Oh Hey, Motorola and RIM Called: They Want to Go Back to 2004 and Try Again

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If you were awesome and monied in 2004 and you wanted the latest in mobile gadgetry, you would have wanted two excellent gadgets: the Motorola Razr and some version of the Blackberry, which was the dominant way to send and receive corporate email. With these two devices, you could have powered a mobile office! Some bankers could type faster on the Blackberry's tiny keyboard than on their laptops and the Razr was undeniably sexy.

The Razr was a flip phone, which meant that when you finished a call firing someone or making a date with a model, you could slap that baby shut, like, "Yeah, I was talking but now I'm done, so, OHSNAP, I'm Audi." The rest of us just had to push some nerdy red END button with a 1960s telephone icon on it.

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Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson posted a photo of a Razr to flickr in November of that year captioned like this:

The most popular phone at our conference was the Motorola V3 Razr.

Made of various metal alloys, it seems like a fine fashion accessory to the Powerbook.... Thinner than my pinkie when folded, it weighs under 100 grams. The backlit alloy buttons depress slightly for a pretty good ergonomic experience.

A fine fashion accessory to the Powerbook, indeed!

Meanwhile, back then, holding a Blackberry was like holding a 60" sword in the 15th century. It meant power! It meant importance! It meant that people back in the office just could. not. deal. without YOU. The 1.3 million Blackberry subscribers of 2004 were power players. They were ballers. They answered emails with simple replies: "Fire the missiles!" or "Buy me Nextel. No, not one stock. The company." They were not mere mortals tethered to desktop computers and lame keyboards. They could send emails from steakhouses.

My, how the mighty have fallen. Nowadays, I bet bankers with Blackberries get the odds stacked against them in credit card roulette. And if you somehow still had a Razr and someone saw it at Goldman, they'd have license to fire you on the spot, even if they weren't your boss. Like a citizen's arrest but for total lameness. (Next time they checked in on your Facebook page, they'd find you're selling walking shoes in Hoboken at the dirt mall.)

First Motorola, the maker of the Razr, was sold for parts and patents to Google, albeit for a decent chunk of change ($12.5 billion). Because Motorola had lost $1.7 billion during the past three years, most observers thought that Google was just buying patent protection through Motorola's cache. Now, there are signs Google might make more use of Moto. Either way, it's a sad ending for 2004's hottest cellphone's maker.

And today, Research in Motion, makers of the Blackberry, are warning they're going to have a nasty first quarter and have called in the bankers to "review" the company's chances. Their share price over the last year would make an excellent downhill skiing course. Get this: on May 31, 2011, RIMM was trading at $42 a share. (And that was already down from earlier highs.) In after hours trading tonight, they are looking at a per-share price of about $10.40. I hope your pension fund wasn't heavily invested in the company.

What happened to these once-awesome outfits? There are a lot of things you could point to over the last eight years, but no single event had as big of an impact as the launch of the iPhone in 2007. Just look at the smartphone bloodbath that followed the Jesus phone from August of 2007 onward. It'd look even worse if Apple's massive rise weren't throwing off the Y-axis.

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Much as you can call attention to their strategic missteps, these companies ran into a world-historical movement in technology that Apple ushered in and then dominated. No matter how good you were in 2004, you needed to start over again during 2007. Not many companies are going to surf that kind of wave.

Even the guy who coined the term "disruptive innovation", Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen, couldn't recognize the iPhone as such. A couple months before it launched, here's what he told BusinessWeek:

The iPhone is a sustaining technology relative to Nokia. In other words, Apple is leaping ahead on the sustaining curve [by building a better phone]. But the prediction of the theory would be that Apple won't succeed with the iPhone. They've launched an innovation that the existing players in the industry are heavily motivated to beat: It's not [truly] disruptive. History speaks pretty loudly on that, that the probability of success is going to be limited.
Take a look at that chart again. Since the iPhone launched, Nokia's lost almost 90 percent of its value.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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