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MEMORY LANE: Dialing into progress

Fri, 07/31/2009 - 8:25pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technologywriter, Denver, Colo.

More than 4 billion citizens of the world now tote around handheld phones.

The first public call from a handheld mobile phone was placed on April 3, 1973, in midtown Manhattan. As was only fitting, the call was placed by Marty Cooper, an indefatigable Motorola engineer and inventor who had strolled outside the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Ave. to Stewart Schleydemonstrate the phone he had long championed and nurtured to life.

Cooper, who had joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in the early 1950s to pay for college at the Illinois Institute of Technology, made the demonstration call on a whim after Motorola had held an official press conference inside the hotel. He called – also fittingly – an engineer at AT&T’s research arm, Bell Laboratories. The published record does not indicate that Cooper uttered any particularly memorable words, such as, “Watson, can you hear me?” but reports indicate the phone worked perfectly as Cooper chatted away on the busy Manhattan street.

Leading up to that moment was not only an intensive engineering effort, but an exercise of faith. In the early 1970s, Cooper began thinking about the possibility of unshackling the technology used in first-generation car phone systems to make phones truly portable. It was an impossible idea, or so it seemed. Car phones were the closest thing the world had to a portable phone, but they were imperfect derivations of two-way radio systems that relied on extremely limited frequencies and required bulky power supplies. Transforming them into handheld objects liberated from external power sources seemed far-fetched. But Cooper, by nature optimistic and determined, had a hunch that fellow engineers would embrace the call. He staged a competition within Motorola, inviting engineers from his own car phone division, and those outside of it, to come up with prototypes and present them at a dinner to be held in December 1972. The stunt reflected a canny reading of the engineer’s psyche. In 90 days, Cooper had his phone.

Or at least he had a starting point. It took 10 years after Cooper’s demonstration phone call for Cooper’s team at Motorola to come up with a commercially deployable model, and even then it seemed like a long shot. The DynaTAC weighed in at 2.2 pounds, allowed 35 minutes of talk time and listed at retail for $4,000.

It’s not surprising that Cooper – by then head of research and development – faced internal pressure to stop fiddling with portable phones and focus instead on improving Motorola’s car phones, which were becoming more popular with business executives. But Cooper never shrunk from his vision: a small, lightweight phone that could be carried around anywhere to make and receive calls and was affordable enough to achieve mass-market presence.

That, of course, is exactly what has happened, as more than 4 billion citizens of the world now tote around handheld phones, rarely stopping to consider that there was a time when making a phone call meant being around a fixed-wire device – inside a home or a building.

It’s instructive to realize that Cooper, now 80, is involved in an ambitious effort to empower a new generation of portable communications devices. His current company, ArrayComm, makes antennas for use in cellular and WiMAX networks, which Cooper believes can do for the budding world of wireless Internet what the DynaTAC and thousands of more nimble successors did for the telephone sector. Among his beliefs, as expressed recently in an interview with The Economist, is the vision that the mobile communications sector will explode with creative possibility as mobile network operators become more comfortable conceding the creation of applications to outside developers. Apple Inc.’s enormous early success in popularizing applications for the iPhone has proven that creativity can flourish – and new markets can open up – when clever people are allowed to get a look under the hood to invent integrated services. Momentum continues to build along this front, as consumer groups and Internet service providers pressure carriers to open up their networks, allowing independent developers to come up with innovative offerings.

When the inventor of the modern cell phone expresses an interest in reformulating the way a category works, it’s worth listening. As cable ops begin to introduce wireless broadband and voice services – dashing headlong into a category dominated by bigger, more experienced rivals like AT&T and Verizon – embracing the idea of open networks and inviting contributions by creative application developers might be one differentiating approach that entices consumers. Of course, cable ops can choose to come to market with closed-network, duplicative, me-too services if they like. But that sort of thinking isn’t what changes the world – or turns a car phone into a worldwide communications phenomenon.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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