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

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

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.”

Editor’s Pick

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

Editor’s Pick

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.

This week in Android: MWC 2019 wrap up

mwc 2019 logo shot with google pixel 3

MWC 2019 has come to a close, and it was one of the most exciting trade shows in recent memory. We got a ton of new and notable technology, and we gave out our awards accordingly. We put our hands on the Huawei Mate X, Huawei’s first foldable phone. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy Fold, the Mate X folds around the outside of the device. It’s a great design, though we can’t decide which is better. Naturally, Huawei is not impressed with Samsung’s efforts. 

Beyond the Mate X, there was a tidal wave of phones coming out of MWC. We saw the Sony Xperia 1, the Nokia 9 Pureview, the LG G8, the LG V50, as well as a host of other connected devices. It was a 5G fest, and that’s just the news in Barcelona. Outside of Spain, we saw new hardware from Google, new hardware for Google Assistant, and a cool new device from HTC.

Here are your top stories from MWC 2019

2:15 – The best phones of MWC 2019

The awards are in! Here are our choices for favorite tech from MWC 2019 — phones and beyond.

4:10 – This smartphone has an 18,000mAh battery, looks dangerously heavy

You always said you’d take a thicker phone if it got you a bigger battery. Energizer is calling your bluff in a big way.

15:45 – Huawei Mate X first look: 5G flexibility in a foldable form factor

Huawei Mate X Foldable Phone Hands On partially folded

The Huawei Mate X brings a lot to the table — a foldable design, 5G, and monster specs — but it’s going to cost a lot as well.

30:45 – Nokia 9 PureView hands-on: Five cameras aim for mobile magic

Nokia’s next PureView camera is here, and this time it has five sensors. We’ve got all the specifications for you and we’ll even tell you where to pick one up.

37:15 – LG G8 ThinQ hands-on: Bland on the outside, blistering on the inside

The LG G8 is LG’s latest flagship is a little boring on the outside, but it’s packing some great internals that will keep you going all day.

LG V50 ThinQ hands-on: A safe bet on 5G

LG V50 ThinQ 5G logo closeup

Meanwhile, LG announced its first 5G phone, the LG V50, and we’ve got all the details you need to know, including the future of LG’s 5G phones.

45:30 – Xiaomi announces Mi Mix 3 5G: Snapdragon 855, 5G connectivity for 599 euros

Meanwhile, Xiaomi announced its first 5G phone with a familiar look and a surprising price tag.

51:15 – Sony Xperia 1, 10, and 10 Plus hands-on: embracing the super tall display

Sony is taking things to the tallest extreme with a large forehead and a 21:9 aspect ratio, just like in the movies!

Here are your some other stories from MWC 2019 and beyond Barcelona

2:30 – Nubia just announced a phone-smartwatch hybrid with a flexible screen and it looks insane

Nubia has a new smartphone/smartwatch hybrid with a flexible screen and a camera module. It’s pretty sci-fi looking, but is it for you?

19:30 – HTC 5G Hub is an ultra-powerful Android smart display and a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot

Speaking of hybrids, HTC has a Google Home/tablet/hotspot hybrid device that will power your home network, or the rest of your devices on the go.

32:10 – Motorola RAZR foldable phone is still coming soon

We’re not done with foldable phones yet because Motorola confirmed that its foldable is coming soon.

39:55 – Physical Google Assistant buttons are coming to more phones along with new features

Google Assistant is getting a dedicated button on a lot more phones, and with that some added functionality.

47:40 – The Google Pixel 3 Lite and Pixel 3 XL Lite are probably coming soon

And of course, that’s not the only hardware we’ll be seeing sooner rather than later, we hope.

Meanwhile, here is a story we couldn’t cover on either podcast

Samsung Galaxy Fold is just for rich people, and Samsung knows it

Samsung seems to have a pretty good idea who will buy the Galaxy Fold, but we’re still trying to figure out who the Galaxy S10e is for.

Who wants to win a Samsung Galaxy S10?

This week, we’re giving away a brand new Samsung Galaxy S10Enter this week’s Sunday giveaway for your chance to win!

Don’t miss these videos

That’s it, folks! We’ll have another giveaway and more top Android stories for you next week. To stay up to date on all things Android Authority in the meantime, be sure to subscribe to our newsletters at the link below.

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This week in Android: It’s weird phone week

We got to play with a lot of cool tech at CES 2019, but little was cooler than the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855. Qualcomm had a reference device sporting the new SoC and we were able to put it through its paces, including our very own Speed Test G. The results are impressive.

In other big news this week, we found out Motorola is planning on bringing back the Razr phone, made famous in the mid 2000s. We don’t know a lot about the phone itself, but we can make some guesses based on a patent from August of last year.

Plus, we look ahead at the future of LG and OnePlus, including a new peculiar accessory for LG. Also, we have good news and bad news about Huawei’s security.

Here are your top stories for the week

4:20 – Snapdragon 855 performance and benchmarking: Speed Test G, AnTuTu & Geekbench

At CES, Gary Sims previewed the Snapdragon 855 processor in reference hardware. He had some fun with it.

21:45 – You’ll flip for the foldable Motorola Razr smartphone reboot

Motorola (read: Lenovo) is talking about releasing a new version of the Razr phone, this time with a folding screen.

34:40 – Google Pixel 3 Lite leaks in video review: Should you expect flagship photo quality?

The back of the Google Pixel 3 Lite. Andro News

The Google Pixel 3 Lite wanted to be just like its older siblings and come out with a full leak before its official announcement. Mission accomplished.

44:20 – Yes, there is a system-wide dark theme in this early Android Q build

You’ve been asking for it. Google’s giving it to you. A full, system-wide dark theme for those late-night phone-using sessions.

Meanwhile, here are some stories we couldn’t cover on the podcast

OnePlus in 2019: A force to be reckoned with

OnePlus made some remarkable strides in 2018, including working with a U.S. carrier for the first time. Will OnePlus be able to keep that momentum going in 2019?

Huawei Mate 20 Pro camera review

Huawei Mate 20 Pro triple camera close up

We took a deep dive into the camera on Huawei’s latest flagship and the results are a little surprising. No spoilers here though. You gotta click through.

LG in 2019: No more excuses

LG has not made great strides in the mobile space of late. It’s time for LG to do something to finally gain some world-wide ground.

LG might make a phone you can add another screen to… no joke

But honestly, LG, this probably isn’t it.

Opinion: Slider phones might seem cool, but are a design dead end

Slider phones are a great way to get smaller bezels, but they’re not a permanent solution. We break down why.

Huawei founder breaks years-long public silence to talk company security

The founder of Huawei had a few things to say about security and how the company handles security. Which is nice and all, but…

Huawei is reportedly under federal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department

Now don’t get us wrong, this particular case isn’t as bad as it sounds, but it’s not good either.

Xiaomi’s new in-display fingerprint sensor solves one big issue

Xiaomi showed off a video of a new kind of in-screen fingerprint sensor which has a larger touch area, making it easier to unlock your phone.

Galaxy S10 Plus photo leak: Is this Samsung’s new flagship?

A Samsung Galaxy S10 was spotted in the wild. Check it out here!

Who wants to win a Samsung Galaxy Note 9?

This week, we’re giving away a brand new Samsung Galaxy Note 9Enter this week’s Sunday giveaway for your chance to win!

Don’t miss these videos

That’s it, folks! We’ll have another giveaway and more top Android stories for you next week. To stay up to date on all things Android Authority in the meantime, be sure to subscribe to our newsletters at the link below.

Join our newsletters!

Join over 200,000 subscribers for the latest tech reviews, hot deals, and exciting giveaways.
We guarantee 100% privacy. Your information will never be shared. Sign up now and get FREE access to our upcoming exclusive AA Insiders Club: