While cellular has grown, industry needs to grow up, says patriarch
I was born roughly three decades too early. If I hadn’t been, I believe that I would be a filthy-rich twenty-something today. The basis for this belief is playing at the local bargain cinema near my home. It is the third installment of the Jackass movie franchise, which consists of sophomoric stunts that are intended to shock and amuse the audience. I would have fit right in with this gang. My specialty would have been the ability to careen down a ski slope with arms and legs flailing wildly; I would be the human version of a stone skipping across water. This pretty much describes every ski run I’ve ever taken, which is explanation enough for why skiing quickly was stricken from my list of approved participatory sports. I haven’t seen the side of a mountain in winter for more than 30 years.
The event that caused me to think about this was a recent conversation I had with Marty Cooper, the father of the cellular phone, who was enjoying a ski vacation in Vail, Colo., when I caught up with him late last week. He told me that he had taken a ski lesson the day before. He also told me that he’s been skiing for about as long as I haven’t been. That amazed me. With so much experience on the slopes, what could he possibly learn at this point? I asked him that question.
“I didn’t start until I was almost 50. If you don’t start when you’re a kid, you never really learn properly. So, every year or so, I need someone to remind me of all the things that I forgot,” he said.
He makes an interesting and valid point — but that’s not why I had called. Rather, I wanted to follow up with him regarding his comments at the Radio Club of America’s annual dinner in New York City back in November. He had spoken about the prospects for wireless technology enhancing health care, which I found fascinating, and I wanted to hear what else he had on his mind.
I started by asking him what he thought of the current state of wireless technology and whether he ever envisioned that it would evolve in such a manner. He said that there was no doubt in his mind, or that of his colleagues at Motorola who worked with him to develop the first cellular technology, that all telephone communications someday would be wireless.
“People are fundamentally mobile. They’re going to move around. So, we knew that the wired telephone would become an anomaly,” Cooper said. “The idea of chaining someone to their car is just about as bad as tying them to their desks or their homes.”
Things certainly are moving in that direction. The percentage of people who only have a wireless phone is growing dramatically and will continue to do so; in some emerging countries, no one has ever used a wired phone. It’s not unreasonable to think that someday the wired phone will join the VHS player in the realm of the extinct.
Cooper added that he and his colleagues had an inkling that form factors would shrink dramatically as time unfolded. “We were working under the belief that you can’t make wireless devices — phones or pagers — too small or too light,” he said.
One thing that they didn’t anticipate was the dramatic price-point reductions that ensued. He reminded me that the first portable phones cost in the neighborhood of $4,000 — and that was in 1983 dollars. “So, we never could have predicted that one day you’d be able to go to a store and they’d give you a phone for nothing,” Cooper said.
Despite the phenomenal advancements that have been made in cellular technology, particularly on the device side, Cooper opined that the industry itself still is immature. He offered as evidence the current phenomenon of people being slaves to their devices, one that Cooper believes will exacerbate over the short term.
“When you think about it, cell phones are a 20-year phenomenon — they didn’t become widespread until about 1990 and maybe even later than that. We’re still learning how to manage this technology,” he explained. “Good technology is invisible and transparent, and the devices are intuitive. And if you look at the devices we have today, they are none of those things. They’re complicated, they take up a lot of our time, and they force us to become engineers to use the devices. All of that is wrong.”
Also wrong is the industry’s penchant for trying to foist universal devices on the populace.
“If you look at the Android and the iPhone, they’re wonderful pieces of technology, but very few people use all of the features — in fact, nobody does,” Cooper said. “Someday, after the industry grows up, devices will be customized to people — because everybody’s different.”
Next week I’ll share what Cooper suggests as a solution and other visionary thoughts he has about wireless technology. Stay tuned — and buckle your seat belts.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.