Handheld or not?

One very central question was how light a GSM telephone could be. Apart from Motorola’s pioneering models for the American analog standard in the mid-1980s, there was still no European mobile phone that could even approximately be described as handheld.

Everyone knew that a digital handheld would be much more difficult to construct than an analog version. At the same time fears were expressed that the use of frequencies would be jeopardized if any Tom, Dick or Harry could carry mobile phones around at high altitudes. How important was the issue really?

The GSM approach had already found clear expression in its mandate from 1982, says Beijer. “The system had to be able to cope with handheld mobile phones if it turned out that the manufacturers wanted to supply them and the operators could design their networks for them.”

During 1984–1985, one of the GSM working groups studied the special requirements that the use of handheld mobiles could give rise to. It found that the most critical factor was the risk of handheld phones dropping out because of the Rayleigh fading dip, an effect that arises when signals reaching the phone from different directions cancel each other out.

The solution to this problem came from France and was based on rapid frequency switching. But in actual fact the size of mobile phones was mainly important for the Nordic countries, says Beijer. “The Nordic countries (and the UK) had relatively well-developed mobile phone markets. GSM would have to outcompete its predecessor, NMT 450 and NMT 900 in the Nordic countries. But with what? There was already the challenge of finding marketing advantages for GSM apart from the extended roaming, and nobody had yet found out whether this was a convincing sales argument.”


If NMT 900 could accommodate handheld mobiles while GSM could not, it was all over for GSM. “France and Germany did not have the same problem. The French and the Germans could shrug their shoulders and adopt a laid-back attitude to the problem. GSM would still be the winner in their markets.”

Östen Mäkitalo was one of the optimists, but was often taunted by the doubters. “In 1985 I came to a meeting in Berlin direct from a study visit to Japan. I had become familiar with Japanese findings about the miniaturization of technological products, and reported a Japanese forecast that 50 percent of mobile phones would be handheld by the end of the century. The general reaction was that this was pure moonshine.”

Gunnar Sandegren, who was employed by ERA in 1985, offers another example: “On my first day at work I was sent with my boss Jan Uddenfeldt to a GSM conference in Bologna. Janne (Uddenfeldt) went on at them about having to establish some standard that would make it possible to construct pocket phones. The audience sat there open-mouthed.”


Lundqvist got effective business leverage from ERA’s rapid and purposeful acquisition of expertise in constructing mobile systems for every standard. And AMPS and TACS gradually turned out to have greater commercial impact than NMT.

Uddenfeldt recalls: “The US quickly overtook the Nordic countries. Their AMPS system did, admittedly, start operating later than NMT but during the latter half of the 1980s it grew to be 10 times the size of NMT and was introduced not only in North and Latin America but also in most parts of Asia and major European countries such as the UK and Italy. Commercially, NMT could not seriously compete with AMPS.”

The winner from all this was mainly Motorola: every year it appeared to increase its global lead in markets for both mobile phones and mobile systems. Its competitor AT&T was also strong, but it failed to export its technology outside the US. In 1985 Motorola shocked its Nordic competitors by buying Storno, the leading Danish telecommunications company.

Nils Rydbeck observes: “Motorola taught the world that consumer electronics had not been taken over by the Japanese for ever. That was an important lesson.”

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn

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