News

Motorola enters the touch-phone music business

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

LAS VEGAS -- Nodding to what consumers seem to want from a phone, considering Apple's success with the iPhone, Motorola on Sunday introduced a new music phone with touch-screen controls.

The Rokr E8 is the next iteration of the Schaumburg, Ill., company's music phones and this one has some intriguing features. Using Motorola's version of touch controls, what it calls "haptics," the phone can switch from music to call mode with the touch of a button.

A virtual keypad sits on the glass-like front of the phone with one button dedicated to music. Touch that button and the keypad disappears and music controls appear.

"The real story is the morphing keypad," said Jeremy Dale, a Motorola vice president for mobile devices. "We have cluttered devices with far too many buttons, so with this, when it's a phone, it's a phone and when it's a music player, it's a music player."

Motorola could use a hit. The company has fallen into third place in global phone sales, behind Nokia and Samsung, and Ed Zander, who ushered in the Razr, resigned late last year.

The black, slim Rokr E8, which looks a bit like a blank tablet when the keypad is dark, is compatible with Microsoft's music software. You may recall the first Rokr phone was compatible with Apple's iTunes, but that partnership went sour in part because the phone could only hold 100 songs.

The Rokr phone has internal memory that can hold 2gb worth of music, which is about 500 songs transferred at a decent bit rate, plus users can add more songs with a 4gb storage card.

The phone should be available in the United States in April, Dale said. No carrier agreement or pricing was announced.

Another interesting phone, the Z10, was introduced. This phone has what Motorola calls a kick-slide design and it focuses on video recording and playback.

In a demonstration, Dale showed a short video made on the phone by an actor pretending to be his nephew during a trip to Vegas. Shot entirely on the phone, the humorous video was also edited on the phone, music was added and it could have been directly uploaded to YouTube.

"It's filmmaking on the fly," Dale said. The Z10 is also expected in April, but pricing and carrier agreements were not announced.

If there's a product category that Motorola has done well in delivering compelling products in recent years, it's with accessories for mobile phones, particularly with Bluetooth products.

Motorola will try to build upon that strength with a new line of music playing accessories, including two lines of Bluetooth wireless speakers, the EQ5 and EQ7. The speakers will connect to most digital music players, phones and computers that can send stereo Bluetooth signals.

The EQ5's are pocket-sized and portable while the more robust EQ7's use speaker technology from JBL and are designed for home use. Prices weren't announced and they will be available in the second quarter, the company said.

Likewise, Motorola is upgrading its Rokr S9 Bluetooth stereo headphones, a product I reviewed favorably last year. The new version, the S9-HD will reduce ambient noise to improve sound, the company said. A clip-style Bluetooth headset was also announced and both products will be available in the second quarter.

What's the first thing most people think about when they wake up each morning? The weather, and Wisconsin's La Crosse Technology introduced a new personal weather gadget for the home on Monday that wirelessly connects to the Web to always keep the forecast current.

The product line, called Weather Direct, will be available in the spring and prices will range from $60 to $150 for 10 different models.

Even the low-end units will have a wireless Web connection, but the high-end models will also include tools that make this much more than a device for weather updates.

It will have audio features, including the ability to read e-mail, and you can set an audible alarm that will issue a weather report: "Good morning, Eric. It's 29 degrees outside and snowing."

Also, some models will send users RSS feeds for the news they want, such as updates for a favorite sports team.

Weather is updated four times daily -- more if severe weather is in the area -- and the forecasts are provided by the National Weather Service. A sensor can be placed outside a user's home, too, to provide that extremely local temperature along with the area forecast.

There are other weather gadgets in the market, including a $70 product at Brookstone, but the flexibility the Internet connection provides makes this an interesting option.

A few other products of note:

Radar is a mobile phone service for parents to monitor the messages kids get on their mobile phones. Parents set up an approved list of people who can call, text, e-mail or send a picture message to their kids. If someone else sends one of those messages, the parent is alerted in real time. It costs $10 a month and you can learn more at Mymobilewatchdog.com.

I'm not very good at video games but I loved this product, the First Person Shooter Vest. The gamer puts the vest on and when they get shot, the vest is blown with a localized blast of air to simulate the feeling of getting shot. Now, of course, it's not really like getting shot, rather it feels like someone is giving you a massage. So if you're a bad gamer, it can be quite relaxing to get blown away. Go to TNgames.com, where the vest is $169.

Flytunes is a neat idea launching in a few weeks. The company will feed Internet radio stations to mobile phones and other devices. It will launch with the iPhone and iPod Touch before adding other gadgets. You set the type of music you like and Flytunes provides the stations. It will be a free service.

The Ice Rage line of portable mice was among the coolest things I saw. They just started shipping to online stores including TigerDirect.com. The mice work with both Macs and PCs and can be connected via USB or wirelessly through Bluetooth. The best part is style; the Pocket Mouse in particular is small, slim and colorful (they look like iPod Nanos before the recent redesign). They literally can slip into a pocket and cost $60 or $70 -- but go for the pricier model because the company, Virtuu USA, will include a Bluetooth dongle, a great value.

For uber-geeks and hobbyists, how about making your own gadgets? Well, pretty soon you can, as a company called Bug Labs (buglabs.net) will be releasing a product kit -- think Legos and Lincoln Logs -- for piecing together your own digital camera, game player or something else. It will sell a base, or a building platform, that runs Linux software and has numerous connections, including Wi-Fi. You plug in modules for what you want to build. It looked very cool and the company will encourage developers to write programming code to help even non-geeks like me with drag-and-drop ideas to help run the gadgets. This is geeky, but real fun. It's coming soon.

(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune.)

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