Overseas call

Motorola is offering rural users in developing countries a specially designed mobile phone that it hopes will win it an extra billion customers. Niall Firth reports.

Motofone, Motorola’s newest handset, was conceived amid the colourful hustle and bustle of rural India — a far cry from the the usual sterile, white research lab.

As the domestic mobile phone markets in advanced economies become increasingly saturated, phone manufacturers are on the lookout for ways to find a new niche.

Motorola has taken this approach to another level with its latest handset: a mobile phone designed for users in the developing world. The project has lofty ambitions. ‘The idea behind this is to connect the next billion mobile phone users,’ said Andrew Morrow, Motorola’s European product manager for the Motofone.

These extra billion users have low incomes and come from developing countries such as India and China. Motorola obviously believes it is on to something. The early days of the Motofone’s development involved a great deal of secrecy: some of the firm’s top engineers were quietly relocated to an isolated laboratory in Beijing to work on the design.

To develop a mobile affordable to this huge potential market Motorola took a unique approach to building a lower-specification handset. All unnecessary features were stripped out and, to lower its cost, researchers from the firm’s design team spent time in India, China, Africa and Mexico to find out what features these new users would actually require. ‘Rather than taking a standard mobile phone and de-featuring it, like other products do, we wanted to build one from the bottom up,’ said Morrow.

The result is that the Motofone handset, launched in November in India, is equipped with a number of innovative features that make it far more interesting than most other low-specification mobile phones. Costing 1,699 Indian rupees (about £20), it is also relatively cheap

Its most distinctive feature is the choice of screen material. The Motofone is the first mobile phone with a screen made from ‘electronic paper’ developed by specialists E-Ink. Electronic paper displays use an ink packed with millions of tiny micro- capsules no more than 100 microns in diameter. Each microcapsule contains positively charged white particles and negatively charged black particles, which are suspended in a clear fluid.

When a negative electric field is applied, the white particles move to the top of the microcapsule where they become visible to the user. At the same time, the black particles move to the bottom, where they are hidden. By reversing this process, the black particles appear at the top of the capsule, which makes the surface appear dark at that point, and so is used to indicate alphanumeric characters.

Electronic paper display technology has a number of key benefits that made it uniquely suited for integration in the Motofone design. First, ‘e-paper’ is much easier to read in bright sunlight than conventional displays.

‘Our reason for using E-Ink was that most potential users would be outdoors the majority of the time, leading an outdoor lifestyle in bright sunshine,’ said Morrow. ‘E-Ink is far easier to read in direct sunlight than thin film transistor displays and the high contrast and lack of reflectivity makes it ideal for outdoor legibility.’

Another attribute of electronic paper is that power is only required to change the microcapsules from one state to another. Unlike conventional screen technologies, power is not needed to keep the screen in its stable state, which allowed Motorola to use a less expensive battery. Getting the best possible performance out of the battery was a major consideration as many of the phone’s users might not have regular access to electricity.

Nevertheless, the design team was keen to ensure the requirements imposed by its environment did not detract from the phone’s desirability. A great deal of development work went into the battery’s slim design, according to Morrow. ‘We needed to really enhance the battery performance but still keep the phone slim and desirable. We wanted some of the design characteristics of the blade-like RAZR [Motorola’s successful slim mobile phone] and wanted to take that design into a lower-priced handset. We did some very clever work to get the best possible battery performance,’ he said.

The Motofone also had to be able to withstand the rigours of its environment. Unlike most other modern phones it has been designed so there is no split between the screen and the keypad to make it far more durable in dusty environments.

‘We knew it was going to be used in places that were hot, dusty and dirty so we made sure it was very robust,’ said Morrow. ‘With no split lines it is much more durable, making it sweat- and dust-proof. It is not ruggedised as such but because of the E-Ink display type it is not held to the same shock constraints as traditional screens. If you sit on it in your back pocket or drop it, it won’t be damaged.’

Mobile performance was another challenge. Rural areas in many developing countries have weak and sporadic mobile signal coverage so Motofone has two separate antennas — one at each end — to help boost its performance. Most mobile phones have a single antenna that must be tuned to support multiple bands, leading to some compromise on the quality of the signal it can receive. Motorola found the two antennas in the Motofone enable it to hold on to a signal far better than conventional mobiles.

The research in India made some other interesting findings. It found that users there wanted a speaker that could produce loud ringtones, loud enough that the phone could be heard during weddings in particular. Indian weddings are large, noisy affairs that can last for several days and the Indian users wanted a phone that can still be heard during the festivities.

Even the phone’s marketing is being approached in a new way, based on the researcher’s findings.

In India, mobile phones are often sold in grocery stores, rather than in specialist mobile phone shops, as in the UK, so the Motofone is packaged in a cardboard cylinder a little larger than a Coke can, to fit alongside other grocery goods on the shelves.

‘We did as much research as we possibly could before bringing this product to market,’ said Morrow. ‘Its display technology is brand new. Generally when you bring new technology in it starts in top-end products but in this case it is the reverse. This type of technology is likely to cascade upwards to the top-end phones in the future.’

While the phone was developed with Indian rural users in mind, Motorola has carried out more research that appears to show its new product could help fill a gap in the market rather closer to home.

The original research suggested the new phone needed a more icon-driven menu system. The Motofone’s interface uses simple symbols that make everything as literal as possible, with voice prompts in numerous local languages making it easy to use for first-time mobile phone customers.

However, this focus on a simpler menu system is proving popular in western Europe with people Morrow calls ‘the unconnected 50+ range’ — meaning those who have managed to avoid using mobile phones so far.

The Motofone’s set-up allows users to make calls quickly and easily and the voice prompts give simple instructions about the menu and how to perform certain functions such as writing a text message.

It was launched in Italy in February and is now being introduced in the UK, Spain and Germany. With the simple Motofone, Motorola might just have stumbled across the secret ingredient to grab those cash-rich but notoriously hard-to-reach technophobes in the affluent West.