eWEEK at 30: Glory Days of Nokia, Motorola, BlackBerry Ended With iPhone

eWEEK 30: The days when Nokia, Motorola and BlackBerry dominated the mobile phone market—before the iPhone's 2007 debut—are a rapidly fading memory.

The history of mobile phones is the story of a single lesson repeated: Don't get comfortable.

Or, put more bluntly, as it often is, you have to be willing to kill your favorite child.

To have any chance of staying on top, you have to walk away from the thing you labored to create and that has brought you tremendous success, or accept that the peak you've reached will mark the start of your descent.

"Companies are insulated, isolated. They don't want to rock the boat and screw up their revenue streams," Jack Gold, principal analyst with J. Gold Associates, told eWEEK. "But better you eat your own children than somebody else."

Roger Kay, founder of Endpoint Technologies, instantly made the same point when asked about the early success stories of the mobile phone industry.

"Killing your own children is part of succeeding in business, but very few CEOs have had the courage to do it," said Kay, naming former Intel CEO Andy Grove as a rare example. "You have to throw away a sure thing to take a bet on an unknown."

This is a lesson that Nokia, BlackBerry and Motorola should have learned during the days when they vied among themselves as leaders of the mobile phone market. Now their years at the top are a fading memory.

Before things went wrong for that trio of mobile phone makers, though, they went very, very right.

Birth of the Mobile Phone

The earliest days of the mobile phone industry looked something like this:

In 1974, a Motorola engineer made the first-ever mobile phone call. (Naturally, he called his chief rival, the person racing him to such technology, to say that he'd won.)

In 1979, the Finnish industrial concern Nokia expanded beyond its rubber and forestry businesses and teamed up with Finnish TV maker Salora to create a radio-telephone company. Then, in 1981, it launched Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT), a precursor to GSM that was the first fully automatic cellular network and the first to allow international roaming. Suddenly, there was the possibility that everyone could call everyone.

Nine years after Motorola's first call, it launched the first commercially available mobile phone. The DynaTAC 8000X was thicker than a brick, could store 30 numbers, provided 30 minutes of talk time and cost nearly $4,000. But when Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gekko, used it on a beach to make a sunrise call in the 1987 film Wall Street, it was the epitome of high-tech and big-money excesses.

Nokia followed, in 1987, with the Mobira Cityman 900, the first handheld mobile phone for NMT networks. In a brochure for the Cityman, a Gekko-like character, airily ignoring a doting date, held a cocktail in one hand and a Cityman in the other while Nokia explained, "Everything is in your hands now. Connections. Time. The freedom to move."

For hundreds of millions of people, communication was about to change entirely.

Mobile Phones for the Masses

Motorola refined and slimmed down its design and in 1989 introduced the MicroTAC 9800X, the smallest and lightest phone on the market and the first flip phone, or clamshell, as the market dubbed it.