Moto’s ROKR is a STINKR

HOW COULD THEY not make beautiful music together? It’s just over nine months since Motorola, maker of the gorgeously thin and stylish RAZR V3 mobile phone, announced that it was planning a baby with Apple, maker of the wildly popular iPod and iTunes digital-music systems. Now the celebrity tech companies have finally unveiled their love child, the ROKR model E1 GSM wireless music phone. Cingular, the mobile-service provider, acted as midwife.

Even some people who coo that all babies are beautiful may feel a reflexive need to stifle a boo. “How … nice,” I heard myself saying, which of course is what one says when the baby is homely, a bit backward, lacking in personality, and more than a little stinky. Even as he introduced the new phone recently at an event in San Francisco, Steve Jobs, whose Apple iTunes software is the only cute thing about the ROKR, appeared to hold it at a distance, sort of like Michael Jackson dangling his baby over a hotel railing. Success has many fathers, the saying goes, but even with Motorola, Apple, and Cingular in the ménage à trois, ROKR is probably destined for an orphanage.

What went wrong? Perhaps it’s kinder to start with what went right. The ROKR model E1 is a GSM phone that successfully makes and receives voice calls. Since telephony is generally considered essential for mobile phones, chalk that up as a success. The color screen is quite pretty and the buttons are easy to push, just as they are on the Motorola E398, a phone from last year that obviously served as the ROKR E1’s blueprint. Rather than design a new phone–one worthy of the mating of the RAZR and the iPod–Motorola recycled the E398 design and made only minor modifications, including built-in stereo speakers and a dedicated iTunes music-software key that, when tickled, causes the ROKR to burp out as many as 100 songs from the user’s music library. To be fair, the sound quality is better than what I’ve heard on the dozen or so other MP3-capable music phones I’ve tested this year, even though the headphone jack is incompatible with better earphones, and the large earbud speakers and voice microphone that come with the ROKR have an unsettling resemblance to the pushpins on my office bulletin board. Plus Cingular charges $250 for the phone when it’s purchased with a two-year service contract, the equivalent of just 80 gallons of gasoline at today’s pump.

What’s amazing about the ROKR is how much it borrows from previous consumer-tech disasters. Let’s not point fingers and play the blame game … oh, what the heck, both Motorola and Apple screwed this one up, probably with Cingular’s help.

Let’s go way back to the IBM PC Junior. Long before IBM sold out to China’s Lenovo, its PC was the industry standard. IBM wanted a consumer machine, but it did not want to cannibalize sales of the more lucrative business PCs it made. So it created a crippled version of the PC and called it PC Junior. Apple has a good thing going with the iPod, and perhaps it didn’t care to see the ROKR get good enough to kill that action. So somehow the ROKR was crippled so that it could not store more than 100 songs. In my tests 78 songs was tops, but then I listen to a lot of songs longer than the standard four minutes and at higher quality than the 128-kilobits-per-second bit rate. Even if I were a Ramones fan and all my songs were two minutes or less, the limit is still 100 songs. The surprising diaper bomb is that even if you install a larger micro-SD memory card than the 512MB version that Cingular preloads with the ROKR, the limit appears to remain at 100 songs, or fewer than ten CDs’ worth.

More recently Nokia designed its N-Gage portable-game taco with the removable memory card hidden under the battery compartment of the device, making users disassemble the N-Gage just to change games. It’s the same deal with the transFlash micro-SD card in the ROKR. If you want to carry an extra memory card to swap as a way to get around the 100-song limit, you’ll still have to remove the battery and fumble with dinky cards. Consumer ease of use has taken a back seat to engineering expediency.

Few companies do industrial design better than Apple these days, but the ROKR seems to have escaped the attention of Apple’s vaunted design team altogether. Motorola’s name and logo are tattooed on the ROKR’s body numerous times, but on the model I tested, Apple’s name and logo are nowhere to be found. Perhaps Apple is keeping a low profile while it develops its own music phone, the mythical iPhone that, like the white buffalo of Native American lore, will herald Apple’s return to dominance of the computer industry.

The ROKR is not the iPhone. Apple has hinted, however, that it has other iTunes-based phones in development.

The most inexcusable failing of the ROKR is that for all the anticipation, many of its features do not work as advertised. Doesn’t anybody test these things before selling them to the public? The ROKR software is sluggish and clunky, and transferring songs into the ROKR’s memory is so slow–even on a dual-processor Apple Power Mac G5–that I was almost glad of the 100-song limit. Getting the ROKR and iTunes to communicate on an older Mac system running a recent but not current version of the Macintosh operating system was like spoon-feeding mashed yams to an infant–messy and requiring great patience. Ditto a PC running Windows XP and the latest version of iTunes. If there’s a way to authorize the ROKR for multiple computers, allowing it to move between home and office, for example, it’s inscrutable. What’s more, the curious inability of the phone to download music directly from the iTunes Music Store suggests bickering among the parents over who should profit from future online music sales, Apple or Cingular, and what the revenue split should be. Then there’s the feature that’s supposed to mute the iTunes music playback when a call comes in, and resume it when the call ends. The ROKR was better at muting than at resuming. And my, what dim, beady little eyes the baby has. The ROKR’s built-in submegapixel camera is feeble compared with rival camera phones such as, say, the Sony-Ericsson W800i Walkman phone. The soon-to-be-released W800i (expected to be about $500) has a larger music capacity than the ROKR, a two-megapixel auto-focus camera, and a built-in FM radio. In contrast, the ROKR is an ugly duckling.

After seeing the latest versions of the Motorola RAZR V3 phone and the Apple iPod Nano, both of which are stunningly slim and attractive, I can’t help but think that a superior Moto-Apple music phone could have been made by gluing a black Nano to the back of a black RAZR. Better still, skip the glue and simply show them off as fraternal twins, bracing yourself for double the cooing and admiring glances.

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