Tuesday 12 July 2016

Motorola FONE / MOTOFONE F3 (2006)

Motorola FONE F3
Launched July 2006

The Motorola FONE can make phone calls, it can just about send text messages.. and really that's about it. That was pretty basic even a decade ago, so what was it about the FONE that makes it a landmark device?

Launched ten years ago this month, the Motorola FONE F3 (also known as the MOTOFONE F3) was the first mass-market consumer device to feature an E-Ink display. These days this type of display is very commonly found in eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle, but the FONE beat the Kindle to market by a year.

The display had very low power requirements and could always be "on", unlike a conventional LCD display. And because an E-Ink screen works better in full sunlight, it was easily more usable outdoors than indoors. The display was also fairly cheap to manufacture (although development costs must have been phenomenal), meaning that the FONE was just about the cheapest handset you could buy.

However, the screen itself was very primitive. Unlike a Kindle that can display anything, the FONE was limited to a set of six 14 segment characters on one line to display a loose approximation of letters and numbers, plus six 8 segment characters on another line for numbers. There were a set of predefined icons which could be either on or off. Despite the lack of sophistication, this arrangement did work pretty well.

There were two versions of the FONE, an F3C for US CDMA networks and the plain F3 for the rest of the world. The FONE stayed on sale for a number of years, and is still available today for about £20 or €25 in good condition, which is pretty much what they cost new ten years ago.

As for electronic ink displays.. well, they didn't really take off on phones (apart from the esoteric Yotaphone range), but instead they are very common in eBook readers, fitness bands and as charge indicators in battery-powered devices. In particular the lack of colour and incredibly slow refresh rates limit their usefulness. So in the end, E-Ink wasn't really the breakthrough that it could have been, but it still fills a very important technological niche.

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