Marty Cooper quite literally invented the cellphone during his tenure as a division manager at Motorola, demonstrating it for the first time in April of 1973 when he famously called his chief rival — Bell Labs' Joel Engel — to personally deliver the news that he'd been beaten. In the years since, he's been a successful entrepreneur several times over, most recently working with his wife on GreatCall, the company that offers the simple Jitterbug phone targeted at seniors. We had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Cooper for a call last week that spanned nearly an hour and a wide array of topics, from his time working on two-way radios in the pre-cellular years to the so-called "spectrum crunch" that's dominating headlines today.
Image credit: dsearls (Flickr)
"I wouldn't use a phone with less than a 4-inch screen anymore."
What are you up to these days? What's keeping you busy?
I do two things. The thing I do that I have the most fun with is I'm automating my house, but that's not the work part.
Do you have a Nest?
I had my new system put in before that came out, but I do control my thermostat by Wi-Fi. I've got a central computer that actually controls everything. It knows when sunrise and sunset is, it knows when it's raining, all those kinds of things. You can write programs based upon all those things, but I haven't figured how to do a program that actually learns. That's a great idea, and I bet somebody could do it.
At any rate, I do a lot of speaking. I'm on a couple of government committees, the [NTIA's] commerce spectrum management committee, the FCC's spectrum advisory committee, and I write. So that keeps me occupied.
What phone are you using right now, and why are you using it?
Actually, I'm talking to you on a Droid RAZR. I have a new phone I would guess every six months, although I'm being sorely tested lately because the phones are coming out so fast. I only had a Bionic for one month until they came out with the RAZR. Each time they get a little better, and I think they're pretty much on a par now — if you know how to use them — with the iPhone.
Do you have an eye on what you might upgrade to next?
Well, I haven't done Windows Phone yet. At some point, that's going to be important. But the one thing that I'm hooked on is a big screen. I wouldn't use a phone with less than a 4-inch screen anymore.
You've done a lot of great things — not just at Motorola, of course, but since then you've co-founded companies. GreatCall is doing well. What are you most proud of?
That's a really hard question you ask, because it depends on what part of your career you're talking about. I think an engineer has not matured until he or she has conceived of a product and participated in every stage of bringing it to fruition, if that makes sense. And not many engineers get to do all of those stages. I actually did that once in my career, this was probably before you were born. We came out with would you believe a 12-channel mobile telephone. I don't know if you know what IMTS is, but that was the predecessor to cellular. It came out in 1963, and we ended up — even though Bell Labs was trying to put other people out of business — we ended up with like 98 percent share of the market. And the whole phone was mine, the mobile radio and everything, but we have a device called the channel element in the phone. Each frequency had its own oscillator, if you could imagine that. Are you a techie?
I am, very much so.
Good for you. Just to get to the end of the story, I invented a box where you could plug these oscillators in. And at that time adjusting the oscillators was really a problem, you had to have very fancy measurement equipment to do it. Well, this box had a precision oscillator, and all you had to do was plug the oscillator into it, you had an adjustment on the top, and a light would flash. And when the light stopped flashing you'd hear a tone, and when the tone got down to nothing you were exactly on frequency. So I conceived of the principle of doing that, and this happened with whatever frequency channel device you had. So I thought about the idea to design the circuitry. I had people build it, we went into production, I marketed the thing, and I tell you, you really learn a lot doing those things. So that was kind of important at that stage of my career.
The most important thing in cellular... sure, I'm proud of having conceived of the first cellphone, but the idea of why that was done was much more a sense of pride. That was we had to beat AT&T — we had to beat the monopoly. And remember, that wasn't the same AT&T as today. We took on, this little company in Chicago, took on the biggest company in the world by every measure. And we beat 'em. If AT&T had won and they would still be a monopoly — by the way, that's starting to happen again, and I hope that doesn't happen...
Is it true that your first call was to a Bell Labs engineer? Is this an accurate story?
It was actually to the guy that was running the whole Bell System cellular program. Joel Engel was in effect... I was running the whole Motorola cellular program, I was a division manager at that time, and he was the AT&T equivalent. I have to tell you, to this day, he resents what Motorola did in those days. They thought that we were a gnat, an obstacle. They had a vision, and their vision was that they were going to run this thing, and do it in their way... and of course, as I mentioned before, we believed in competition and lots of players. And we also believed — our religion was portables, because people are mobile. And here they were trying to make a car telephone and a monopoly on top of that. So that battle was the reason that we built that phone. We built the phone to prove to the world that you didn't have to have a monopoly running the business, you didn't have to have those resources to make cellular a reality.
"I really don't think [the LightSquared] problem exists. I think the FCC decision was more political than technical."
What developments in mobile in the years since have surprised you the most?
Remember, when we made that first portable — you've seen pictures of it, I assume — there were no large-scale integrated circuits. There were no digital cameras. There were no personal computers. There was certainly no internet, no world wide web. So how could you ever imagine that in my lifetime there would be tens of millions of transistors in a cellphone? And doing all the things you could do with that computing power. It happened gradually enough so that I don't think there was any moment of surprise, but I'm still amazed.
Every time I look at a cellphone and see how we struggled in the old days... you know, the reason we built that first phone, people believe the story that it was built in three months, which it was. But in order to do that, we had to have a computer, which at that time was just kind of a medium-scale computer, that had a low enough drain to put it in a cellphone. So we had been struggling with this drain thing, and even with that, the DynaTAC had a battery life of 20 minutes, 20 minutes of talking. And it took the best technology available to make that happen, and now we complain if you can't get two days, and instead of running a couple thousand transistors, you're running 10 or 20 million transistors. Quite incredible.
The competitive landscape in the American wireless market is very different than in the old AMPS days where we had two carriers. Do you think we're in a healthy market now? How could it be improved?
Oh, it absolutely could be improved. You know, I was completely opposed to the AT&T / T-Mobile merger. I really hope LightSquared fixes their problem, because I really don't think that problem exists. I think the FCC decision was more political than technical. But the more competition, the better. The only problem is that the carriers have not yet really learned how to compete. With the exception of the carriers that you're familiar with that are competing on price, the product line at AT&T and at Verizon and at every other big carrier are almost identical.
So, is that competition? Well, in a way it is. They are certainly competing on performance. But at some point, the systems are all going to be functioning, they're all going to be LTE, so they're going to need to do something to differentiate themselves so they can serve some customers better than others. And that, I think, is the next stage in the industry. Somehow or another, we need to start customizing. People are different from each other, and they ought to have a wide variety of phones. Every year when I hold a discussion about all these smartphones... for all practical purposes, they're almost identical. You have to be an expert like you are to discriminate between the Bionic and the RAZR and the Galaxy. The differences are almost subtle. And yet, the differences between people are quite remarkable. So you ought to be able to go into a store or go on the web and order a phone that has exactly the characteristics that you want. Just like you do when you buy a car. My wife has forced me to wear designer jeans, and I find... there must be two or three hundred different kinds of jeans you can wear, all of which are made out of denim and look roughly the same. People are different. They have different tastes, different bodies. Cellphones ought to be the same.
"There has never been a scarcity of spectrum, and I suggest there never will be."
So do you think that LTE is the answer for all of these networks that are competing head to head?
I was actually a little disappointed. You know, I really do believe that competition is better. If you only have one standard, then they'll be trying to make LTE better other than following some pressure that the carriers put on. And the pressure is going to be capacity, and they really haven't started to do that.
You probably were not aware that LTE, as it's presently constituted, has maybe worse capacity but certainly not any better than HSPA. And why is that? The big advantage of LTE, part of it is that it's data-oriented, but the biggest one is that it accommodates smart antennas. And when LTE gets a little more mature, there are going to be smart antennas on every cell site and in every phone. When that happens, the capacity of LTE is going to be up by one or two orders of magnitude. And we will either have lower prices or better service, or likely what's going to happen is we'll be using more data and we're still going to be pushing, trying to squeeze more out of the spectrum.
Carriers — particularly AT&T — and the FCC are all insistent that we're all going into this spectrum crunch brought about by all this growth in smartphone data usage. Do you think it's a fair assessment, or are there things that spectrum licensees aren't doing already to squeeze everything they can out of the spectrum they have available to them?
There has never been a scarcity of spectrum, and I suggest there never will be. Because as fast as the requirements happen, as people demand more and more spectrum, the technologists come up with answers.
And you don't think there's a limit to that?
Absolutely not. If in your reading, you haven't encountered Cooper's Law yet...
I have. Every 30 months...
Yes! I'm very flattered. If you draw that curve, it goes up indefinitely, and I guess the statement I make is that certainly for the next fifty years, we know enough about the technology to know that we can keep following that curve. Doubling the capacity of the spectrum, in effect, every two and a half years. And if that's the case, it's very likely that we will be able to keep up with the data requirements.
It's going to take other things as well. Other things, smart antennas... but every time you hear about what the engineers are thinking about — they're offloading onto Wi-Fi when they have to, they're developing more efficient applications. So it takes everything, but we are going to follow that exponential growth curve.
And do you think that's also dependent on freeing up additional spectrum ranges for carriers to use, or do you think the spectrum they already have available to them is sufficient?
Just think about it. They're thinking about giving carriers an incremental amount of spectrum of maybe ten percent. Cisco just estimated — they've been doing estimates every year — they say within the next three or four years we're going to need twenty times the capacity. So you explain to me how adding ten percent more spectrum has any influence at all in solving a problem of twenty times. So, I think that's the answer.
So it's more of a technology solution than a raw spectrum solution?
Of course. The reason that carriers keep looking for more spectrum is that it's in their blood. You own spectrum, you have a monopoly on that spectrum. People love monopolies, companies do. But we consumers don't. I want more competition. I think T-Mobile can be successful, Sprint can be successful, but they won't be successful playing the same game that AT&T and Verizon play. They're going to have to figure out a strategy.
When was the first time you figured out that phones might evolve into the data-hungry devices that they are today? Because clearly, in 1973, voice was the focus, right? Not data. But when did it occur to you that this might happen?
Well, you know, you have to go back to the two-way radio days. We found out in... oh, I guess you have to go back to the 1950s, that there were companies that could not exist without a data system to support their business. We didn't call it data at that time... we called them "software-based systems," whatever it was. But as an example, the concrete mixing companies found out that in order to be competitive, they had to have a computer that kept track of all these different kinds of concrete. There must be 50 different kinds of concrete. They needed to keep track of where the trucks are, make sure that they get dispatched properly. And all of that system was automated and run by data. And that was a competitive business, and the only way you could run it was to have this kind of software.
At that time, we were in the hardware business, right? We were selling two-way radios. And so we gave away the software, until we discovered that the software systems — these dispatch systems — were costing multiples of what the hardware was. So at that time, you start to get a glimmer that what we call data today was going to be important. The only thing that made this thing practical in the cellular business was large-scale integrated circuits. As soon as you could accommodate the processing, it was obvious that data was going to be important. But until then, the only data systems were two-way radios because you could never get the current drain right.
"It all came together in April of 1973, and the purpose was the battle and we won the battle to the benefit of all consumers today."
And looking back at that original DynaTAC with that giant battery... considering the technology that you had available to you at that time, have you ever looked back and thought "I would have done this or that differently"?
Well, think about it. Why did we make that phone? To win a battle, and we won. So why would we have done anything different? I think when we looked into it, the timing was just right. We couldn't have made it any smaller, we couldn't have reduced the current drain and made the battery life any longer. We used the absolute best technology that was available, and we were in that area making portable communications. Even though we were a little company, we were still the best in the world because we had been working on it for years.
I used to wander around the laboratories urging people to make me a synthesizer so I could have lots of channels in a radio with low drain. How about making me an antenna that will work at 1,000 megahertz? Can you imagine that? Nobody could visualize... we were selling radios at 150 megahertz and telling the FCC that that was the highest you could ever operate for a two-way radio. So we had been working on all this technology for years, and it all came together in April of 1973, and the purpose was the battle and we won the battle to the benefit of all consumers today.
Of course, the DynaTAC went on to be a classic design. Even today, when people see that phone, they can instantly identify it.
Interesting. As I told you before, I speak a lot, and I carry that original phone with me, and people still burst out laughing when I bring it out because it looks so huge.
Who has inspired you in the wireless industry and in other industries?
Well, I'd have to start out with my wife. I don't know if you know who Arlene Harris is, but she is the real brains behind GreatCall. She designed that Jitterbug phone and the system that supports it down to the finest detail, and I couldn't describe to you in the kind of time we have how complex that simple phone is. So she is an absolute genius, and for a person who doesn't have a college education, she is the smartest engineer I know and never ceases to amaze me.
When I was at Motorola, the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was the management team that I had supporting me. Bob Galvin had a multi-generational view of life, he just died recently. John Mitchell was my mentor for almost 25 years at Motorola, and taught me about how to get to the essence of an engineering problem. Bill Weisz taught me about how you manage a business. So all of these people were inspiring to me. That Motorola environment in the old days was, as I said before, the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.
"I think that wireless has the opportunity to solve a whole bunch of problems, including I believe world poverty."
And what products or technologies in mobile have you the most excited these days?
I think that wireless has the opportunity to solve a whole bunch of problems, including I believe world poverty. So the two areas that I talk a lot about and really believe are important are the wireless impact on medical technology and on social networking. Both of those two things are going to be revolutionary.
The medical thing is going to solve... right now, you know, we have a disaster looming. We're spending almost 20 percent of our gross national product on curing diseases, and not doing all that great a job. And the number going's up — they're predicting it could get to 30 percent, and that's not sustainable. Wireless is going to fix that. Instead of having a physical examination every year that's pretty useless, you'll be able to have one every minute because you've got sensors on your body going through a wireless system that will probably involve a cellphone.
The other one is social networking in the enterprise. People are just getting started now, it's going to be really revolutionary. We're going to be running companies ten times more efficiently because people are working more efficiently and communicating better and communicating 24 / 7 instead of in occasional meetings.
And I guess I should mention the third thing: education. The educational system... that's going to take a little bit longer just because of the cost, but we can do a lot to improve our educational system and wireless is going to have a big impact.
Last month we saw Apple unveil iBooks 2 where they're looking to push textbooks on iPads. Given the costs involved, do you think that's a reasonable solution any time soon, or are we going to have to wait until tablets get cheaper in order for that to come into play?
It's a nice thought. It's a nice beginning. But if you think about it, whenever you graduate from one technological revolution to the next one, you don't do things the same way you did before. You build the whole system around the new technology. And what Apple is doing is taking the old system — which is textbooks — and they're just going to put it on an iPad? Forget it. I like the idea of just getting people thinking about that, but all they're trying to do is sell lots of iPads and what we really need to do is improve how people use modern tools to get educated.
So you think that might involve using just regular cellphones are smartphones, for instance, to bring high-tech education to the masses? Do you think that's a more reasonable goal?
Well, I don't want to tell people how to implement it, but it's going to involve social networking as well as wireless communicating and computers. All of those things have to be integrated.
Let me digress for a second. The only quotation that I know of that's attributed to me worldwide is: "if you want people to think out of the box, you shouldn't create the box in the first place." And as soon as you start saying, well, I'm going to educate people differently in the future, but I'm going to have textbooks and iPads and cellphones, each of those things is a box. And I'm suggesting that what we really need to do is figure out the optimum system, and that will contain optimal devices. I don't know what they're going to look like, but I'm willing to bet they're not going look like an iPad or an iPhone or a textbook.
"As soon as Google starts treating [Motorola] like their child and puts constraints on them, they're going to have trouble competing."
Do you believe in tablets in general? Do you think that the tablet is a good form factor?
I think we're experimenting. At least three or four months ago, everybody I asked that had a tablet also had a computer. Now what the hell is that all about? So what we've got is, all of us... Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who made us techies, we're playing around and we're experimenting. But when we grow up, we're going to want optimal devices and I'm not sure we know what those are, but I'm guessing they're going to be a combination of tablets and computers. Maybe it's going to be convertible ones. But certainly, the idea of having a computer and an iPad... right now, I've got a desktop. You would laugh at me... my wife and me watch television, but each of us has our iPad and our computers, and we now use the iPads to control our television and our window shades and the lights. But why do we have all these different devices? None of them is really optimal yet, we have a ways to go to optimize things.
Do you think 100 percent global smartphone penetration is a reasonable goal eventually, or will there always be a place for simpler devices?
You know what my answer is going to be. There are going to be all kinds of devices, and if you examine the world today, 70 percent of the traffic on systems is still voice. And if you talk about the activity, the next biggest application is texting. So what is this thing about "everybody's going to have smartphones"? Everyone is going to have phones that do what make their lives better, which is what the whole purpose of technology is. And a lot of people — even people that could afford to have whatever they want — do just fine with voice.
Let's talk a little bit about Motorola. They've been moving in a lot of different directions. How do you feel about their evolution since your departure? And I know that's a very broad question because you left Motorola a long time ago, but if we can compress that time into a shorter span, how do you feel about the direction they've moved in? Is there anything they've done particularly well or not very well?
Well, they've got a strategy, which means they're trying to differentiate themselves. They're trying to do things differently, and they're focused. I think that if Google leaves them alone, and they keep working this area and they keep trying to do things differently and better, they have a chance of making a contribution and surviving. And I hope they do for the simple reason that I like competition. So I think that's the crucial thing... somehow or another, they need to have good leadership. I think when Chris Galvin was removed, they lost whatever differentiating leadership they had, and they've had trouble recovering it. But I think Sanjay Jha is doing a great job now and I think they've got a chance of surviving.
So you do think it's important that Google leaves them alone, I heard you mention?
Yeah, I think so. As soon as Google starts treating them like their child and puts constraints on them, they're going to have trouble competing.
How do you feel about the split? Of course, they split early last year.
Yeah, they probably should've done that a long time ago. You know, I was in the other part of the business and I started the whole cellular business. I was probably the founder of the cellular business. And they are different enough. As you know, the other business is a very successful business, and so having the business that really has focus, they know exactly what their marketplaces are and they are very competitive and they are leaders still in their markets, having them dragged down by a totally different consumer business where there's a real struggle going on... I don't think it's a good idea. So I think that the circumstances that occurred were a good idea. I don't think it would've been necessary with the old management, but I think the way things have evolved, it's a good idea.
You mentioned earlier that you might be willing to try Windows Phone in the future. Do you think that there's legitimate room for a third player in that market right now? We've talked about the fact that competition is great, but do you think that Windows Phone can realistically make a run at it and have a fighting chance against the juggernauts that iOS and Android have become?
There is a business principle that you may be familiar with. The leader in the market, for one reason or another, is always the most successful. The second person can be quite successful, the third one has to struggle, and anybody beyond that probably ought to get out of the business. But having three, I think, is essential to have competition. So I wouldn't write off Windows at all — I think that whether it's Windows or something else, there's got to be another player just to keep the first two guys honest.
Find Marty Cooper on Twitter at @martymobile.