Back to the Future with tech pioneer Nils Martensson

06.10.17

With 2017 seeing the 10th anniversary of the launch of the iPhone, Craig Wightman and Ross Kinneir give us a fascinating insight into the life and remarkable work of Nils Martensson, one of the pioneers of the technology that can arguably claim to be the most significant of the digital information age…

Nils Martensson Technophone

1984-1986

It’s 1984, and two Bristol-based designers arrive at an anonymous office in Woking. We’re there to meet Nils Martensson, who has invited us to discuss the design of a “radio”. Once directed inside the office floor, largely empty except for a few busy-looking engineers with breadboards and oscilloscopes, we meet our host, who is on the telephone, and seems to be conducting simultaneous conversations in English, Swedish, French and German. Eventually attracting his attention, we are immediately impressed by his sharp intelligence, knowledge, ambition and vision. What he describes is not a radio at all, but a mobile telephone, destined to be the smallest, lightest and most advanced of its type and set to change the world. So started one of the most remarkable stories in Kinneir Dufort’s 40 year history of design and innovation. 

The Technophone PocketPhone PC105T, initially retailing at £3,000, was launched in 1986, taking advantage of the newly launched UK cellular network.  Technophone, a small start-up in a market of electronic and telecommunication giants, went on to become the second largest manufacturer of cellular telephones in Europe before being bought by Nokia in 1991.

Back to the Present

Fast-forward 33 years, we meet Martensson in a Surrey restaurant only a few miles from that unlikely cradle of technological revolution. Now 79, he is as sharp and inquisitive as we remember him. First up, we have to ask him what phone he uses: “Apple”, he says somewhat reluctantly. “I use an Apple, but I’m not entirely happy with it. I understand their problem, but they’re not trying to cater for exactly my needs, because the youngsters that play games on their phones, do their WhatsApp, Twitter and whatever; they are much bigger customers than me and have different requirements”. Reflecting on the enormous success of the iPhone, he is rueful: “Apple were lucky. They made a lousy phone, but somehow it caught on!” He still finds it remarkable that the iPhone was able to blow apart the smartphone market, of which Nokia held a 50% share in 2007, collapsing to less than 10% within two years: “Everything went upside down. Nokia totally lost it, and the poor Canadians got stuck totally, with their Blackberry”. He notes how quickly consumer markets can change when impacted by new technologies, citing the camera and television markets as examples: “The Japanese camera manufacturers and Kodak in America didn’t see that coming, neither did the TV manufacturers. Many of the real camera manufacturers just died, and some, like Canon and Nikon, just about survived. But instead, you got new companies that were in electronics”.

Nils Martensson

Martensson’s formative years were served as a radio engineer with Ericsson in Sweden, where he worked during the 1960s. Frustrated by a lack of support for new innovations, Martensson left Ericsson, taking a team of engineers with him, and started developing their own range of communications products such as 2-way radios, semi-automatic radio telephones, taxi radio systems and pagers. They also branched out into other fields, including hifi products, which they developed in partnership with Yamaha. 

Following a period working with Plessey in Europe, Martensson moved to the UK in 1981, with the ambition to realise his vision of developing a new generation of mobile telephones, formalising the operation as Technophone in 1984. Martensson was determined that the new product would be the most technically advanced, in terms of size, battery life and signal performance.  Obsessive about size; when the Kinneir Dufort team presented models of the proposed phone designs, Martensson would, in every meeting, ask what could be done to make it smaller!

The World's First

The result? A phone about one third of the size of the leading competitor, Motorola’s Dynatac 8000x, and the first genuinely pocket-sized phone. The first live call with the pocket handset was made on the access road to the M25 exit 11, using an early cellular base station which had been installed near Heathrow airport. Martensson recalls: “There was a rise in the ground just before the slip road which allowed us to access the base station”. Despite the enormous technical strides being made by the Technophone team, the greatest challenge remained investment: “We were going through money very fast and it was almost impossible to get investment – nobody believed in the potential”.

Motorola Dynatec Phone and newspaper advertisment for the Excell PocketphoneThe Motorola Dynatac phone and an early newspaper advertisment for the Pocketphone

Revealingly, early sales of the Pocketphone were fuelled by competitors buying them to explore its internal secrets.  Martensson was untroubled by this: “We always saw a high uptake of competitors buying our new products. The tell-tale sign was that they didn’t ask for a discount – wonderful business – full price! There was a law firm in Brighton who ordered ten.  I called them and asked what they needed ten for – they didn’t even have ten employees! Sure enough, they were buying them for a Japanese competitor”. Once inside, inquisitive competitors found, not the chips licenced by most of the phone manufacturers at the time, but Technophone’s in-house developed bespoke ICs: “They were our proprietary design – at the time the most complex mixed digital/analogue ICs made anywhere in the world!”. 

The wave of interest that Technophone created made for increasingly devious behaviours. In one incident, Martensson found a Japanese competitor rooting through a skip at night outside the Technophone office, and promptly ordered an industrial shredder. In another, having secured a contract to supply mobile phones for the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the team had to provide a set of blueprints for the phone, which was a Korean import requirement: “So we produced drawings, although if they had used those drawings to produce phones, they wouldn’t have worked!

Who wants a telephone in their pocket?

Despite continuing success with subsequent products, and becoming the second largest mobile phone manufacturer in Europe, Martensson continued to struggle to attract investment and belief in his vision of a connected, mobile future and recalls that potential investors and industry analysts alike would regularly ask him: “Who wants a telephone in their pocket?”. 

Technophone was bought by Nokia in 1991 with Martensson subsequently leaving in 1992.  Asked whether he foresaw the way mobile phones would develop into the multifunctional connected smartphones of today he says: “We didn’t see in 1970 the whole way but by 1990 I think we could foresee products like the iPhone is today.  We even had designs for phones with the whole face being a display but Nokia didn’t pursue it. At the time, they were too busy putting money into Symbian, which didn’t deliver anything usable; we never thought it would”.

Ross Kinneir and Nils Martensson

The Next Generation

Having spent much of his career as a technology innovator sitting outside of big corporations, he empathises strongly with the startups, noting with interest the recent $500 million investment by Japan’s SoftBank Corporation in the London-based cloud gaming tech unicorn, Improbable. “Good name too!” he observes.

Martensson becomes particularly animated looking ahead to new technological innovations: “I wish we knew what the next thing will be. I think about it every day. It’s the most important thing we can do. The industry hope is for IoT, but I don’t see it as something new. Controlling my refrigerator remotely; what’s new? Coca-Cola vending machines in the States have sent messages to say we are running out of Coke to trigger deliveries, so what’s so different? It’s just more”. He readily reels off a list of challenges worth solving, from developing new battery technologies, to curing cancer, and even to the possibility of reprogramming our brains to reverse dementia and learn new skills. He’s also curious about our work at Kinneir Dufort and gives the impression that he’d like nothing more than to be helping to innovate new solutions: “We have a lot to do!” 

Finally...

We ask him how he finds time for all of his interests, he replies: “I’ll be working until midnight. I always do.” Sure enough, on our return to Bristol, a thank you email arrives in our inboxes, at 00:26.

 

Written by Craig Wightman, Executive Design Director and Ross Kinneir, co-Founder of Kinneir Dufort.  Header image shown the Technophone Pocketphone alongside an iPhone7 with a mocked-up Technophone App.

 

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