Early Wealthy Cell Phone Adopters Funded Innovations That “Made Cellphones Affordable to the Masses”

In Openness to Creative Destruction, I argue that early new technologies are often primitive, expensive, and buggy. They are initially bought by the rich who allow the technology to survive while it is being made better and cheaper. See below that cellphones are another example.

(p. A14) On April 3, 1973, four months after the last manned moon mission, a 44-year-old Motorola engineer took a small step onto Sixth Avenue outside the New York Hilton. There Martin Cooper did something commonplace now but at the time revolutionary: He made a call on a cellular telephone.

“Joel,” Mr. Cooper said to the man who picked up, “I’m calling you from a real cellular telephone—a handheld unit.” Joel Engel worked at Bell Labs, the research division of AT&T. Mr. Cooper was calling to gloat about surpassing the phone monopoly.

. . .

“The function of a cellphone—I can’t express it any better—it is to set people free,” Mr. Cooper, 94, says.  . . .  “A cellphone gives a person the freedom to be connected to the rest of the world, wherever they are and whenever they want to.”

. . .

“We expected the first phones to go to wealthy people,” Mr. Cooper says. “To a large extent that was true. But it turns out that one of the biggest users were real-estate people.” They needed to take calls from clients and go out to show properties. “The cellphone allowed them to do both at the same time. They could be showing a home and still answer the call. So to them the phone, even at that huge price, doubled their effectiveness.”

These early adopters, for whom the technology was worth the cost, helped fund further innovation, which ultimately made cellphones affordable to the masses. Advancements in data-transmission, display and input technology made possible the inexpensive, versatile smartphones we take for granted today.

They also brought ill effects, especially for young people, such as compulsive cellphone use and social media that promote both groupthink and bitter division. “Those are all big problems,” Mr. Cooper says.

. . .

But he accentuates the positive. “We are just starting to figure out what the value of the cellphone is,” he says. “Humanity will solve these other problems if the advantages are big enough. And the advantages—the services you get out of the cellphone, the value to you to make you more efficient—are so great that there’s no question in my mind that humanity is going to solve these problems.”

He is confident that the benefits already outweigh the costs. “Today, people are healthier. There are fewer people in poverty. They live longer than ever before. Something has made that happen, and I think the cellphone is one of the contributors.” By improving efficiency, “it has taken away a lot of the time issues, given people more time to do other things.”

For the full interview, see:

Faith Bottum. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; From the ‘Shoe Phone’ to the Smartphone.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 15, 2022): A13.

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 14, 2023, and has the title “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; Opinion: From the ‘Shoe Phone’ to the Smartphone.”)

My book that I mention above is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

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