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On the MicroTAC's 30th anniversary, Motorola dishes on folding phone craze

As a new wave of advanced folding phones begin to reach the market, it's worth appreciating how form factors have played a role in shaping progress.

Published onApril 29, 2019

Motorolas iconic flip phones

Thirty years before the arrival of folding phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Fold and HUAWEI Mate X, flip phones broke new ground in the form of the Motorola MicroTAC 9800X. Widely regarded as the first flip phone, the MicroTAC ushered in a new era of mobility with its flip design and portable size.

As a new wave of advanced folding phones begin to reach the market, including a potential brand new RAZR from Motorola, it’s worth appreciating how form factors have played a role in shaping progress.

Motorola MicroTAC 9800X

If you watch any movie from the mid- to late-80s, you’ll note that cellular phones of the time had one common characteristic: they were nearly all wired into cars. This is why they were often called carphones. These analog devices were huge, required massive batteries, and were only portable in the sense that they went where the car went.

Motorola MicroTAC flip phone

In April 1989, Motorola debuted the MicroTAC 9800x (the “TAC” stood for Total Area Coverage). The phone stood out for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it introduced a flip design, wherein the mouthpiece was embedded in a plastic flap. The flap protected the number pad when closed and ensured the microphone was positioned nearer the owner’s mouth when open. The flip design was far more compact when compared to brick- or bar-style phones. In fact, the phone was supposedly designed to fit into a shirt pocket.

By modern standards, the MicroTAC is positively prehistoric.

“Small” in 1989 meant the phone measured about nine inches long when open, and it weighed three-quarters of a pound (302g). Today’s phones often measure about six inches long and weigh around 175g.

By modern standards, the MicroTAC is positively prehistoric. It had an eight-character monochrome LED display, 12-button number pad with associated function keys, and an internal phone book. It cost between $2,500 and $3,500 and the battery barely lasted at all. Motorola made the phone for years, with a number of variants making small improvements to the design over time.

Motorola’s main competitor, Nokia, mostly eschewed the idea of folding phones and stuck with bar-style devices. Motorola continued to churn out MicroTAC models until 1997, though the 1996-era StarTAC largely replaced it.

Motorola StarTAC

The StarTAC was another bombshell phone. Similar to the MicroTAC with a folding design, the StarTAC was significantly smaller and lighter (88g). The StarTAC is considered to be the first clamshell phone, meaning the two halves of the folding design were of approximately the same size. Some people thought it looked like a Star Trek Communicator.

Motorola StarTAC clamshell phone
Motorola StarTAC

In addition to the clamshell design, the StarTAC was among the first phones to be able to receive SMS text messages, and one of the first to include a vibrate alert. Owners could opt for a lithium-ion battery, which was rare at the time. The Motorola StarTAC cost $1,000.

The MicroTAC and StarTAC eventually led Motorola to its most iconic device.

With its more affordable price tag, the StarTAC was also one of the first cellular phones to truly resonate with consumers. Motorola sold about 60 million of them. Considering the low market saturation in the late 90s, 60 million is quite a significant number.

Developing the MicroTAC and StarTAC eventually led Motorola to its most iconic device.

Motorola RAZR

Motorola swung for the fences with the Motorola RAZR and hit it out of the park. The phone was an update to the MicroTAC and StarTAC line in basic conception, but pushed boundaries even further.

Motorola RAZR clamshell phone

“We knew from learnings about StarTAC that we had to deliver a device that would hold up to everyday life, something that you could always depend on, and at the same time be something that you wanted to share and show off,” said Motorola to Android Authority.

What the MicroTAC started, surely the RAZR finished.

The RAZR, which was announced in July 2004 and went on sale later that year, was slimmer than any other device at the time. It also boasted a fresh, futuristic design. It was smaller (3.9 inches tall) and lighter (99g) than many competing models. Though the $600 price point caused many to balk, Motorola went on to sell more than 130 million of the original V3 variant.

Motorola believed “there should be no compromise for the user, big screen, large keyboard, and great battery life, all in something that was unbelievably small and compact. At its core, RAZR was able to blend aspects that were clearly Motorola and make it look futuristic at the same time. We were able to put people’s notion of what the future would be into their hand.”

Apparent Motorola RAZR render appears on Weibo, but don't get too excited
Logo for the Motorola Razr

The rest, as they say, is history. What the MicroTAC started, surely the RAZR finished. The original RAZR ended production in 2007, after the debut of the original Apple iPhone. It wasn’t too long before Apple’s device upended the industry and largely ended the popularity of flip, folding, and clamshell phones as we knew them.

Full circle

Once the iPhone made its mark, originality in phone design declined. Nearly the entire market consolidated around the slab-style phone — which is why the last six months has been fascinating to watch unfold, literally.

Samsung Galaxy Fold half folded on table

Clamshells of the late 90s and early aughts featured small-ish screens on one half, and a number pad with controls on the other half. Samsung and HUAWEI have introduced phones this year that have folding screens. The Galaxy Fold opens up like a book to reveal a large screen within, while the HUAWEI Mate X unfolds more like a pamphlet. These devices take advantage of the latest in screen technology, but, as evidenced by the Galaxy Fold, the tech may not be ready just yet.

What’s important here, however, is the innovation. Just like the MicroTAC did 30 years ago, the Galaxy Fold and Mate X represent an exciting paradigm shift.

“The foldable technology being shown and envisioned today is extremely exciting,” noted Motorola. “Beyond just being very cool tech, the innovation behind the new form factor allows manufacturers to design phones in entirely new ways, which will lead to new ways of using smartphones most can’t even imagine today.”

Samsung suffered a setback, however, when early review units began to fail. The company recalled the devices and delayed the launch while it investigates. HUAWEI hasn’t delayed the launch of its foldable phone, at least not yet.

HUAWEI Mate X Foldable Phone Hands On display
Motorola Razr specs: Not really a Galaxy Fold competitor
Moto Razr foldable half folded moto logo on table

Does Motorola have a foldable phone up its sleeve? Motorola played it cool. “At Motorola we pride ourselves on innovation,” said the company to Android Authority. “We keep a close pulse on the latest technology and constantly look at ways we can best innovate for our consumers.”

Speaking of pulses, Motorola’s leaked (though definitely not confirmed) folding RAZR reboot is a wonder to behold (if the renders are legit), and just might have quickened the heart beats of phone fans the world over.

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