushes outwards before retracting inwards, and it’s possible to easily pull the display up away from the device even further with a finger.

Motorola refused to go into detail about how it’s testing the phones, seemingly trying to avoid Samsung’s hubristic claim that each Fold phone could safely be folded 200,000 times, but it did say “we didn’t bring the Razr to market until we knew it was ready.” Motorola said it will not be putting any warnings in the device’s packaging to caution people to be careful with how they handle the device, as Samsung did when it relaunched the Fold. 

Sturdy or not, this device is not cheap—it will start at $1,500. While that’s roughly $500 less than Huawei and Samsung are charging for their (albeit larger) folding phones, it’s $500 more than a new iPhone 11 Pro or Galaxy S10. That’s a hefty price to pay for updated nostalgia.

Of course, tech nostalgia has worked for some companies—look at how Nintendo continually regenerates its intellectual property and consoles to great success, or how Nokia’s revived its popular smartphone lines—but it’s a costly gamble. What success Motorola has had in recent years has been from producing solid, mid-level smartphones. So the jump into an ultra-premium category when most of the big spenders have long moved on from their Razrs or Blackberrys—or were never even old enough to have one—is perhaps more of a stretch.