For mobile phone enthusiasts, the name Motorola usually brings back the images of some of the most stylish flip phones ever made. However, the company surely has much more to be proud about. With many iconic gadgets to its name, Motorola has been at the forefront of technological inventions and innovations for well over half a century now.
In this article, we take a look at the company’s history as well as some important milestones it achieved on its journey to where it is today.
The Beginning: battery eliminators and car radios
It all began in the decade of 1920 when Paul Galvin from Illinois went to Chicago in search of work. After working for a local storage-battery company there and a couple of failed attempts to start his own businesses, he along with is brother Joe Galvin established Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in the year 1928.
The company, which had $565 in working capital and just five employees, focused on making battery eliminators - a device that enabled battery-powered radios to work with household electricity instead.
Like almost all the other companies, Galvin Manufacturing was also severely affected by the Great Depression that hit the USA in 1929. In an effort to pull the company out of red, Galvin began experimenting with the auto mobile-radio market, asking his employees to design an inexpensive car radio that could be installed in vehicles of any make.
The following year, the company was able to produce a working model, which carried the brand name Motorola. The name was derived from the words “motorcar” and “victrola.”
In 1930s, Galvin Manufacturing came up with devices like police radio (a car radio that received only police broadcasts) and home radio with push-button tuning features - a first of its kind.
Towards the end of the decade, the company started researching on television. However, the research work was halted for a couple of years in favor of war-related projects that produced products like the Handie-Talkie SCR536 portable two-way radio, as well as the Walkie-Talkie, both of which were by used the U.S. Army Signal Corps in WWII.
R&D Work on television resumed in the year 1945, and the company unveiled its first TV in the year 1947. Dubbed Golden View, the $179 TV became hugely popular, with the company selling over 100,000 sets within a year of its launch, and becoming the number four TV manufacturer in the US.
The year 1947 turned out to be an important year in the company’s history as it also saw Galvin's son Robert joining the company, as well as the company being renamed Motorola, Inc.
Towards the end of the decade, in an attempt to expand its automotive business, Motorola also tried developing car heaters, but the project failed after its engineers couldn’t solve some technical issues like those related to proper exhaustion of the gasoline fumes.
Like in the case of Sony, the invention of transistor created a new business opportunity for Motorola, which quickly formed a semiconductor development group that churned out products like three-amp power transistors. It also started supplying transistors to other companies, including some of its competitors.
The 1950s was also the decade when the demand for home entertainment equipment like televisions took off in the US. Citing opportunity in home entertainment market, Motorola focused on creating stereo phonographs, the first of which were introduced in the year 1958.
The step proved to be successful with sales surpassing the prior year's sales of all phonographs and hi-fi equipment. This was followed by development of units that were a combination of stereos, radios and television sets. These products turned out to be so popular that the brand name 'Motorola' became synonymous with 'entertainment in the air.'
1958 was also the year when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence, and Motorola became one of the agency’s first suppliers, providing space communication equipment like transponders that were used in Mariner II, which launched in 1962 to explore the planet Venus.
The famous Apollo 11 mission saw hundreds of Motorola engineers designing, testing, and producing the space flight’s sophisticated electronics. After becoming the first human to land on moon, Neil Armstrong said his first words - “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” - using a Motorola radio transponder.
Founder Paul Galvin died in 1959, just a few years after he implemented a decentralized management scheme that saw the company’s businesses being granted divisional status - his son Robert Galvin was made president while Paul himself became chairman of the board and CEO. After Paul’s demise, his son took over Motorola, following which the company started expanding internationally, something that continued in 1960s.
Focus on high-tech electronic equipment
The decade of 1970s brought along significant changes for Motorola. In the year 1974, the company sold its consumer products division, and towards the end of the decade, it also started wrapping up its car radio business - Motorola made its last car radio in the year 1987.
The changes were a direct result of the company’s shift in focus to high-tech electronic components - in 1974, Motorola introduced its first microprocessor, the MC6800, an improved version of which also made its way to General Motor cars later in the decade.
Other milestones that Motorola hit in 1980s include a deal with Japan’s Toshiba to trade its microprocessor expertise with the latter’s expertise in manufacturing DRAMs, production of the company's Bravo model pocket pager in a fully automated factory, and invention of the Six Sigma quality improvement process. The decade also saw the company’s 68000 family of microprocessors powering Apple, HP, DEC, and Sun microsystems’ PC and workstations.
With the change in decade, Motorola’s focus started to shift towards its communications business, which was doing exceptionally well. The company, which recruited market specialists from various industry giants like Apple and GE, began selling its pagers in several colors.
Motorola announced its first cable modem, the CyberSURFR model (shown below), on April 19, 1995, and completed a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) cellular phone call using the GSM cellular standard later in the decade.
Meanwhile, the company was also working on 'Iridium', a multibillion-dollar project that aimed to wirelessly interconnect the whole world through a system of low-earth-orbiting satellites (LEOS).
The company, however, went into loss in the later half of 1990s, owing to slump in semiconductor and paging markets, fall in cellular phone sales as well as the Asian crisis of 1997. This triggered top management changes at the company as well as a massive reorganization that included merger all of the company's communications operations into a new entity called the Communications Enterprise. In 1999, the company returned to profitability.
1999 was also the year when project Iridium became operational. However, it not only suffered from technical problems, there was also very little market demand for it primarily due to astronomically high call rates (around $3 per minute). The project ultimately failed.
In 2000, Motorola acquired General Instrument Corporation, a company that had proposed the world's first all-digital HDTV (high-definition television) technical standard back in 1990, and had long been the No. 1 cable TV equipment provider. The deal was fixed at $17 billion, the largest acquisition in Motorola history.
Some of the milestones that the company achieved in the past 15 years include:
In 1973, the company came up with a prototype of the world's first portable cellular telephone, using the DynaTAC (Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage) system. In the year 1983, the world's first commercial hand-held cellular phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X phone, got FCC’s approval.
Weighing in at 28-ounce (794-gram), it went on sale the following year. The device used to take 10 hours to fully charge, and offered around 30 minutes of talk-time. Capable of saving last 30 dialed numbers, it carried a price tag of $3,995.
In the year 1989, Motorola released the MicroTAC, which was the smallest and lightest cellular phone available at the time.
Sporting a semi-clamshell design, it was 9 inches long when opened and weighed in 349 grams. It was an analog phone, whose GSM-compatible and TDMA/Dual-Mode versions launched a few years later.
In the year 1996, the company launched the successor to the DynaTAC. Dubbed StarTAC, it was the first ever clamshell/flip mobile phone.
Although the device carried a price tag of $1,000, It was a hugely successful phone, with nearly 60 million units sold.
In 2001, Motorola came up with the V60, another clamshell phone but even smaller in size. Measuring 3.43 x 1.77 x 0.94 inches and weighing in at 109 g, the device offered up to three hours of talk time, Internet access, text messaging and voice-activated dialing.
It was eventually made available in all three cellular technologies - GSM, TDMA and CDMA - and quickly became a worldwide best seller.
In 2003, Motorola Introduced A760, world’s first handset based on the Linux OS and Java technology. A few years later, the RAZR V3 was launched. Measuring 3.86 x 2.09 x 0.55 in and weighing in at 95 g, the device sported a striking design.
It also had a mini-USB jack for charging. The handset was a roaring success, with over 130 million units sold, becoming the world’s best-selling clamshell phone to date.
The Motorola Q was launched in the year 2005. It was a Windows Mobile device containing a BlackBerry-like full QWERTY keyboard and navigation buttons. There was also a thumb wheel on the side that helped you scroll pages easily.
The company also outed a phone named PEBL (model U6) in the same year. Again, it was a clamshell phone, but it looked like small, crystal stone, hence its name. The U9 and U3 models of the series launched in the year 2008.
The year 2005 also saw the company launching the SLVR L7 phone. Motorola ditched the clamshell design in favor of candybar look for this as well as the other models it released under the SLVR series - the L7e came in 2006 while the L9 was launched in the year 2007.
In 2008, the company launched the Aura R1 phone. Although it featured a circular display and a stainless steel shell, what really differentiated it from other Motorola phones was the 180-degree rotating enclosure it sported. There was also a 62-carat sapphire crystal lens.
The year 2009 marked the beginning of the Droid series of devices, the first of which was the Motorola Droid, which ran Android version 2.0 out-of-the-box.
The device featured a touch screen display that one could slide over to reveal the underlying keypad. Commonly known as the DROID 1, it was also the first device to ship with free Google Maps Navigation (beta) installed.
The following year, Motorola launched an interesting looking handset called the FlipOut. It featured a touch-screen display (QVGA 320x240 pixel; 2.8 inches in size) as well as a BlackBerry-like keyboard.
Running Android version 2.1, it came in a variety of color options including Poppy Red, Brilliant Blue, Licorice, and Saffron.
The year 2010 also marked the launch of the Droid X smartphone, which featured a large 4.3-inch screen (large compared to its competitors at that time), 8MP rear camera, as well as a built-in HDMI output.
A successor to the device, dubbed Droid X2, was released in the following year.
In the year 2011, the company revived the Razr brand with the launch of the Droid Razr, which at that time was the thinnest (only 7.1 mm thick) smartphone in the world.
It also featured an 8MP rear camera and ran Android version 2.3.5 (Gingerbread). The device was fairly successful.
An year after it was acquired by Google in 2012, the company launched the Moto X smartphone.
Although it was a mid-ranger, its selling point was the unmatched customization via the Moto Maker tool. The second generation Moto X launched in 2014.
Motorola - like many other tech giants - may have had its share of up and downs, but what cannot be denied is the fact that the company has some really impressive technological achievements to its name. And what’s good is that its future is looking bright as both Motorola Mobility and Motorola Solutions are moving from strength to strength.