WorldBeat: Father of Cell Phone Eyes a Revolution

"Call me Marty," said the self-effacing Dr. Martin Cooper, a trim, white-haired dapper septuagenarian who holds eight patents, most of them in wireless communications technology.

Here at Telecom 99, he stands around genially greeting visitors to the booth set up by his company, Arraycomm Inc. The company is here touting I-Burst, its new communications technology that incorporates Internet Protocol to transmit data wirelessly. The stand is dwarfed by the multimillion-dollar, three-story multimedia theaters and restaurants that serve as stands for the biggest telecom and computer companies in the world.

The twinkle in his blue eyes suggests that he'd be a fun dad, and in fact he speaks fondly of his kids. Cooper, however, can also accurately be called the father of the cell phone. This week, he's having a great time walking around the show, checking out his revolutionary offspring, the products spawned by his ideas on personalizing mobile phone technology.

"I love all these gadgets. I buy one of just about every one of them," he said.

While he was a project manager at Motorola in 1973, Cooper set up a base station in New York with the first working prototype of a cellular telephone and called over to his rivals at Bell Labs. Bell had developed cellular communications technology years earlier, but Motorola and Bell Labs in the '60s and early '70s were in a race to actually incorporate the technology into usable devices; Cooper couldn't resist demonstrating in a very practical manner who had won.

Cooper noted that the idea of incorporating cellular communications technology into mobile communications devices was in the air in the late '60s. But everyone working cellular projects at the time was thinking in terms of big devices.

"People thought I was crazy to think that cellular, mobile phones you could carry around in your hand would be successful. Now, the idea of cellular phones seems trivial, obvious," he said.

But Cooper doesn't like to dwell on the past. "For me this is exciting -- being here right now, this year. It's just amazing the difference between now and four years ago, when it was really pretty boring," he said.

The difference between this and the last Telecom show? "It's convergence - everyone's been talking about it for years, but it's really happening now. Just go around and look at the booths."

This year, the computer company booths are just as big as the telecom company stands. "I heard that NEC spent $30 million on its stand," Cooper said.

Telephone and computer technology have merged, and that fact is evident everywhere here at the show: in the array of chief executive officers from multibillion dollar computer companies sitting on panels, in the conference sessions on IP-based networks and in the hundreds of people packing into the three-story computer company stands, which four years ago were squeezed in between the telecom stands and too small to be noticed.

"It's really parallel to what happened 25 years ago," Cooper said. "My idea was that it wasn't natural for people to stand around talking to a big box fixed to a wall. So why shouldn't you be able to use a data communications device that you can take anywhere you want to go?"

At night here Telecom attendees go to the old part of the town, relax in restaurants next to the Hotel de Ville and eat fondue. It's a bit sedate, reflecting the bureaucratic nature of the show's organizer, the International Telecommunication Union - a big local employer -- and the nature of the show in past years. But the revolution that Cooper helped spark decades ago is making things a bit more exciting.

Cooper may be self-effacing, but he's confident: "It's fun being part of history; what better thing can you do in your life than try to change the world?"