A look back at a 20-year-old Motorola announcement suggests we're lousy prognosticators
bf blog post cell phones
I got lost in the Google "stacks" this week, as I sometimes do. I've
always loved wandering through bookstores or libraries, and, in the
digital age, the Library of Congress newspaper archives, and now, as it
improves and broadens its reach, Google's archive searches.
What you find can always serve as an excellent reality check on our
expectations of innovation and our abilities as prognosticators. Almost invariably our expectations and predications are wrong.
Science Fiction Nears Reality: Pocket
Phone for Global Calls
The small and portable telephone that
can be used anywhere on earth has been a staple of science fiction and
a Holy Grail of telephone engineers for several decades. Today Motorola
Inc. will become the first company in the world to announce plans to
build and operate such a phone system.
It was the early days of the Iridium system, and we all know how that
struggled. The Times went on to report the Motorola would charge less
than $3,500 (!!!!) for a pound and a half phone, and calls would cost
$1 to $3 a minute.
More from the Times story:
Potential users of the handsets are
expected to include vacationers, business people and engineers
traveling in places where phone service is not available or where an
international call can take hours to complete.
Today, all that functionality and nearly all that coverage is available
to us on cellular phones so small we lose them frequently. The cellular network itself is vastly more useful than for
simply transmitting voice from one person to another. All in 20 years.
I first used a cell phone in the mid-1980s, while riding
with a colleague down Interstate 95 in Rhode Island on the way to New
York City. He had a company-issued Motorola cell phone, a brick that
you all no doubt recall (and some of you probably designed!) As I talked to my wife while riding at 65 mph, I marveled at the fact that
motion or place was no longer going to limit communications.
Twenty years later, I stood atop the Great Wall and sent a photo from
my phone back to friends in the States. They received it microseconds later and it cost me almost nothing. Amazing.
No one in 1990 looked at the bat wings-birthed brick and envisioned millions of
people sending 140-character messages by the billions to share the
droll and mundane in their lives. Or to find discounted pizzas a block away or to serve as a dictation device or...
Today, a company called Neul announced more details of its first
"white-space" radio network. Even they don't know how the story will
play out in 10 years.
Last week, I dragged Jeff Bier in front of our camera (see below) at Design Automation Conference and he demoed a novel use of a Kinect video gaming system to manage presentations. The Kinect was launched just last November, and already people are exploiting its technology for applications Microsoft never even dreamed of!
I guess the managers who gave initial approval for iridium project would be probably still working at Motorola :). Iridium was spun off as a seperate company and they paid motorola ~6B$!(from VC funds) to build & launch all those satellites. why should motorola fire them ?
I now live close to the site of the Big Chill Festival (Eastnor Herefordshire). This takes place in a valley with extremely limited 2G coverage and no 3G. Last year they installed a temporary containerised base station in the field to give phone coverage for the event.
Around the Pilton (Glastonbury) site the resident population and number of major roads is greater so the installed coverage is probably better to start with but I expect that they must install extra temporary base stations to give the extra capacity.
How times change. The Glastonbury festival opens today and I expect most of the revellers will have mobile phones and many will also have WiFi 3G notebooks to try and stay in touch on Facebook.
The question therefore is what are the carriers going to do to provide temporary access for 200,000 people bathed in mud!
I first used a Motorola "brick" mobile phone when I was the milkman at the Glastonbury festival in 1989. I can remember the the stir that it caused when my (large) pocket started to ring as I walked through a marquee littered with the bodies of those sleeping off the excesses of the night before!
Iridium is coming into its own as a communications medium for small data transfers (SMS) for M2M and tracking applications in remote areas worldwide. It is also good for providing communications in the polar regions that are not covered by the geostationary services.
With the commercialization of Space (NASA stepping back and letting private companies take over some of the duties) hopefully this sort of early engineering will make it feasible to have dual purpose satellites so that they can be used for voice/data as well as for experimentation(weather, research, etc...)thereby providing for cheaper technology because the costs are split.
Neul initiative is mainly to be used for Machine to Machine communication, but this might lead designer using the same technique to be used for adhoc networks and start global used of it for general networking.
It wasn't just about competition with Intelsat. Remember, Iridium was conceived prior to the development of GSM. In those days, an international business traveler had to carry multiple phones, depending on which countries he or she was visiting. The development of GSM as a nearly global cellular standard was probably more detrimental to Iridium's business model than Intelsat dropping their prices to match Iridium.
Iridium's business model was based on the assumption that Intelsat's extortionary pricing for satellite phones on the high seas ($7 - $15 per minute) provided price protection for Iridium, which was planning to price their service (with better coverage and more convenient portable terminals) at about half of that. What they were not prepared for was that Intelsat might - and did - drop prices to match Iridium. There would in fact have been a decent business for Iridium as a MILITARY service provider, but that did not appear until after 2001, well after the bankruptcy. Today, I am pretty sure the majority of Iridium users are in Iraq and Afghanistan.