Marty was Martin Cooper, then the General Manager of Communications Systems at Motorola; Joel was Dr. Joel Engel, Cooper's rival over at AT&T. For three months, Cooper and his team had been racing to build the first portable cell phone while AT&T continued to build out what they saw as the smarter option: the car phone.
You’ve seen the prototype (or something like it) that Cooper ended up using to make that famous call: big (2.5 pounds!) and beige, with a long, chunky antenna. "That telephone in the secret agent's heel is almost here -- if you're the Jolly Green Giant, have a jolly green bank account, and can wait until 1976,” quipped the AP, in their writeup of the phone’s unveiling.
The first cell phone call had nothing on Neil Armstrong's catchy juxtaposition, but it, too, was a small step for a man (into midtown Sixth Avenue!) and a giant leap for mankind. You know what happened next: the world shrank (the phones shrank, too), became more human, then, some argue, less human, but smaller still.
As for Cooper, he, along with his wife Arlene, went on to found a number of successful telecommunications companies (the latest, GreatCall, has a fantastically simple cellphone for seniors). He amassed eleven patents. He issued a dictum, Cooper’s Law, stating that data over usable spectrum doubles every thirty months. And he speaks, frequently, about how wireless can be put to more beneficial use.
Recently, I spoke with Mr. Cooper about the past, present, and future of communication.
When you were a kid, what did you use to communicate with people who weren't within shouting distance?
Well, Claire...do you know how old I am?
...You know even when I was a teenager, it was unusual for anybody to have more than one telephone. Telephone numbers were five digit numbers, and in the early days, most of the lines were party lines, so you could actually listen in on peoples' conversations.
I lived through the age when there were car telephones. When my wife was twelve, she was a switchboard operator for car telephones. Not many people had car phones, and she would listen in on conversations between movie stars and other famous people.
And then you joined the Navy. What did you use there? Letters, telegrams…
Did you ever hear of a thing they call snail mail? You write letters. When I was at sea and traveling, the only way I could communicate was by letter. Even the ability to talk over long distances did not exist.
Have your communication tools and habits changed from decade to decade? Is there a time that stands out in particular?
I really depend very heavily on email now. I don't like to bother people, so email is just so convenient. I spend much more time on email than I do talking to people. And as I told you before, I send tweets out and I get information and some of it is even important. I just found out one of the FCC chairs is following me--is that a compliment or what?!
We have to come up with new technology that makes data communications much lower in cost, because we’ve got a whole bunch of new things coming. The next big change in communications will be machine-to-machine communications. In healthcare, you’ll measure things on your body every minute, instead of every year or two. We're all going to be connected almost continuously, and that requires a lot of radio waves.
I read on the BBC that you said before cellphones, we called places, not people.
If you think about the most fundamental change for teleservice, it's that a phone number nowadays is associated with a person. When people call you, they expect you to answer. Before cellular, when you called a number you were calling a place, and you didn't know who was going to answer. We now can tailor-make the communications for the specific purpose.
How important is the form of the communication tool to how we communicate?
First of all, everyone is different from everybody else. Most of my electronic communications are either talking or email. People communicate on twitter, on Facebook, on Linkedin. Each one has a twist that's optimized for some form of communication, for some form of collaboration.
I think the future of communication will be centered around collaboration. We are becoming more and more efficient at having groups do things. Every form of communication can be done in an optimal way, and with a minimal number of inhibitors. If you only have a very brief message to send to somebody, and you don't care that they get it immediately, texting is perfect.
The future of the world hangs on the fact that we have so many more ways of communicating. There are a lot of applications that are more entertaining than useful, but the parts of the cellphone that make me feel proud, it's when I hear about a woman in India who gets micro financing and gets a cellphone, and she lets villagers use it, to find out where the best markets are to sell their cows…everybody wins.
If you look at the problems we have today, the biggest problem is poverty. But if we can start doing everything we do more efficiently, this will be solved.
Today's cellphones have all this computing power behind them, yet their form hasn't really changed that much. They've shrunk; and they've gained screens--but they are still recognizable to the phone you built in 1973. Do you think that is going to change?
Oh you bet. The way it's going to change in the future is: right now there are just a couple phones you can have, but people are different from each other. My vision is everyone will carry on them a little box hidden on their bodies that I call a server. The server implements optimal devices. There is still going to be voice communicator, but it’s a device that you wear behind your ear, or perhaps embedded under your skin that you can talk to and receive audible messages from. It includes a powerful computer that has stored, among other things, all of your contacts. When you want to call someone, you ask your computer to make the call and you just talk. The voice communicator actually sends your voice to the personal server that you carry on you your body in a convenient place. The point is that the voice communicator is optimum for talking and listening, not a universal box that you have to hold up to your ear.
You'll also have devices on your body that will measure your health state. You may have a keyboard or something if you want to send messages or a gesture device. All these things feed into server and all are accommodated to your personality. The cellphone of future will be tailored to your personality and your needs.