“The smartwatch is retro. If you’re going to wear something to measure things, why not an undershirt or other item of clothing?… A wristwatch is moving backward.” —Marty Cooper
They are known as the father and first lady of wireless. Between them over several decades, Martin Cooper and Arlene Harris – a husband-and-wife team – have helped to define the cellphone revolution that has changed the way we live.
Arlene Harris began her career at age 12 as a telephone switchboard operator for her family’s communications business. She has been a wireless entrepreneur for 35 years and is the founder of GreatCall, which launched the senior-friendly Jitterbug phone with Samsung in 2006. “Father of the cellphone” Marty Cooper invented the portable cellular telephone and made the world’s first mobile call in 1973 during his 29-year career with Motorola. He was inspired by Captain Kirk’s communicator on “Star Trek.”
Now 86 and 66, Marty and Arlene continue to look to the future of wireless technology, exploring new ideas that, they believe, can improve our lives as seniors.
Senior Planet spoke with the couple at their offices in California the old fashioned way – by landline.
Did you two see wireless becoming what it’s become, with people glued to their phones?
Marty I didn’t see it coming at all. At least not at the beginning in 1973. There were no personal computers, no Internet, but my team and I created a telephone you could carry with you and use wherever you were. We never could have predicted it growing into something so extraordinary.
What do you think of the cellphone industry today?
Marty One of the things that we’re very concerned about is how complicated cellphones have become. We believe technological devices should be simple for everyone.
There all kinds of functions on a smartphone that it’s unlikely you will ever use. Since everyone doesn’t use every function of a smartphone, they should be customized. The phone should be what the person who uses it is comfortable with. Its functions should be intuitive and help you without you knowing it.
How can this be accomplished?
Marty When you buy a smartphone, it should ask you some English questions and configure itself for the things you need, and then observe how you use it and adjust itself so you don’t have to keep learning things. If this sounds futuristic, it isn’t. Designers are trying to do that now. However, the steps they’re making are miniscule. Most phones – unlike the Jitterbug, which we designed – were created by engineers who assume everyone is an engineer.
Do you think seniors should be educated in the use of digital technologies?
Arlene I don’t believe you should be teaching people how to use relatively complicated computing environments where you have to understand things like whether you’re connected, which way to swipe your finger, what is an app, etc. You should not have to go through the ordeal when you’re using a device of having to remember how it works. If the trainer has to say “you need to remember this” more than three times, it’s too much.
We’re all burdened with this issue. If you have to continually re-explore and become re-aware of how something works, it’s not working right. If you took the people who are doing the training, I bet about five percent could come up with better ways to do the things that Apple and Android are doing.
Marty There are two ways of looking at smartphone technology. You can accept that engineers are creating marvelous technology but it’s hard to use and users should be responsible for figuring it out. Or you can change the product, have the people who design it be sensitive to the needs of people who use it. People want simplicity.
We’ve done something about it. With the Jitterbug, you don’t need to figure out what the bars mean if you want to make a call, all you really need to know is whether you can talk or not. You open the phone and get a dial tone, which tells you that you can hold a conversation. When you push the “O” button, an operator answers and knows who you are, and will ask “what can I do for you?” The operator can populate your phone book. If somebody really cares about you they can make your life a lot easier.
Why do you think seniors need “dumbed down” phones?
Marty We’re not designing anything dumbed down! It’s the complicated technology that only engineers know how to use that should be called dumb.
Is complicated design the biggest problem with today’s technology?
Arlene Another major drawback with how we adopt technology is that once we get it in our hands, it’s not automatically set up. For instance, if you’re carrying a Bluetooth phone, you have to set it up for your car, sync it to this and that. The user has to figure out how to coordinate the navigation system to use the voice system to transfer what they need to listen to. The technology assumes someone will be able to figure out how to do all this, or will get someone else to do it. Then someone has to maintain it. Very often you do the same setup for a bunch of different applications – nothing is integrated. It’s bizarre. The real issue is, you shouldn’t have to do it over and over. Systems should be enabling you to make graceful movements through the technological experience that don’t drive you nuts.
Seniors, who have the most difficulty learning this stuff, have to figure out a brand new interface for everything they buy. When they go out to buy a TV, they can’t get one they understand – it’s not intuitive, it doesn’t take into account how things have always been done. Engineers think making something different is more important than making it familiar and easy to use.
What are you two working on now?
Arlene We are working on trying to find solutions to harmonization, especially technology that will improve the lifestyles of older people.
What do you think will trigger change so that tech becomes more user friendly?
Marty New technology like sensors and medical devices – which no one will use unless they’re user friendly – will trigger the creation of different platforms for different lifestyles. You have to use artificial intelligence, machine learning, combinations that make sense for a particular user. There are technologies people are working on where they’re trying to figure this out.
I believe the market itself is feeling the pinch. Designers have gone about as far as they can go in the areas of power, storage and displays. At some point they have to start focusing on user friendliness.
What kinds of phones do you have?
Marty I have a Moto X.
Arlene I have a Jitterbug and a Windows Nokia. I try everything.
What are some examples of features you think phones should have?
Marty My Moto X phone has three features that sound trivial, but you have to take baby steps. If I want to take a picture, I don’t have to press a button, I just wiggle the phone and touch anywhere on the screen. Every time I take the phone out of my pocket it tells me the time. I touch it and it speaks to me. I can ask it a question and get it to look up things for me and get it to go to an app. You can set an alarm, get directions or find out the weather without lifting a finger. It learns your routine.
Can’t you get these features now as apps?
Arlene They should be built into phones. Consumers should be able to say, “ I’m buying this phone, here’s my lifestyle” and let the phone configure to those parameters. The customer wants to know, what does this phone do for me, and how hard is it to get this to work?
Do you think the smartwatch is the new smartphone?
Marty Nope. I bought a smart gadget and decided it didn’t make sense. Apple will sell a ton of them, and they’ll end up sitting on people’s shelves.
Arlene There are practical opportunities for wearables, but if you have a thousand features and you’re only going to use ten, you shouldn’t have to deal with the 999 you’re not using.
Marty Have you thought about the fact that the wristwatch is retro? Youngsters don’t wear watches. If you’re going to wear something to measure things, why not an undershirt or other item of clothing? It could measure other things that watches don’t measure, which could be useful medically and in other ways. A wristwatch is moving backwards.
What do you see for the future of wireless?
Arlene Harmonization and integration. The whole notion of cloud storage and processing and being able to create unique profiles means devices can be harmonized. If I can represent my preferences and use that profile to help me adopt stuff that’s coming out, I don’t need to know what apps are coming out, my profile will tell me.
Marty Charging has to improve. Engineers are making us plug in our phones every day to tiny outlets, which is the most unnatural, unfriendly thing. Five years from now, when you walk into the house your phone will charge automatically. You’ll never have to think about it. Anything you don’t have to think about is good.
What’s the last word on wireless?
Arlene We have gotten to the end of the road making hardware better, faster, smaller, bigger, more attractive and with more pixels. The people who build these things are going to have to work on making devices more friendly. That’s the hope for the future.