The Good User Experience: Kickstarting the Cell Phone Revolution with Martin Cooper

We have tech royalty on the Good User Experience podcast today, namely Martin Cooper, entrepreneur, and futurist, probably best known as the father of the cell phone. Together with wife Arlene Harris, Cooper has co-founded many significant wireless technology ventures. Back in the 1970s he led the team at Motorola who developed the first truly mobile phone, brought to market in 1983.

He’s chairman of Dyna LLC and a member of the FCC’s technological advisory council as well as having the rare honor of a Law named after him. Cooper’s Law of Spectral Efficiency predicts that the maximum volume of wireless data transactions that can be conducted in any given area doubles every 42 months, while its cost halves within 30.

Cooper has won many honors and awards and it’s fair to say that he’s one of the most influential inventors of the 20th century. Even at 92, he’s still learning, remaining physically and mentally agile.

Father of the Mobile Phone

Cooper’s experience working in the two-way radio industry led him to realize that users wanted to communicate at a distance without the restriction of cables. He fought a 14-year battle with Bell Labs and the FCC whom he thought were compromising the freedom he proposed by focusing on car phones.

Mischievously, the first ever cell phone call was to his counterpart at Bell, Joel Engel. Cooper’s belief in his invention relied on the potential size of the market, which would offset the expense of building the thousands of cell phone towers necessary to make the network viable.

He tells the remarkable story of his world-changing invention in “Cutting the Cord”, his book, published in January 2021.

The Future is Only Beginning

Cooper is an inveterate futurist when he talks about mobile technology. “We’re just at the beginning,” he claims. “We certainly have an idea of what the potential is, and we haven’t exercised that potential very much.”

He offers the example of education, where it’s long been known that people don’t learn in hour-long segments of didactic teaching, and yet we still do it that way. He believes we need to make internet access truly universal, and that students without access to the web at home are impoverished.

Since so much of human learning is now available in our pockets, Cooper is concerned that too much money is being spent on problems of latency and bandwidth, and not enough on coverage and affordability. A key priority should be to make cell phone technology available to everyone, everywhere.

Failure and Collaboration

We talked about how valuable it is to work in an environment where experimentation, with its consequent failures and eventual triumphs, is welcomed.

Collaboration is also a key component of successful invention and product development. Collaboration pushes science and technology forward. Enabling this to happen so much quicker, Cooper insists, is one of the main contributions of the cell phone.

He also believes that enhanced human interaction and communication helps promote longevity and problem solving. One such problem dominant today is, of course, climate change and the energy crisis that contributes to it.

Our tendency not to solve such problems until it becomes a personal crisis blinds us to how technology could help stave off disasters in advance.

The Power of Positivity

At 92, Cooper has seen a lot of change during his lifetime. From a world without the transistor to a planet with 5G, the internet, supercomputers in our pocket and much more. Cooper is a believer in Steven Pinker’s notion of continued human progress, and he cites Lawrence B. Siegel’s book “Fewer, Richer, Greener” in support of his optimism.

Educated optimism is preferable to naïve optimism. The naysayers who worry about Moore’s Law reaching the limits of the integrated circuit may just lack the imagination to see the innovations to come.

The Norman Door

We talk about the concept of a “Norman Door”, a piece of technology whose usage is not at all intuitive, such as glass doors with handles on both sides, where you must guess if you push or pull the door to open it.

Cooper thinks cellphones can be that way, when the UX is badly designed. In the future, Cooper believes these devices will be properly human-centered. “Good technology is intuitive; the best technology is invisible,” he says.

We both agree that voice activation of our devices is in its infancy, but that this will develop significantly in the years to come. The battle between the leading operating systems for cell phones is becoming a choice between privacy and ease of use (Apple) and low cost with involuntary data sharing (Android). This is another unhelpful dichotomy.

Customizability and Challenge

Cooper believes that the OS of the future will learn our behavior and mold itself to the way we want to use our devices. This will create a fully optimized product which doesn’t compromise in terms of providing exactly what the user wants and needs.

Humans benefit from continual learning and challenge, Cooper believes. The ability to admit when you’re wrong is vital, as well as developing a mechanism for checking your assumptions as you go.

He adheres to a small-c conservatism that nevertheless makes room for providing a minimal standard of living for all humans for free, regardless of their contribution to society. Cooper believes that most people would choose to be productive, even if universal basic income were implemented.

Still an optimist at 92, with no significant regrets in life, Cooper is a model for how to live a satisfying life without complacency. He proved a hugely inspiring interlocutor.

Listen to our conversation on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Show notes and links can be found here.

Elijah runs a LA/SLC creative agency focused on the good side of technology. He’s also a mediocre athlete, father, and entrepreneur. https://www.spark6.com/