Cellphone inventor reflects on pandemic-driven innovation -- and the first mobile call

Martin Cooper, who led the creation of the Motorola Dynatac 8000x, made history back in 1973 when he made the first-ever cellphone call.

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Roger Cheng
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On April 3, 1973, then-Motorola executive Martin Cooper made the first call from a cellphone using a Motorola Dynatac 8000x.

Kent German/CNET

When Apple or Samsung unveils a new smartphone, consumers can preorder the device within days and expect to get it in their hands within weeks. When Motorola introduced the first-ever cellphone, the DynaTAC, in 1973, it took another decade before consumers could actually use one. 

Talk about delayed gratification. 

Ironically, it took the team at Motorola just three months to conceive and build the first DynaTAC, a minor miracle considering it takes 12 to 18 months today to do the same thing with a flagship smartphone. The company only made two prototypes, the culmination of thousands of parts welded together in a boot-shaped phone with a massive antenna. 

Enlarge Image

The Motorola Dynatac 8000x

Kent German/CNET

"It's far more complicated than a modern phone, believe it or not," Martin Cooper, who led the team at Motorola and is credited as the father of the cellphone, said in an interview for the Daily Charge podcast last week.

Cooper shared stories about the whirlwind race to develop that first phone, which was less a commercial product and more an attempt to head off attempts by then-monopoly  AT&T  to get a stranglehold on the wireless business. The reaction he got from his colleagues: "That's impossible." They went to work anyway, culminating in Cooper's memorable first-ever cellphone call to rival AT&T engineer Joel Engel while standing on a sidewalk in Manhattan next to a journalist. 

"I didn't hold back at all in rubbing it in," Cooper quipped, noting that to this day, Engel says he doesn't remember the call. 

Cooper reflects back on the impact that cellphones have had on the world, and what the wireless business still needs to do when it comes to issues like closing the broadband gap and the real promise of  5G . He shared his '70s-inspired business insights, like taking a customer-centric approach to products and services and embracing a willingness to fail, that still holds true today.

Given the dominance of AT&T at that time, Cooper also speculates on what would have happened had Motorola failed and Ma Bell taken control of the wireless business. (Hint: AT&T was really big into car phones at the time.)

Those stories are part of his new book, Cutting the Cord, which came out earlier this year.

The following are more of this thoughts from the interview.

On the digital divide

While cellphones, and now modern smartphones, have brought new ways to access information to more people than ever, there are still many left behind. Cooper estimates that 40% of the students in this country don't have access to broadband wireless. 

"Just imagine what that means over the long term," he said. "That's unacceptable."

Cooper said the technology exists to deliver wireless broadband to students for as little as $5 to $10 a month, and that the government needs to be more proactive in convincing carriers to offer such services. 

"It's as essential as water and food," he said. "We need to have 100% accessibility to broadband services not just for students, but everyone."

You can hear all of Cooper's thoughts here in a four-part discussion that's running over several days. Check back here for all of the episodes.

On the issue of spectrum capacity

A key mantra expressed by the wireless industry is the continuous need for more spectrum, or the radio airwaves that ferry everything from cat videos to text messages from your phone to a cell tower. 

But Cooper said that technology has always kept the industry ahead of spectrum demand, with the wireless industry finding ways to fit more data into those airwaves. 

"There's plentiful spectrum," he said, noting that his unofficial "Cooper's Law" states that spectrum capacity doubles every two and a half years. 

Cooper railed against Federal Communications Commission's spectrum auctions like the one that wrapped up in late February. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile spent $81 billion on radio airwaves for 5G services. 

"Someone that has paid billions of dollars for radio airwaves would not appreciate the idea of plentiful spectrum," he said, adding that spectrum should be only allocated to companies that can deliver services that take care of human needs. 

Likewise, he says the focus and hype around 5G and what it can do is all wrong. Rather than focusing on connecting more devices like self-driving cars and giving people insane mobile speeds, the industry should focus more on expanding access to more people and bringing down costs. 

"We haven't finished the internet of people yet, and the industry is already emphasizing the internet of things," he said. 

On the pandemic

The coronavirus lockdown sped up the pace of innovation and our embrace of connected services like telemedicine and video conferencing. While COVID-19 vaccines are now available and society sees some light at the end of the tunnel, Cooper doesn't think that the world will revert back in certain key ways. 

"People will travel less and collaborate more," Cooper said. "These remote services will become more and more common."

Cooper also warned of the dominant powers of Big Tech and said people need to better understand that free services come with strings attached. "We need to educate people that their personal data has value, and they shouldn't give it away for nothing," he said. 

Motorola's last hurrah was with the Razr, an ultra-slim flip phone that saw the company take a dominant position in feature phones. Then the smartphone arrived, and Motorola couldn't keep up. The American pioneer is now a unit of Chinese laptop maker Lenovo. 

"They got complacent," Cooper said. 

Cooper noted that he isn't bothered by the idea that many of the innovations in the wireless world are coming from other countries, with China being particularly aggressive, but said that he has faith that the freedom of expression and level of creativity in Western markets like the US will continue to provide an advantage, and that technological progress is ultimately going to benefit society. 

"I have an abiding belief in people," he said. "The world's better today than it has been in every measurable aspect."

See also: The best phone to buy for 2021