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How a foldable Motorola Razr could succeed where others have failed

(Image credit: Yanko Design)

Don't expect 2019 to be remembered as the Year of the Foldable Phone, after some high-profile launches of foldable phones earlier this year fizzled out. But there's still one last product launch this year that could give us a better idea of whether devices with foldable screens have the bright future that phone makers are predicting.

This Wednesday (Nov. 13), Motorola is holding a press event in Los Angeles, and all signs point to the company unveiling a rebooted version of its iconic Razr phone, now with a foldable screen. Invitations to the event included a GIF of a device snapping shut, along with the not-so-subtle promise that "you're going to flip."

Rumors of a new Razr phone with a folding screen have been circulating since earlier this year, when The Wall Street Journal first reported that such a device was in the works. That initial report and subsequent leaks point to Motorola reviving the clamshell design that was popular with smartphones before the original iPhone ushered in the era of candy bar-esque smartphones — only in this version of the Razr, the entire inside of the phone will be a screen that folds in half when not in use.

Motorola's invitation to its Nov. 13 event

Motorola's invitation to its Nov. 13 event (Image credit: Motorola)

It's a rumored look that's generated a lot of interest, particularly among people who churn out concept designs. But Motorola's rumored Razr will arrive after a couple other heavily hyped foldable phones have stumbled. Samsung's $1,980 Galaxy Fold launched in September to tepid reviews, and that was after the phone maker delayed launching the Fold when screens broke on review devices. Huawei similarly delayed the launch of its foldable Mate X phone, restricting the October release to just China and in limited numbers.

Can the reimagined Razr succeed where those other foldables have failed to make much of a splash? There's reason to believe Motorola and its Razr are well positioned to change people's perceptions about foldable phones.

It's a comfortably familiar design

It's difficult to remember a pre-iPhone world, but Motorola's Razr was the flip phone to have 15 or so years ago. Assuming Motorola's upcoming phone takes that look and updates it with a foldable touch screen, a reborn Razr could strike a chord with mobile users who have long memories.

"Folding phones are a new form factor, and the Razr was an iconic form factor, so I think that people are hoping when you combine the two, you get something special," said Avi Greengart, lead analyst with Techsponential. "The idea of a big screen that folds down into a smaller package is appealing."

It would certainly be a different approach from the foldable phones we've seen thus far. Samsung's Galaxy Fold opens and shuts like a book — a familiar enough interaction, though not something we're necessarily used to with smartphones. The Mate X goes a weirder route, folding in the opposite direction of the Fold in what Huawei describes as a Falcon Wing design. It looks cool in person, but it doesn't have the comforting familiarity of a flip phone.

The idea of a big screen that folds down into a smaller package is appealing.

— Avi Greengart, Techsponential

"Folding phones are a new form factor, and the Razr was an iconic form factor, so I think that people are hoping when you combine the two, you get something special," said Avi Greengart, lead analyst with Techsponential. "The idea of a big screen that folds down into a smaller package is appealing."

It would certainly be a different approach from the foldable phones we've seen thus far. Samsung's Galaxy Fold opens and shuts like a book — a familiar enough interaction, though not something we're necessarily used to with smartphones. The Mate X goes a weirder route, folding in the opposite direction of the Fold in what Huawei describes as a Falcon Wing design. It looks cool in person, but it doesn't have the comforting familiarity of a flip phone.

Samsung teases a foldable phone design that looks an awful lot like a Razr.

Samsung teases a foldable phone design that looks an awful lot like a Razr. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You want more proof of the foldable flip phone's appeal? At Samsung's recent developers' conference, the company showed a mock-up of a clamshell-style phone folding and unfolding like we imagine Motorola's upcoming effort will do.

A more attractive (though still high) price

Cost could be dimming enthusiasm for foldable phones now that they're shipping. The Galaxy Fold will run you close to $2,000, while in China, you'll need 16,999 yuan (a little more than $2,400 based on the current exchange rate) to pick up a Huawei Mate X. That's a lot to pay for a smartphone, especially as flat smartphone sales and longer upgrade cycles suggest that people are balking at paying $999 for more-traditional flagship phones.

Foldable Motorola Razr renders

Foldable Motorola Razr renders (Image credit: Yanko Design)

We don't know yet what the Motorola Razr is going to cost. But most rumors surrounding the phone point to a price of around $1,500. While that's still costly — you can max out the iPhone 11 Pro Max's storage to 512GB and still save $50 on the Razr's rumored price — it's definitely cheaper than the Galaxy Fold. And Motorola could reap the benefit of consumers perceiving its phone as a better value than higher-priced foldables.

"The first two folding phones that have been announced are in the $2,000-and-up range," Greengart said. "This is new technology, so if Motorola prices it accordingly, the market will be inherently limited to those who can afford very expensive things." 

That's not necessarily a problem, though, said Greengart, who noted that people are generally willing to pay up for beautiful-looking things that they regularly use.

"This not only applies to fashion examples such as handbags, but to phones as well," he said. "Apple, Samsung and Huawei have already established that tens of millions of people will pay over $1,000 for premium phones — not folding phones, just the latest iPhones, Notes and Mates. And of course, Motorola's original Razr sold over 100 million units at prices as high as $600, which was unheard of for a basic camera phone at the time."

Motorola has a track record

Four years ago, Motorola took the wraps off the modular Moto Z, a pretty powerful smartphone that you could augment by attaching accessories to its back. We're now up to the Moto Z4, which continues to give users the option of modifying their smartphones with the help of a variety of Moto Mods.

It's fair to say that Moto Mods haven't taken off the way that Motorola would like. But the company has stuck to its guns with the Moto Z lineup. Even better, if you bought Mods for an earlier Moto Z phone, they'll still connect and work with a more current model; Motorola has kept the design the same.

Motorola continues to support Moto Mods for its Moto Z phones.

Motorola continues to support Moto Mods for its Moto Z phones. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

So what does this have to do with a potential foldable Razr phone? I think it indicates that Motorola really sits down and thinks about its product lineup, both for the near term and what it wants to do down the road. If I was thinking of taking a flyer on a foldable phone, I'd be comforted by Motorola's history of taking a chance on something new and not mashing the reset button if that decision doesn't pay immediate dividends.

The new Razr still faces challenges

That said, the Razr phone still has some hurdles to overcome. Motorola will obviously want to avoid the problems that delayed the Galaxy Fold and Mate X launches. That may be why the phone is debuting in November instead of earlier in the year, as The Wall Street Journal's initial report had claimed.

Foldable Motorola Razr renders

Foldable Motorola Razr renders (Image credit: Mobielkopen)

There's also the matter of the phone's rumored specs. Reportedly, the Razr could run on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 710 chipset, a decent processor but not the top-of-the-line Snapdragon 855 silicon found in the best Android phones. Leaked specs also suggest a 2,730-mAh battery, which seems underpowered for a device that's rumored to have a 6.2-inch display when opened up. Should this list prove accurate, Motorola is going to have to make the case that these specs are perfectly acceptable for would-be Razr owners, especially in light of the phone's expected price.

And even if the new Razr comes in a form we all recognize, foldable devices remain a niche segment of the smartphone market. Power users may find the larger screen appealing, but for most people, the 6-inch-or-so displays common on most handsets these days are more than adequate. Motorola will need to define a market for this new Razr and make sure that this foldable delivers the features those users demand.