December 15, 2009
Remembering the Razr

A few days ago, Nielsen released a report about the top media trends in 2009. One of the most striking findings, highlighted by MediaPost, was that this was the year that the iPhone and the Blackberry Curve finally overtook the four year old Motorola Razr V3 as the device carried by the most US wireless subscribers.

Ultimately, it took the iPhone and the Blackberry Curve a little over 18 months to become Razr killers.

In a way, this isn't surprising news. Unless you've been living under a rock since the first version of the iPhone came out in June 2007, or perhaps even if you have, you've heard a lot about it. The Blackberry Curve 8300, the #2 phone according to Nielsen, has also been a popular standby for RIM, and has also been on the market since 2007.

What does this have to do with Convergence Culture? People's behavior around media is definitely changing, but these findings highlight how slow adoption of new technologies actually is among the majority of the US population. It also suggests that we still have a ways to go before the majority of Americans are being exposed to all of the possibilities of a "three screen" media world.

The adoption process
Why, when there were lots of smarter phones on the market, did more than 9% still carry the Razr through 2008?

One reason may be cost. Service contracts force US wireless subscribers to stick with their phone and carrier for two years or pay an early termination fee. Data plans, which are required with the iPhone and some other Smartphones, tend to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30-50 a month, putting them out of reach for many. Prices of older smartphone models have been falling, but even a $99 iPhone is still more expensive than many other devices that are available.

But cost doesn't tell the whole story. In a year characterized by double digit unemployment, why was the Razr was unseated in 2009?

At least part of the answer might be changing expectations around wireless functionality and aesthetics.

My theory is that changing expectations about functionality seem to come partly from the media and partly from what's happening among friends, coworkers and acquaintances. On the media side, hype around the iPhone and several potential "iPhone killers" among new smartphone models went beyond trade press and into the mainstream. Apple and Blackberry ran ads that emphasized how the devices could be used in everyday life, beyond business.

Meanwhile, as adoption picked up among the people who could afford a smartphone and a data plan or were issued one at work, so too did expectations about what a phone should do, and the role it should be playing in daily life. Once you have a phone with email capabilities, the more people around you seem to expect instant responses far beyond a normal work day. The more people in a group who have this technology and who check their email at all hours of the day, the greater the expectation that everyone will adopt that behavior. And, if everyone you know has a phone that can help you find a restaurant, search the web, and watch videos, it makes a difference in your decision the next time you go shopping.

Texting is another significant trend in functionality that the Razr V3 didn't address as well as other devices. We text much more than we used to. According to a report by the AP, the average US wireless subscriber sent over 400 texts in 2008, more than double the average in 2007. As texting becomes a more important part of mobile communication, T9 looks less and less appealing, and several manufacturers have created and enhanced lines of "texting" devices with a full keyboard.

And then, there are the aesthetics. When the Razr V3 came out, it was competing with a field of bulky flip phones and awkward brick designs. In comparison to what else was out there, it was incredibly sleek, and when I bought mine in early 2006, it was the first time I'd chosen both my phone model and the color - it was an accessory as much as it was a phone. Even though Apple didn't invent the idea of a touchscreen or an even slimmer non-flip device, its popularity helped make those features part of the design of a long line of smartphones and feature phones. Expectations for design changed, but the Razr did not. The phone you carry is becoming a fashion statement, and the Razr started to look a bit outmoded.

A small but growing group
Despite this change in what devices Americans are using, it's important to keep in mind that the people with the two most popular phones are a relatively small group, in absolute terms and compared to the share that the Razr once had. The iPhone and Blackberry Curve owners make up just 4% and 3.7%, respectively, of US wireless subscribers. Last year, the Razr had more than 9% of the market, and is still holding on to just over 2%.

The implication here is that adoption of a new technology, even one with the marketing and media clout of Apple or RIM, doesn't happen overnight, or even within a year. Whether its cost, aesthetics, functionality or some combination of all three that finally prompts a decision to make a change, technology adoption needs time to catch up to the options that are availabile, something that those of us who work in the media and marketing worlds need to keep in mind. Although easily the majority of the people I know (and likely many readers of this blog know) have iPhones, Blackberries, the Palm Pre or something that runs Android, the majority of the US population does not.

The bottom line is that adoption doesn't happen overnight, and adoption of new technology isn't instantaneous, regardless of marketing and media hype. In the next few years, we'll see if smartphones continue to be the tool of choice and used for an increasing number of tasks, or if we scale back to a smaller list of features and start to look to other portable devices to address our wireless computing needs.

In either case, the dethroning of the Razr is likely the beginning of the next phase of development in how most Americans communicate on the go.