Portable phone's inventors didn't foresee its popularity

Even years after engineers designed and built the first portable phone, they had no inkling it would become popular with consumers.

Their task, undertaken in late 1972, was mostly driven by Motorola Inc.'s desire to protect its wireless radio communications business from AT&T Corp.'s clutches. The engineering team that built the prototype for what became the ubiquitous cell phone gathered in Chicago last week to be honored 35 years after they began their quest.

The team put together the first working wireless hand-held phone in less than three months, "a project that would lead to an innovation so commonplace that we rarely pause to reflect upon the extraordinary creativity it took to design and build it," said Jeffrey Killeen, chairman of GlobalSpec Inc., the engineering search engine that staged the award ceremony.

Donald Linder, a retired Motorola engineer who led the mobile phone research team, said the company envisioned the device as a tool for business executives and others who could afford to pay big bucks to stay in touch while on the go. It wasn't until sometime in the early '90s that Linder realized his brainchild would become more widely popular.

"It was 10 years after we built the first phone that it became a commercial product, and 10 years after that when it really started to become popular with consumers," Linder said.

In late 1972, Motorola executives were concerned because the Federal Communications Commission had decided to release some radio spectrum to be used for mobile communications, Linder said, and AT&T proposed taking over that spectrum to provide an array of mobile services for the next three decades.

Motorola, which dominated the two-way-radio communications business at the time, saw this as a threat and needed to persuade policymakers to embrace regulations promoting competition rather than adopting the plan pushed by the giant phone monopoly.

"The FCC was concerned about using the spectrum efficiently," said Linder. "We needed to demonstrate that we could do that. At the time [AT&T's] Bell Labs was by far the biggest, most advanced research organization. We faced a huge task."

AT&T's proposal centered on car phones, while Motorola focused on phones that could be carried around. Motorola's experience with two-way radios suggested that people wanted phones they could take wherever they went, not phones that stayed inside automobiles, Linder said.

Working long hours and drawing on Motorola's widespread resources, Linder's team produced the DynaTAC, also known as the "brick phone." It was 9 inches long, not counting the antenna, and weighed more than 2 pounds, but you could carry it, and it worked.

You could make a dozen three-minute calls before recharging the battery.

After an initial New York City demonstration in April 1973, DynaTAC phones were used mostly in Washington by Motorola lobbyists wooing bureaucrats and politicians, and that led to some problems, Linder said.

"Sometimes they'd lose the antennas, or the phones wouldn't work because prototypes are far more fragile than products," he said. "Then we'd have to repair the phones."

In the end, Motorola got much of what it sought from policymakers, and, for better or worse, the world got cell phones.

COMPRESSED MEMORIES: To the great surprise of the Motorola engineers who first developed cell phones, mobile phones have become a sort of Swiss Army knife for pocket gadgetry, with no end in sight, and researchers at Northwestern University may help that trend along.

Working with colleagues at NEC Laboratories America Inc., NU computer engineers have found a way to double the amount of memory in a cell phone or other embedded electronic systems such as music players or cameras.

Because the technique for doubling available memory is done entirely with software, it doesn't add much strain to the device's battery or add much manufacturing cost.

"All the things you do with a cell phone or personal digital assistant require memory," said Robert Dick, a Northwestern electrical engineering assistant professor who led the effort. "The technology we've developed reduces data to less than half its original size without losing any information."

The scheme splits memory into two parts: a conventional memory and a compressed memory. As information is needed from the compressed side, it is retrieved, decompressed and inserted in the regular memory file.

While many engineers believe that expanding memory capacity means more battery-sucking hardware, "our team proved it can be done entirely in software," said Dick.

NEC and Northwestern filed for a joint patent on the technology.

SECURITY COSTS: Business spending on computer security goes up every year, a survey by the Oakbrook Terrace-based Computing Technology Industry Association found.

The recent survey of more than 1,000 organizations by CompTIA found that in 2006 they spent one-fifth of technology budgets on security technology, training, assessments and certification.

That is up from 15 percent of budgets in 2005 and 12 percent in 2004.

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jvan@tribune.com

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