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Motorola Is About to Be Phased Out

The Chicago company invented the cell phone, taught the Chinese how to build them, and built the Chinese market. Then it got devoured by its own creation.

Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

The annual Consumer Electronics Show is a showcase for the future, but this year it’s put a legendary tech name firmly in the past. CNET’s Roger Cheng reports that Lenovo, which bought Motorola’s mobile brand after it passed through Google’s hands, will phase the famous name out.

Well, not entirely—Motorola will be used internally, and the Moto phone nickname will remain, in the form of “Moto by Lenovo,” and the legendary “batwing” logo created by midcentury Chicago designer Morton Goldsholl will stick around. But the full name—the name of the first cell phone—will soon be no more.

Looked at that way, this announcement might not sound like much, especially to people too young to remember a time before cell phones, or before Motorola’s Razr made the cell phone a design object. But the company and its name represent a remarkable—and remarkably up-and-down—history in the annals of technology.

And that history was told in great depth by Ted Fishman in Chicago. For much of its early history, the company, founded in Chicago in 1928, grounded itself in the consistent, unsexy public-safety market: walkie-talkies and civil-defense radio systems. But that’s how Motorola came to invent the cell phone, and it began because of police reforms instituted by the groundbreaking CPD head Orlando Wilson:

A request from Orlando Wilson, Chicago’s police chief from 1960 to 1967, provided the impetus. Violent crime in the city was surging. Wilson wanted his patrol officers out of their cars and on foot, but he didn’t want them on the street without a way to stay connected.

[Electrical engineer Martin] Cooper, among others, envisioned a solution: a handheld phone that functioned on a wireless cellular network. Bob Galvin [the CEO and son of its founder] realized that the market for such a device could extend well beyond law enforcement. So he committed $100 million to developing it. In 1973, Cooper made his first call—to a rival at AT&T’s Bell Labs—on a boot-size prototype.

After they invented the cell phone, they moved on to create one of its largest markets, and the immense supply chain responsible for most cell phones today, as Fishman, the author of China, Inc., details:

Chinese officials eventually agreed to let Motorola set up manufacturing in the country, on one condition: that Motorola teach its Chinese employees and suppliers how to make products good enough for global customers. Bob knew that China would, little by little, copy the company’s technology and compete with Motorola. But the Chinese market would be so large, he figured, that even a small slice would be worth the investment.

So Bob insisted that Motorola bring its best technology to China and that the company’s factories there manufacture to the strictest standards. Hundreds of Chinese suppliers, including state-owned firms, learned how to make things the Motorola way. Those suppliers, which had second- and third-tier suppliers of their own, spread that knowledge throughout a growing swath of China’s economy. Motorola also helped China build its national communications networks, using technology that leapfrogged that in the States. Altogether, Motorola did more than just about any other foreign company to create a market-ready Chinese industrial complex.

As Fishman details, Motorola often led—and then someone else came along and one-upped them. That’s the path they followed for their last great success, the Droid, the second Android-based phone on the market, which briefly outpaced the iPhone. “Motorola had accepted that the most important innovations in phones were better aped than forged,” Fishman writes. “It had latched its fortunes to a bigger, more powerful company and was surfing in its wake.”

Google bought Motorola Mobility, split off from its public-safety business in a Wall Street manever, mostly for its store of patents and the protection they’d offer in intellectual property fights. Google then turned around and sold it, keeping the patents, to Lenovo, a budget-hunting titan competing with Samsung in the Chinese market that Motorola pioneered.

Now the process is all but over, Lenovo having fully digested the company that in many ways cleared its path. We’ll still have the batwing, though. And if you really want a Motorola-branded mobile product, the old public-safety core that built the brand remains in Motorola Solutions, but you’ll have to content yourself with a pager or walkie-talkie.


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