Looking back at the Cell Phone

Motorola was a great engineering company. They made the best radios. They invented the cell phone, which might have been the end of them.

The firm started to run into un-chartered waters when the cell phone, the seemingly innocent little two-way radiophone that came out of the famous Walkie-Talkies and ham radio two-way sets in cars, took off and became the fastest growing product in the history of the world. At first, Moto dominated with the best wireless phone, but that lasted five years or so until the underlying systems changed from analog (much like a real land-line phone line at the time) and became digital. Digital was essential, since many more conversations could be sliced and diced, compressed and crammed into the same sized network. Their early voice quality was crummy compared with the pure analog transmissions, but would slowly and unevenly improve, and economics (and Moore's Law) were on the side of digitization. The Europeans cooperated and joined together with a standard for digitization called GSM (From the French ... Global System Mobile') and Nokia, an unlikely leader, emerged from the Finnish wood-pulp industry and a regional player in home appliances to become #1 on the basis of the European market, with Motorola falling into second, then third place.

Motorola and Nokia seemed to consider the cell phone primarily as a device for actually conducting a conversation between two humans. Yet the real potential was as a portal or access opening to the Internet and a world of new and cool Applications that would prove to be virtually unlimited. Steve Jobs at Apple did see this, as did Google, which developed their own proprietary operating system (O.S.). Apple took the lead and in the usual Apple fashion, took a "bundled" path with their i-OS operating system and cell phone as a complete product and off they went. Google, trailing, and with no hardware expertise at the time, offered an O.S. called Android, a cool spacey name, for free and soon virtually everyone else was running this new O.S. with their own hardware phone. Of course, the "free" O.S. fit perfectly into Google's powerful search engine technology. Nokia and Moto fell behind, never to recover, even though they eventually adopted the Android O.S. and limped on. About the same time, Qualcomm emerged out of the black hole of DARPA and the CIA with a world-class chip-set design based on formerly military digital compression technology. and most everyone not named Apple adopted the Qualcomm chip-set and Google's O.S. Now there were two powerful standards in the market. Samsung emerged as the leader from the "not Apple" group based on great hardware phone engineering along with massive investments into one of the world's largest semiconductor factory systems, which processed many of the physical chips based on the Qualcomm IP technology.

Today, as we look at it, Apple has "only" about 20% of the world's market for cell phones, which now are Internet and Application access devices, but earns over half of the profit since they (Apple) have great Apps and more developers of Apps write for Apple since, as they say, that's where the money is. Apple now is moving strongly in the direction of applications and services. The Google Android Operating System supports nearly 80% of all cell phones and is the platform that delivers the wide range of search engines and maps and whatever that are the company's gold mine. Qualcomm owns much much of the valuable patent rights for the IP in the chip-sets and other key features of the phones, and Samsung makes their profit on their phone hardware and also by running the memory and logic chips for many other suppliers, including Qualcomm and Apple!

Have you got all that? There will not be a test.

The historians and economists who sort all this out ... the cell phone and all its associated applications and features ... will note this was the greatest wave of innovation and wealth creation of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Along with the emergence of Amazon from a mere book seller to the Goliath of on-line sales of all sorts as well as the top supplier of "cloud" computing capability, and with Microsoft and its dominant PC O.S. and almost universal suite of "Office" applications, we have the leaders of a glittering new age of high-tech and an unprecedented era of change and wealth creation. Even as we lament the loss of some manufacturing jobs and the jarring disruption to many lives and local economies, this American tech leadership should not be taken for granted since as we speak, the next wave is building: electric and autonomous vehicles, and energy creation from clean fuels. China is poised. Don't look back ... someone might be gaining on us.

Enjoy life, it's the only one we will get.

Jim George

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1 Response

  1. JK James George
    *From DK via email: Your Blog on the cell phone was more than excellent. I knew a lot of the stuff due to working for XXX and consulting for several others in the cellular business or on the periphery of it, but didn't realize my understanding of the evolution of all of it was so fragmented until I read this blog. Perfect linear progression with no digressions or sidebands, if you will. ************************************************************************************************************

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