Threads Futures

The Smartphone—with Martin Cooper


The handheld mobile phone was created in 1973 by the inventor Martin Cooper. During the 1970s and 1980s, it was only the people who were economically powerful who were able to use mobile phones—it was a status symbol. It was only in the early 1990s when the internet came along, that it merged with the mobile phone, resulting in the smartphone and in today's configuration—a minicomputer, hybrid of sorts.

We asked wireless pioneer Martin ‘Marty’ Cooper what he thinks about the effects, opportunities and threats for journalism when considering the evolution of the smartphone. Here is what he had to say:


There are few professionals that value the smartphone more than journalists because, above all, the mobile phone is a tool of productivity. When I introduced the handheld mobile phone in 1973, a newsperson’s standard tools were a desk and a telephone wired to the wall—and, of course, a cigarette generating the cloud of smoke that served as a metaphor for the evanescence of ‘news.’ Like the smoke, both the desk and the wired phone have disappeared, obliviated by the realization that people are naturally, inherently mobile; by the fact that information gathered solely by a fixed phone is always second hand.

Today, the modern journalist can reach out to gather the views of others and maintain the ability to experience the news firsthand, thanks to mobile phone technology. There are more mobile phones in use today in the world than there are people. The smartphone is not only a means for gathering information, but it also helps to create, promote, and drive events, social movements, and societal changes. Political revolutions have been executed by the clarion call of texting. It does not require a smartphone or a reporter to record a picture or video of an important event, anyone with a phone can do that. Therefore, the mobile journalist has a large subset of the population acting as their extended team without inhibiting their ability to personally experience the event.

The handheld mobile phone itself has been revolutionary, yet the societal impact of the phone in all of its manifestations has only just begun. The smartphone is a device that a billion people say they cannot live without. It is the modern version of supercomputer technology with a high-resolution camera and a precision navigation system. And still, it is suboptimal—almost primitive, really—in its functionality.

The geniuses who created this technological marvel have trained us—the users—to accept a phone that requires us to place a flat piece of plastic and glass to the side of our curved heads with our arms in awkward positions to listen to marginal representations of remote voices. We users have been trained to accept a six- or seven-inch screen, while others watch television with realistic 60- or 70-inch images. We are presented with options for a million or two apps and given few criteria on how to select an optimum solution. And there are still locations with marginal or no cellular phone coverage.

This is about to change. A radically improved version of the smartphone is imminent. You will, in your lifetime, see three dimensional images delivered to your eyes in full size. They will be accompanied by high-quality audio. Far more importantly, the ‘phone’ (what an archaic and inaccurate term it is!) will include an artificial intelligence that will continually configure itself to serve you, the user, with minimal effort on your part.

The smartphone is your tool. It should behave in ways that enhance your productivity and your awareness with minimal distractions.

The role of journalists is crucial in modern society. It is to increase others’ awareness of events, politics, and the needs and desires of the rest of the world, to enhance their knowledge, and to improve their ability to be in control. The cell phone will continue to be a valuable tool in achieving that objective. I am proud to have had a small role in helping you do that.


__This editorial first appeared in the publication Voices and Conversations, published to accompany the exhibition Breaking News? how the smartphone changed journalism on view at The Media Majlis at Northwestern University in Qatar, fall 2020–spring 2021.

__Martin Cooper is an American engineer who led the team that built the first mobile cell phone and made the first cell phone call in 1973. He is widely regarded as the father of the cellular phone. Early in his career, Cooper worked at Motorola on many projects involving wireless communications, such as the first radio-controlled traffic light system, which he patented in 1960, and the first handheld police radios, which were introduced in 1967. In 1983, after years of further development, Motorola introduced the first portable cell phone for consumers, the DynaTAC 8000x. In 1986 he and his wife, Arlene Harris, founded Dyna, LLC., a central organization from which they launched other companies, such as ArrayComm (1996) and GreatCall (2006).