50th Anniv – The Vision

50th Anniv – The Vision

I am doing a post a day leading up to the 50th anniversary of the first wireless phone call by our friend Marty Cooper. Yesterday, I talked about the seminal moment that birthed the mobile industry on April 3rd, 1973. Today, let’s focus on how Motorola and not AT&T came up with the first cell phone against unsurmountable odds.

Take yourself back in time to 1972. That’s when the scene is set in Chapter 3 of “Cutting the Cord.” Bell Labs and AT&T had dominated the innovation in telephony for almost 100 years so how come it didn’t see the mobile market the way Marty and Motorola saw it. Practically having invented the cellular system, AT&T didn’t lack resources. It had the best engineers and an unlimited budget. It was a monopoly of the highest order. FCC was about to grant them monopoly over the cellular market for years to come because, well, as AT&T said, “No one else could make it work” and the “market” is what AT&T thought the market is i.e. car phones and they forecasted they will have 2M subs which turned out to be accurate.

However, there was one major reason AT&T missed the initial cellular market (it won’t be the last time). Actually, there were a couple of reasons. First, was of course, Marty. He saw the market and its evolution very differently. While AT&T was looking at the car phone for inspiration, Marty’s eyes were set on the portable radio system Motorola had designed for the Chicago Police Department. He understood humans better than his competitors did. He knew that humans are inherently mobile and will prefer a device that can make the call from anywhere. Believe me, it was a radical concept in early 1970s. The second reason was that the Motorola team consisted of what Steve Jobs called “The Crazy Ones.” The industrial designers, RF engineers, circuit designers, software and hardware engineers were inspired by Marty’s vision, and it came all together in those 3 months starting in Dec 1972.

It was also a reaction to the existential threat the AT&T proposal posed to Motorola. Had FCC granted AT&T (and only AT&T) the licenses, they would have dominated for many years before competition would have been allowed. AT&T and the upstart Motorola had a love/annoyance relationship. AT&T knew that Motorola was the best in the business at producing gear but were annoyed by their vocal disagreements to the proposal.

So, it all came down to the vision.

Just like how Nokia had all the resources and was on top of the hill but just couldn’t fathom a market for touch screen phones while Apple clearly saw it and believed in it, Motorola had a different and more radical vision of the cellular market than AT&T did. That’s where AT&T despite its significant heft, slipped, and Motorola rose.

AT&T’s car phone weighed 30 pounds to Marty’s 2.5 pounds.

Of course, it will take another 10 years to commercialize the cell phone, but Marty’s call had put he dominoes in motion. There was a whole team behind that call. Marty talks about Rudy Krolopp, Don Linder, Chuck Lynk, John Mitchell, Bob Galvin, Bill Weisz, and countless others, many unsung heroes who collaborated against all odds and created history.

Dreamers are the ones who see the future and create it.