Sunday, October 16, 2011

Death of the once-great Motorola

Robert Galvin died last week at aged 89. The second of three generations of Galvin CEOs at Motorola, he was clearly the best, guiding the company to its period of greatest success (1959-1997).

In addition to serving as Motorola president, CEO and chairman, Galvin was chairman of Sematech and helped create the Six Sigma movement in the United States. For more than 20 years, Galvin was a Notre Dame trustee and later fellow. His funeral mass will be held Tuesday in Winetka, Illinois.

I nearly met Galvin at what was likely his last public appearance, a dinner Sept. 8 in San Diego in which the Marconi Society gave him their a lifetime achievement award. Unfortunately, a massive power failure shifted the event from the Scripps Aquarium to become a candle-lit garden party, in which the mingling was cut short when the sun went down and the light disappeared. Galvin was at the event in a wheelchair, but we never spoke.

The Marconi Society prepared a very professional retrospective of Galvin’s life with Motorola, including interviews with Galvin and key associates. The 7-minute video was intended to be shown at the banquet, but without AC it was passed around among the 100 attendees on two battery-powered laptops.

The video included an interview with the (famous) Marty Cooper, who ran the Motorola project that produced the DynaTAC handset that was produced during the 1970s for the licensing trials.

Another interview was with yours truly. My original dissertation plans focused on the efforts of AT&T and Motorola to bring out cellphones during the period 1960-1983. I argued that Galvin brought two key contributions of Motorola to the cellular industry:
  • pushing for competing cellular licensees for every major market, rather than replicating Ma Bell’s landline monopoly
  • the ongoing push for miniaturization of the handset — being the first with a portable handset.
Something I hadn’t previously heard — although it was in the NYT obit — was Galvin’s story of how he got the FCC to approve his proposal for a 2nd license. He brought a portable handset to the Reagan White House, and Reagan himself asked a staffer to direct the FCC to grant Motorola a license.

It’s so very sad how Motorola has lost its way since the days of Bob Galvin. He can’t escape blame entirely, both appointing his son Chris to mismanage the company and greenlighting the $7 billion Iridium boondoggle that sapped the company’s resources at a time when Nokia (and later the Koreans) was eating its lunch.

Even without a happy ending, the world is a better place for people like Bob Galvin, Ken Olsen and others who created something that didn’t previously exist, harnessing technology both to serve customer needs and create economic growth. I’m guessing in my lifetime we will probably say something similar about Steve Jobs, when (like Motorola and DEC) the remnant of Apple has been commoditized into a shell of its former self.

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