40 Years Since First Mobile Phone Call

On April 3, 1973, Joel Engel was working as a leading researcher and developer at Bell Labs. At that time he and his team were working at the cutting edge of mobile communications development. They had already created the wireless cell architecture that we use whenever we are out and about with our mobile devices, and were looking at ways to develop technology would take advantage of their work.

That day he received a phone call that would change everything. On the other end of the line was Martin Cooper, who was General Manager of Motorola’s Communication Systems Division and Joel’s counterpart.

“Joel, this is Marty. I’m calling you from a cell phone, a real handheld portable cell phone.”

“There was a silence at the other end.” As Martin recounted later, “I suspect he was grinding his teeth.”

Martin’s original message was only transmitted as far as the only available nearby antenna that was in turn wired into the AT&T network. Network effect was the main inhibitor to the roll-out of the technology. Without the coverage supplied by a supporting telecommunications system, it was hardly worth it for consumers to purchase a device.

Although the technical knowledge existed in the late sixties, it took a substantial amount of years to simply get the the antennas, the power supplies, the routing devices and switching centres fabricated and installed into enough populations centres that had enough density to support a commercial service. It is unlikely that Motorola would have recouped any profits on their original investment until the mid-nineties. Shortly after, the use of mobile phones had started to become widespread.

Looking at the long game that the scientists and engineers, and the companies that backed them, were playing in the 40 years after World War 2, it seems that a golden age of innovation existed that has now waned. We live in a world where innovation is nothing more than (sometimes) a very clever variation on a theme against a background of diminishing returns.

Apart from the switch from analog to digital and discounting scale, there has been no significant technological change in wireless telecommunications since Martin’s first call. Just more sophisticated uses of the system.

Where are the bona fide geniuses such as Claude Shannon now? Doug Engelbart is still around and still innovating, but where are we going to get world-shifting ideas developed in a tech industry that is geared to quarterly returns?

Return on investment (if any for some ideas) seems to have shifted from the expected returns resulting from glacial scale of development and implementation of the likes of Bell Labs and Motorola to the instant gratification of the ‘build it and ship it’ mentality that seems so prevalent.

Without an increase in research and development, we can allow for there only ever being a handful seismic ideas in a given period such as packet switching and the invention of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. (If anyone is out there inventing a second internet, they may want to review how best they should be spending their time and talents.)

The three things needed for ground breaking research and development are engineers, time and resources.

Google has about 54,000 employees. Let’s say that 20k are engineers. If Google applies its 20% rule that allows engineers to work on their own projects for a fifth of their time, then I don’t think resources are a problem at the moment.

But a fifth of one’s time is not all of one’s time. If Martin Cooper’s and Joel Engel’s time was constrained in such a manner the mobile phone would have arrived about the time of the Invasion of Iraq (the second one). Google has produced lots of good stuff, but the vast majority of their income is still derived from, where it started, paid search.

Facebook has less than 5,000 employees so where Google falls down on the time side of the equation, Facebook is short on engineers. Both are likely candidates for being sources of invention but the set-up of neither company is disposed towards such a result.

Since both companies have to focus on growth one can only hope for wonderful spin-offs in the tradition of say, NASA.


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