Cell phones: Episode 3 of Setapp’s original Ahead of Its Time Podcast

17 min read

Welcome to the third episode of Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. 

The world’s first cell phone was built at Motorola in 1973, and the man behind it, Marty Cooper, has a fascinating story to tell about how he made the first cell phone call in history. You’ll hear Marty talking about this pivotal moment, as well as about how Motorola and Bell competed for cellular supremacy, and why people were reluctant to invest in cell phones at first. 

Since every discussion about cell phones should touch on iPhone, we also talk to Bas Ordering, a user interface designer at Apple, about his cooperation with Steve Jobs leading up to the epic release of the first iPhone in 2007. 

Show notes: 


Julia Furlan (00:02):

Your cell phone is a lot more than just a phone. It's your address book, camera, calendar, wallet, map, compass, music player, calculator, alarm clock, radio, newspaper, TV, flashlight, and depending on what apps you have, a bunch of other things too. Really, it's a portable computer that just so happens to also make phone calls.

Julia Furlan (00:26):

We use our phone for so many things that it's hard to imagine a time when we lived without it. But until a generation ago, that's exactly what most of us did. The cell phone has changed how we interact with the world and with each other. There's one phone in particular that's played a major role in this societal transformation, the iPhone.

Bas Ording (00:45):

One moment. I'm just putting my phone on quiet. There we go.

Julia Furlan (00:50):

That's Bas Ording. In the early 2000s, he was working as a user interface designer at Apple when his phone rang. It was Steve Jobs, calling from a landline. Jobs told Bas that the conversation they were about to have had to be kept secret. He told Bas that he wanted to design a new kind of cell phone, a phone without buttons, a phone that was just a glass screen. This was the genesis moment of the iPhone, which would move from birth to launch in just a few short years. Today, a decade and a half later, there are more than a billion iPhone users on the planet.

Bas Ording (01:29):

I would be on vacation somewhere, you sit in the subway somewhere, and you see someone use an iPhone right next to you. I'm like, "Wow, I was working on that stuff, and now I'm somewhere else in the world and someone is just using it like it's no big deal." I thought that was really special to see that, for sure. It's amazing how much we rely on it. We never thought it was going to be this big of a thing.

Julia Furlan (01:52):

Bas helped imagine iPhone technology, but he never dared to imagine how world-changing it would be. The iPhone represented a huge step forward in mobile tech, but not the first step, not even close. You need to go back half a century for that origin story.

Bas Ording (02:09):

Marty Cooper was the one who invented, basically, cell phones in the early '70s. That made a huge change in how people communicate. Marty's work was the precursor to what ultimately became technologies that were used in the iPhone.

Julia Furlan (02:33):

I'm Julia Furlan, and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp, a show about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. Setapp's versatile app subscription service empowers you to step into a new era of productivity.

Marty Cooper (02:52):

What I'm showing you now is an exact replica of the very first cell phone. The phone itself, not counting the antenna sticking out of the top, is about 11 inches high, two inches wide. This phone weighs almost two and a half pounds.

Julia Furlan (03:12):

This is Marty Cooper, the guy who introduced the world to the cell phone. What was revolutionary then can easily be seen as primitive by today's standards.

Marty Cooper (03:21):

It can only talk for 25 minutes before the battery runs out. Of course, that's not a problem because you couldn't hold this thing up for more than 25 minutes, it's so heavy. That's all this phone could do is make phone calls, no texting, no video, no camera, so that was it.

Julia Furlan (03:46):

In 1954, Marty started working at Motorola. At the time, they were mainly in the business of making radios and TVs. Then in the '60s, Chicago's police department approached Motorola with a unique problem. Officers talked to each other using two-way radios attached to the dash of their squad cars. This meant that they had to be in their vehicle to effectively communicate with each other. But the department believed that for officers to do their job properly, they needed to be on the street, interacting with the community.

Julia Furlan (04:18):

Marty devised a portable radio for the Chicago PD, one that they could wear on their person. This allowed them to spend more time on the street while remaining in contact with other officers. Marty was proud of this new technology, but officers were a little less than impressed.

Marty Cooper (04:36):

On my way to work, I got pulled over by a police officer. I was going too fast. I thought, "I know how to get out of this. I'm going to give this guy my sales pitch."

Marty Cooper (04:45):

I told him, "You know that we've got this radio you're going to be able to carry with you all the time and be in connection." He says, "Yeah, just look at me. I got my baton. I got my handcuffs. I got all this stuff on my belt. Just what I need is another thing. You're getting a ticket, bud." And I did.

Julia Furlan (05:01):

But the value of this new device soon made itself painfully clear.

Marty Cooper (05:09):

At the beginning, the police officers, they hated it, until the very first police officer interrupted a burglary. He got shot in the leg. While he was lying on the ground, he called for help on his two-way radio. We never got another complaint about carrying too many things on your belt. That's what we created, what really was the precursor, the beginning of cellular telephony.

Julia Furlan (05:36):

It's somewhat ironic that the precursor to cell phone technology was devised by a company that, at the time, wasn't even in the telecommunications industry. In fact, until 1984, there was only one telephone company in the U.S., the telephone company, Ma Bell. Because of the vast networked nature of phone technology, Bell was given a monopoly through most of the 20th century; but by the early '70s, both Motorola and Bell started developing cellular phone technology. And as Marty points out, there was one huge difference between their philosophies.

Marty Cooper (06:14):

Let me take you back to 1969, when the Bell System said, "We know how to do cellular phones, and our vision is that it'll be a car phone." Not many people are going to want car phones. They admitted that. They said the market is not big enough to have more than one company providing this service. Of course, we disagreed with that. We thought that everybody was going to want a cell phone. To us, the cell phone was freedom. It was the freedom to be anywhere, not stuck in your car, not wired to the wall. We had a real difference in perception, and that started a battle.

Julia Furlan (06:52):

The Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, deliberated over who would be allowed to provide cell phone service. They could vote to keep Bell's monopoly intact, or they could vote to dismantle the monopoly and open the telecom industry to competition. It was a tense time for Marty and Motorola.

Marty Cooper (07:10):

We were really afraid that the FCC would make the wrong decision. That's when I decided the only way we're going to persuade them that this is the way to go is actually show them, actually have somebody hold this thing in their hand and talk. That's when I decided, "We're going to build one." Everybody said it was impossible, and I said, "No, it's not impossible."

Julia Furlan (07:31):

Marty started pitching his idea to folks at Motorola and assembled a team of 20 engineers to work on a cell phone prototype. Over three painstaking months, impossible slowly morphed into possible.

Marty Cooper (07:43):

Everything was hard. We had to be able to talk and listen at the same time. Doesn't sound like much, but the device that made that work in a car telephone was twice as big as this whole cell phone is today, and we had to squeeze that into one quarter of the phone. We had to make a brand-new antenna. We had to operate on hundreds of radio channels at the same time. We've got the most advanced technology we could find everywhere, and these guys actually built a phone. It was just miraculous.

Julia Furlan (08:18):

They called it the DynaTAC, which stood for Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage. Because of its size, it earned the nicknames The Shoe Phone and The Brick.

Julia Furlan (08:30):

Okay, so this brings us to April 3rd, 1973. The night before Marty is set to demonstrate his cell phone for the first time on live TV, his team was up until 2:00 a.m., working out of the New York Hilton, putting the finishing touches on their prototype. Then the morning of the broadcast, Marty gets some unfortunate news from a team member.

Marty Cooper (08:50):

She says, "We just got bumped from the morning TV show. Sorry, Marty. The only thing I could find to substitute was this little radio station. They have agreed to do an interview." I said, "Fine. If we're going to do an interview, we're going to do it on the streets, moving," so that we could show people the freedom of being anywhere. That's how that first call got set up. Almost like everything was an accident, but it wasn't. We had a vision.

Julia Furlan (09:21):

Bumped from his TV booking, Marty decided the world's first cell phone call would happen on the sidewalk not far from his hotel.

Marty Cooper (09:28):

People ask, did I feel the historic impact of that moment? My answer is, all I felt was, "Boy, I hope this thing works."

Julia Furlan (09:40):

Who was the first to receive a call from Marty's cell phone? That choice was a case of good old-fashioned trolling.

Marty Cooper (09:47):

Here I am walking down the street with this reporter, and amazingly enough, I was so worried about all the other things about the phone working, I hadn't thought about who to call. I looked up the number of my adversary in the Bell System, the guy that was running the car telephone program, Dr. Joel Engel, and I dialed his number on the DynaTAC phone. Amazingly, he answered, not his secretary.

Marty Cooper (10:14):

I said, "Hi, Joel. It's Marty Cooper." He says, "Hi, Marty." I said, "Joel, I'm calling you from a cell phone." He says, "Really?" I said, "Yes, but this is a real cell phone. It's a personal, handheld, portable cell phone." I wasn't averse to rubbing it in. Silence on the other end of the line. I suspect he was gritting his teeth.

Julia Furlan (10:42):

Today, it's easy to look back and recognize this as a defining moment for modern technology. But in those early days, few saw the potential of the cell phone. Marty's pitch was met with a steady cry of "no" from prospective business partners, including one prospect in England.

Marty Cooper (10:57):

There were just a lot of naysayers. People just did not accept the fact that this was going to be important. This fellow says, "You don't understand. You Americans somehow use more modern technology, but we've done a study in London and we think that the maximum number of people that will want to have a cell phone in London is 12,000."

Julia Furlan (11:18):

Even his archrival underestimated the new technology.

Marty Cooper (11:21):

The Bell System, they did a study, and they said that the most number of cellular phones that will exist in the world is a little over a million. But little by little, people start finding out how important it was to be connected all the time.

Julia Furlan (11:40):

Bell continued to doubt the potential of cell phones, but Motorola was all in. By the early '80s, they invested tens of millions of dollars developing and promoting cell phone technology, and that was before they sold a single phone. Finally, in 1982, in a historic decision, the FCC decided to break up Bell's monopoly, opening the telecom industry to competition.

Julia Furlan (12:04):

When the first cell phones hit the market in 1983, consumers were tentative, and with good reason. The phone cost $4,000. They were big, and they didn't work that well. The phrase "dropped calls" quickly entered the popular lexicon. But for Marty, it was the personal nature of a cell phone and its potential to make us more productive that was the basis for his confidence in the technology.

Marty Cooper (12:26):

It doesn't sound very different, but when you made a phone call on a wired phone, you were calling a place. When you make a phone call on your cell phone and you're calling another cell phone, you're calling a person. It's always a person. Huge, huge difference. That really is the profound change that we made in society, and people still don't understand that. Even more important is that cell phone really is the glue that makes our whole economy work. There are more cell phones in the world today, more cell phones in the United States, than there are people.

Julia Furlan (13:03):

Marty is well aware that another cell phone visionary helped make that a reality.

Marty Cooper (13:10):

Steve Jobs was not a technology guy; he was a people person. Of course, his most important person was himself, but that's beside the point. He had a great sensitivity to how the user reacted.

Julia Furlan (13:28):

Over the 1980s and '90s, cell phones got smaller, less expensive, and more reliable. By the early 2000s, the first camera phones hit the market, and flip phone designs like the Motorola Razr created lots of buzz. But for the most part, cell phones were still just that, a phone.

Bas Ording (13:48):

It was clear that around that time, of course, there was a bunch of phones out there, mobile phones, but everything was a little complicated. Nothing felt intuitive or easy to use. Steve didn't even have a cell phone until he had an iPhone, I think.

Julia Furlan (14:00):

In 1997, Bas Ording was studying interaction design in the Netherlands when his professor put him in contact with a few Silicon Valley tech firms, including Apple. Impressed with his portfolio, Apple invited Bas to their California campus for a day of one-on-one interviews. At the end of a long series of meetings, Bas was told he needed to talk to one more person.

Bas Ording (14:22):

He said, "Actually, Steve Jobs also wants to see your work." What? Really? I did really not expect that.

Bas Ording (14:27):

I had to go upstairs to the fourth floor in the main building there, and it was the boardroom where they had an iMac set up in the corner for presentations. It hadn't been released at that point yet, so I was super excited to see a real iMac for the first time. Yeah, and so I brought my CD-ROM with my work on it, and I could show it on the iMac.

Julia Furlan (14:49):

Then in walked Steve Jobs. For Bas, this was not an ordinary day.

Bas Ording (14:53):

The meeting was pretty interesting because he was very direct about stuff, because I had a whole bunch of interactive prototypes, demos to show to him. At some point I showed him this demo which I called the little fisheye magnification demo, where you can basically roll your cursor over a strip of tiny little images, little thumbnails of photos, and it would magnify, which ultimately became functional on the Mac. I think that's definitely the demo where he probably thought, "Ooh, this is a solution to some of the problems we're trying to solve." Then we talked some more and then he said, "Hey, Bas, I want you to come work for Apple."

Julia Furlan (15:33):

The late '90s were the beginning of one of Apple's most dynamic eras. With Bas helping to design user interfaces, Apple introduced the iMac, the PowerBook G4, and the iPod. Then just a few years into the new millennia, Bas got a curious assignment.

Bas Ording (15:51):

Steve, he wanted to have a sheet of glass that he can read his email on, and then we had to go figure out how to make that work somehow. But at that point, nothing like that really existed yet.

Julia Furlan (16:03):

Bas and his team got to work on a prototype. They found a company that made a black touchpad which could sense finger movement. Picture an iPad without a screen. Then they connected the touchpad to a computer, and projected whatever image was displayed on the computer onto the pad. This acted as a guide for the fingers. Then if you touch the pad in a specific place, it caused the computer to react.

Bas Ording (16:26):

It was really cool to experience this, where you could basically touch the light, and the lightest touch would be recognized. At some point, we made a demo where you can zoom in on an image, like a picture of a flower, that you can just make it larger and smaller, or rotate it as well, and all that stuff. Those are things that are usually, on a computer, are not so easy to do because you have to select all the different tools. Now just with two fingers you could do moving and scaling and rotation all at the same time. It was really exploring, what can you even do with your fingers? All we had was, at that point, a tablet-size touchscreen.

Julia Furlan (17:07):

The project continued with Apple's legendary secrecy. Bas worked in a secret lab with no windows, and was one of the very few people who could access the room. No one on the team knew exactly what Jobs had in mind for the technology.

Bas Ording (17:20):

The overall product was unclear what it was. Then at some point I got a phone call, and it was Steve. He says, "Hey, listen, we're going to do a phone, and it's going to be all just the screen. We're going to use the multi-touch stuff, and there's not going to be any buttons on it." I was like, "Oh, wow, that sounds really cool. That's a very interesting idea to do that." That was the very beginning of that project.

Julia Furlan (17:43):

Now that Bas and his team knew what they were working on, they could really dig in. There was an endless parade of long days and working weekends building new features for the phone. On Mondays, they'd present their demos to Jobs, hoping they'd hit the mark. Bas learned pretty quickly that it was difficult to predict how he'd react to their ideas.

Bas Ording (18:01):

I had this idea where if there's already music playing and you're in a list of songs, if you tap on one, that it wouldn't necessarily interrupt the current playing music right away, that it would basically ask you a step in between like, "Do you want to play this now, or do you want to play it after this song?" or something like that, like a jukebox or whatever. I thought, "Oh, this is a great new addition to it, a feature to make it a little bit better."

Bas Ording (18:25):

Of course, I spend a bunch of time making the little demo, little animations, all that stuff, but that was not well-received. He got pretty upset about it, because he's like, "It's just not simple enough." He would definitely yell at people if things were too complicated or didn't look good.

Julia Furlan (18:40):

As the announcement deadline neared, there were bugs to be fixed, designs to improve, and Jobs's notes to deal with. There were issues with the phone's battery life, software would crash, and often calls wouldn't come through. Bas and his team found it especially difficult to build a touchscreen keyboard that would accurately type messages.

Bas Ording (18:58):

Then Steve, he sounded very confident that something could come out of this. Of course, I thought deep down, "Oh my God, I don't know. This is going to be quite the challenge."

Julia Furlan (19:09):

Sleep deprived and their nerves raw, Bas and his team spent their remaining time and energy on those final touches. Then the day came on January 9th, 2007, to reveal the iPhone to the world. As Bas watched an excited crowd of tech enthusiasts stream into San Francisco's Moscone Center, his team anxiously waited for the event to start, hoping nothing had been overlooked.

Bas Ording (19:32):

Yeah, on a day like that, the keynote speech, it's a lot of the engineers that worked on the iPhone. Some of them were in the audience. Some of them were backstage. They were very nervous that anything that they worked on somehow crashed, or whatever, right in the middle of Steve's demo to this big presentation.

Julia Furlan (19:49):

The auditorium lights dimmed, and Jobs took the stage in his signature black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. He began by admitting he'd been looking forward to this day for two years, and recapped the legacy of Apple's products dating back to the '80s. Then he set up the big announcement. Apple was unveiling three new products.

Bas Ording (20:10):

An internet device, a music player, and a phone. Then he repeated it, I think, three times or so. Then he said, "You get it?" Then it turned out to be it's just one product. Everything is all in one on the iPhone. It was quite a surprise for people.

Bas Ording (20:25):

It's so cool to see Steve Jobs present that stuff in person there. It was very special. He was such a master at doing those kind of presentations.

Julia Furlan (20:35):

There is a palpable, growing excitement in the room as Jobs outlines feature after feature, no buttons, just a screen. And you don't need a stylus; you use your finger. Jobs would even demonstrate one of Bas's own innovations, the iPhone's famous rubber band scrolling feature. The launch and the iPhone were a hit. But for Bas, the day held one particularly special moment.

Bas Ording (20:59):

There was all these journalists and people talking with him there, and he was on the stage. Then I was waiting around. I thought, "Maybe there's a moment I can just say, 'Hey, congrats,' or something," but it was very busy.

Bas Ording (21:10):

Then I guess he noticed me. He walked away from all the journalists, and he came over. He's like, "Hey, congrats on these." He's like, "I still remember the first time you showed the scrolling demo." A short little moment that was, but definitely special.

Julia Furlan (21:26):

Six months later, in a scene repeated in cities worldwide, an eager crowd lined up outside the Apple Store in San Francisco, hoping to get their hands on an iPhone. In 2007, Apple sold 1.9 million iPhones. Since then, they've sold more than two billion worldwide.

Julia Furlan (21:43):

Its intuitive design has always been a major part of its success, but for that first iPhone, so was timing. The world had become internet literate and infatuated with cell phones. iPods were revolutionizing music. The iPhone infused the combined momentum of all three in a single device. But neither Steve Jobs nor Bas and his team could have imagined how users would take to its features, to the point where one of the less-used functions in a phone is the phone itself.

Bas Ording (22:14):

It's interesting how there are certain things that you just don't realize how it ends up being used, because that was a big thing for iPhone, that you could access the internet and do web searches and Google searches and get your map data and all that stuff, because if you weren't able to get that stuff, then it would've been way more limited. If iPhone was invented 20 years earlier, it would've been a whole different thing probably. It was the right kind of timing, in a way, for this particular product.

Julia Furlan (22:43):

The iPhone and the smartphones that followed did more than change the telephone. They combined multiple technologies, effectively transforming the way people communicate, a success owing in no small part to the iPhone's brilliantly simple interface, an attribute not lost on cell phone pioneer Marty Cooper.

Marty Cooper (23:01):

That's what the contribution of the iPhone was, that it had ways of making the phone intuitive, that you could work a phone without an instruction manual. People today don't even know what an instruction manual is. That really was the contribution of the iPhone. We're still on our way to what I think is the optimum phone, but the iPhone was a huge step forward from what had been done previously.

Julia Furlan (23:27):

Marty knew that the clunky device he invented 50 years ago was just the beginning of cell phone technology, but he's had a front-row seat to the entire history of cell phones and smartphones, which has given him some insight into what might come next.

Marty Cooper (23:41):

I think the phone is going to end up being a part of you. All of those things will be integrated in one system on your body, and it will anticipate your needs. That's what the phone will be like.

Marty Cooper (23:55):

People tend to be conservative. They don't think about what the future can be like. It takes people who are dreamers, that really do think about what the world could be like if you used the most modern technology. I hope that we make a contribution, we dreamers.

Julia Furlan (24:15):

I'm Julia Furlan, and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp. Working on your next big thing? Setapp's productivity toolkit will help you stay focused and get stuff done. Head over to setapp.com to see if Setapp can help you bring your ideas to life.

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