|Cellphone Inventor Knocks iPhone, G1|
Andy Greenberg, 10.28.08, 2:55 PM ET
On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper, a researcher at Motorola, made the world's first-ever call from a cellular telephone, a device he helped to create that weighed two pounds and had a mere 20-minute battery life. In the 35 years since, a lot has changed--but not nearly enough to please the cellphone's demanding father.
On Tuesday, Cooper used his keynote address at the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston to run down a list of complaints against the wireless industry that ranged from closed carrier networks to inefficient cellular antenna systems to the design of smart phones like the iPhone, which he argues are overly complex.
As a result, Cooper asserted that the progress of the mobile industry has been blocked by "upside down" and "backward" practices. "We were promised affordable, ubiquitous broadband wireless for everyone," he told a crowd of engineers. "That promise is still just a promise."
According to Cooper, the barriers to making cellphones as versatile and efficient as wired devices are wrongheaded industry practices, like putting cell towers outside when the vast majority of conversations happen indoors. That setup, he argued, means that radio signals have to travel far greater distances and penetrate buildings. This drives up the energy costs of cellular service and leads to more dropped calls.
Instead, Cooper argued that mobile networks should be using access point base stations, or femtocells: broadband-connected local cell stations that beam cell signals over focused areas inside of buildings. "Where the cell sites ought to be is where the people are," he said.
The problem with femtocells until now, Cooper noted, has been interference between local base stations and faraway cellular towers when the two sources broadcast to a phone simultaneously. The fix, he argued, is to better understand the location of a cellphone user--a solution that will also reduce inefficiency of cell towers that broadcast radio signals and "listen" to cellphone radios in all directions rather than dialing in their "attention" on the user.
Cooper touted a developing technology known as multiantennae signal processing, or so-called "smart antennas." Using an array of collected antennae rather than a single point, a cell tower could calculate a user's position and focus its signal in that direction. This is similar to humans having two ears rather than just one to better determine the source of sound.
It's no coincidence that Cooper sees smart antennas as the savior of the wireless industry: He serves as chairman of ArrayComm, a company that develops software for using antenna arrays to calculate the origin of cell signals. He founded the San Jose, Calif.-based company in 1992 after 29 years at Motorola (nyse: MOT - news - people ).
But Cooper's rant about the wireless industry's flaws went beyond areas where he had a business interest. He spread the blame to carriers that have tightly controlled the devices that can work on their networks and to software companies that have prevented developers from building applications. He compared the carriers' current attitude to AT&T's (nyse: T - news - people ) control of the landline system in the 1950s, when the company rented phones to users and prohibited any device other than an AT&T-owned telephone to connect to its network.
"They still think, 'It's our right to provide all these services and no one else has that right,'" Cooper said. "'How dare they think they can use our network?'"
Cooper's talk wasn't all grumbling, however. He noted that carriers and software developers are slowly becoming more open, pointing to Verizon (nyse: VZ - news - people ), which announced that it would open its network to outside devices and applications nearly a year ago. (See: "Verizon's Open Network Strategy.")
He also praised Google's (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ) Android operating system as an example of the sort of open operating system that would allow for the full potential of wireless devices.
But the cellphone patriarch had less kind words for the smart phones that Android runs on and even fewer for the iPhone. Cooper advocates simpler, specialized devices--his wife is the creator of the Jitterbug, a hyper-simple phone for the elderly.
In an interview with Forbes.com following his talk, Cooper said that he had used an iPhone for a few weeks before handing it off to his grandson, saying that he couldn't navigate its contacts and that its shape and cell service made it a sub-standard phone. "A phone that's an Internet appliance, an MP3 player, a camera and a whole bunch of other functions doesn't make a lot of sense," he said. "You try to build a universal device that does all things for all people, and guess what? It doesn't do anything very well."