Martin Cooper, chairman and CEO of ArrayComm, holds a Motorola DynaTAC, a 1973 prototype of the first handheld cellular telephone in San Francisco, Wednesday April 2, 2003. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)
Dreams of wireless freedom
Martin Cooper, the man who invented the portable phone, says more competition is the key to finally achieving his vision of communications
Last Updated November 19, 2007
By Peter Nowak, CBC News
The telephone has, since its inception, been inextricably linked with Canada. Scotland-born Alexander Graham Bell developed the telephone, at least partially, in the late 19th century at his family home in Nova Scotia. The cellphone too, owes part of its lineage to Canada.
Chicago-born Martin Cooper, now 78, invented the portable personal phone in 1973 while working for Motorola in the United States, but spent his early years living in Winnipeg.
Cooper now runs San Jose-based ArrayComm, a company devoted to finding ways of cramming more calls and data onto wireless networks. He discussed the past, present and future of cellphones with CBCNews.ca.
In other interviews, you've said you're uncomfortable with the title of "father of the cellphone." Is that true?
If you qualify it and talk about the portable cellphone, then I'm comfortable with that. The concept of cellular was actually created by Bell Laboratories, but just think of what the world would have been like if they'd had their way. Their view of cellular telephony around 1970 was car telephones, so the whole genesis of the portable cellular phone was to stop them from retarding the world and to get us moving to where we ended up going with really true personal communications. That was really the issue. The only thing I don't like is being called the "grandfather of the cellphone" because that makes me a little older than I prefer to be.
What's your current mobile device and what's your favourite feature on it?
I have to be current on everything. You would really laugh at me if you watched me walk around with my three phones, all on my belt. Of course I have an iPhone and I use that, interestingly enough, mostly for my calendar because it synchronizes with my calendar. I take pictures with it and I show people pictures of my grandchildren.
"The whole concept of a universal device, a device that does all things for all people, in my judgment probably doesn't do any of them very well."— Martin Cooper
I've got a Motorola phone, which is the latest version of the Razr. Interestingly enough that has the best actual phone features.
If I want to make a voice call that's very convenient, it turns out that my most convenient phone is one called the Jitterbug, which you may or may not be familiar with. It's a simple phone and does what the first phone we ever created does – would you believe it makes phone calls, and that's about all it does? But it does it superbly because it has only the buttons you need to make a call and you don't need an instruction manual. The instruction manual for my Motorola phone is bigger and heavier than the phone. The Jitterbug phone, every button on it does exactly what it says and nothing more.
There's actually a power on/off button, you don't have to read bars to know whether you have a signal. You open the phone and if you have a dial tone you've got a signal. That's my most convenient phone. And the unique thing about the Jitterbug is that my wife invented it.
It's an interesting retro-innovation, isn't it?
Well, one of the things I'm sure you're thinking about is whether we're really achieving the dream of wireless. Are we really serving all of the constituencies in all of the different ways that wireless can help people?
Obviously the impact has been enormous. The way we changed the world is we changed the whole concept of what a phone call is, because pre-portable cellular – which didn't really happen before 1990 – a phone call was to a place. You dialed a number and you were calling a location. Today, almost always when you dial a number if it's a cellular number you're dialing a person. It doesn't sound like much but it's really a profound change.
But meanwhile, the way in which the cellular world has approached people is like they're trying to make us all homogeneous, they're trying to make us all the same person. If you go into a cellular store in Toronto you'll see a wide variety of phones and they'll have – incidentally, aside from the ability to make a phone call – MP3 players, web access, cameras, all kinds of features, most of which few of us use. Do you really need all of these features? Some people do and some people don't.
"Good technology is invisible."— Martin Cooper
One of the ways in which we have to work harder in order to fulfill the dream is to customize the product to different constituencies. The way the business people are doing that with PDAs, which are very different, we've got to start doing that to the rest of the constituencies.
That's starting to happen with people going after teenagers; the Jitterbug is going after boomers and seniors. We have a long way to go to achieve real personalization in letting people do what they want to do with their own device. The whole concept of a universal device, a device that does all things for all people, in my judgment probably doesn't do any of them very well.
It sounds like you subscribe to some of the same principles being put forward by Google, where the phone should be like a computer where you hook it up to a network and then put what you want on it. Should the customization of phones be driven by the hardware maker or is it a software issue, where the user buys a blank slate and does what they want with it?
The direct answer to your question is both, obviously. The whole concept of the computer, and I know this is heretic, [revolves around] how many people compute on their computer? The whole idea of having a universal device has forced us all to become computer experts. That's not really the objective. If you want to improve productivity, you want to make the device transparent.
Good technology is invisible. My favourite example of good technology is the automobile. I travel all over the world and if I want to drive a car anywhere, I get in and put the key in the ignition, shift out of park and drive. I don't need an instruction manual. When I want to buy a car, I can customize that car and personalize it to every little detail. You can pick how many cup holders you have because the car manufacturers are competing to serve every conceivable market place. That ought to be what the dream is for personal communications.
Of course we're going to have web access for certain individuals, but it's not going to be the same as web access when you've got a 19-inch screen sitting on your desk. There are going to be some kind of adjustments not unlike this concept of calling a person instead of a place. The whole idea of, "let's take the desktop experience and put it on the person" is faulty.
To get back to the question, it is going to be a combination of software and hardware. We're going to see a lot of different devices and ways of customizing them to individuals.
There are two elements to every phone call you make. One is the transport, so for a wired phone it's actually the wire itself. The second is the interface; it's what you're actually doing. What we're going to see in the future is splitting those two things apart. You're going to be able to choose what transport you want, and some people may actually want to stick with a wire, but everybody is going to be doing wireless. We're absolutely moving in that direction.
But now we've got the second element, which are the features and the applications. You're going to have a whole lot of choices, just like you have now when you buy a car. If you want a device that's superb at taking pictures and delivering them instantaneously to the person that wants to see them, you'll have an optimum device that does that instead of a universal device with a huge instruction manual.
How do we get to that point? Google and Apple have said wireless providers are holding us back from getting to that point. Is that an accurate assessment?
I like to think of things in positive terms, so let me tell you how it's going to get fixed. Broken is maybe too strong a word, but it's not the way we dreamed it and the way I dream it now.
"The talking part of cellphones has been with us for a generation, and the rest of it we're still trying to figure out. We're just getting started."— Martin Cooper
The real solution is competition and in that sense, Google is right. We need more players. Look at how many different people are fighting for your business when you go out and buy a car. We're about to see a world where there are more carriers and new technology, which is bringing the cost of cellular technology down even further. It's much, much cheaper than it was 10 or 20 years ago and that cost is going to keep going down. The cost of broadband is going down. The combination of competition and lower costs is going to force the operators to provide new, different services and they're going to figure out what we really want, and this problem is going to get solved.
There's been a lot of hype about WiMax, but the real truth is that mobile WiMax is going to do what the existing technologies do but it's going to do it at a much lower cost and with somewhat higher data speeds. It's going to force existing companies to reach out for new technologies, which they're already doing.
The emphasis is not about technology; it's about how to make our lives better. All these wireless technologies can not only make us more productive, they can educate us, entertain us, they can make us feel safer, they can improve our convenience and the whole concept of medical applications can be enormously enhanced.
How does cellphone usage affect the average person and the economy of a country as a whole?
The fundamental element is freedom. Think about how life was like before we had cellphones. Whatever you wanted to do, if you wanted to stay in touch you had to stay home or stay in your office. The whole concept of the office is based upon people knowing where you are. If they can reach you or you can reach them wherever you are, all of a sudden an office becomes somewhat redundant.
[With mobility] you decide when you're going to be in the office, not "oh I better be in my office so the boss or my customer can reach me." When we launched the first radio pagers, guess who bought them? Doctors, because they were really trapped. If they had a patient that was in trouble, they had to hang around the hospital. All of a sudden they could take off and go fishing and if their patient got in trouble they could get back there in a few minutes.
The second issue is one of cost. If you look at music, CD purchases are going down but people are listening to more and more varied music than they were before because now if people want to listen to something, they just download it. The ultimate is downloading it wherever you are when you want it. If it's done properly, why would anyone ever go to a store and buy a piece of plastic in a cardboard box when they want to listen to a song? It sounds dumb, doesn't it?
Taking pictures is similar. This whole concept of buying a roll of film and then taking it to a store and coming back a day later [is outdated]. The real solution is having a camera with two buttons — one takes a picture, the other delivers it to whoever wants to see it instantly. In that way our lives are really being changed.
We're still learning, it takes a generation for a new technology to really have an impact. The talking part of cellphones has been with us for a generation, and the rest of it we're still trying to figure out. We're just getting started.
In getting beyond just voice, how much is Asia or Europe ahead of North America in offering those things?
The Japanese have picked up on a lot of new features and done it in a way I think is admirable. The first new applications in Japan were essentially games. The most popular feature was I-mode, where when the subscriber first turned the phone on in the morning, or first looked at it, they would see a new character on the screen. People paid $2 or $3 a month just for that feature. That's all it did, nothing more, but it got people into the concept of living with their phone and looking forward to something different. They gradually got accustomed to what the phone could do, which led them into being much more innovative.But if you think about it, the Japanese have not used credit cards very much in the past, so in essence they're kind of leap-frogging [with mobile payment systems]. We have very excellent systems and people are very accustomed to take care of such things, so you might think of it as Asia is solving problems we don't have, and they're solving it with future technology.
At some point, our operators will find some ways of solving problems or improving our lives in ways we think are important, and you may find that we will catch up if you want to talk about this as a race. This is another example in which the way [we are behind] doesn't really represent reality. I don't think it's really a question of one culture being behind another, it's a case of different approaches to solving problems.
With ArrayCom, you're looking at ways to cram more calls onto a network. Does that apply to data transfer as well?
Absolutely, there is no distance between calls and data. Everything we do now is data. When you make a phone call, your voice gets turned into data on the phone. The real issue is the cost of service. If we get the cost down and the data [speed] rate up and you introduce competition, you're going to find there will be tons of new applications. That's really what ArrayCom does. If you can get more data out of every [cellphone] station, you don't need as many stations and the cost ends up going down. Lower costs means the operator can offer more services for the same amount of money.
The amount of money that the average person can afford to spend on communications is pretty much fixed. The number is probably about $30 or $40 a month. When you start offering services like the data services now at $60 or $70 a month, a whole bunch of people are disenfranchised. That's what ArrayCom does — we want the cost to get down so you can have tons and tons of services for that same $30 a month.
How long will it take before data usage explodes? Is there a sentiment out there that it's still just all about voice?
It is all about voice. You can listen to all the hype but the reality is the [carriers] are bragging that data revenue is up to 16 per cent [of total wireless revenue]. What is that so-called data? Most of it is texting, so cellular is still voice no matter how you cut it. Technology is always ahead of the ability of people to absorb technology.
What you refer to as an explosion is going to take at least a generation. WiMax was introduced three or four years ago and it's going to be another 10 years before it has a real impact, before it's widely deployed and competing with the [existing] GSM and CDMA systems. An explosion in the sense of changing peoples' lives takes a generation.
You mentioned you had an iPhone. What do you think of it? Some people have dubbed it the "Jesus" phone because it can work miracles. Is that what it is?
I don't think so. The iPhone has some really nice features and in that sense it's a wonderful gadget. It is without question the best way to show pictures to other people. The touch screen is superb, although some parts aren't as good as others. I have a lot of trouble with my contacts, for example.
The real contribution of the iPhone is as a platform for innovation. It's given us an opportunity to see different ways of doing stuff and it's part of this evolutionary process. If it's going to take 10 or 15 years for us to move to a new stage where people are going to use more data than voice, then there's going to be a lot of changes to the user interface during that period. In that sense, the iPhone is a really seminal contribution. But I would hardly call it the "Jesus" phone, especially at $400.
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