The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 3, 2011

Motorola Chaser

In 1997, I joined Motorola's Cellular Subscriber Division to work on some of the earliest cell phones of the digital era. It was a heady time slightly dimished by the knowledge that the powers-that-be in the company insisted that analog phones (in which Motorola had an overwhelming market share) still had a viable future. We worked on the Startac, the flip phone to define all flip phones, and in parallel we worked on one or two other models. And while we developed bespoke user interfaces and device drivers for each digital phone, the likes of Samsung and Nokia had already begun to eat our lunch with their clever use of modular and reusable software architectures. In the time it took us to develop one or two models, these savvy companies could churn out entire families of phones, from low-end mass-market to high-spec and high-margin. It didn't take long for Motorola's share of the mobile market to plummet.

About two years later, I thought it time to see what the competition was doing. I interviewed at Sony in San Diego, CA, and at Philips in Piscataway, NJ, and accepted an offer at the latter (mainly because they offered me way more than stingy Sony). Philips Communications, when I arrived, appeared to be on its last legs. Its phones were hardly selling and there were constant rumours of layoffs. As a contractor, I wasn't too fussed. There was far too much demand for skilled telecomms software types for me to be jobless for long.

The top-brass had to come up with a plan to save their collective skins, and their idea was to license Qualcomm's software and hardware, stick it into a phone designed by us, and sell it under Philips' brand name. To that end, three or four of us were sent to San Diego to learn about the ins and outs of the Qualcomm system, understand its design and programming interfaces, and bring samples back with us to Piscataway.

At the time, digital wireless networks were still patchy across the US, and I, with my background in Motorola, was interested to see how interoperable Qualcomm's offerings were with the extant (and extensive) analog networks. But when I asked questions about the analog parts, I was looked on strangely, both by the Philips and the Qualcomm engineers. Clearly a dinosaur, they thought to themselves. What a pity. And he looks so young!

Qualcomm hosted us at a baseball game and sent us back to New Jersey with encouraging noises. In the event, our trip was wasted. We returned to find that Philips Communications was, for all practical purposes, defunct.

While we were gone, the bosses at PCC had agreed to sell the division to Motorola. In fact, my old boss at Motorola would become the head of this new outfit. I joked that I had been so sorely missed that my ex-boss was willing to buy an entire company just to have me back. Then I quit.

Years later, I found myself in the UK and working for a little company called TTP Communications. This was a little shop filled with creative and innovative engineers. It provided the hardware design and software systems for such iconic mobiles as the Blackberry; various Asian manufacturers were using its products in phones that they sold in their own names. It was struggling in the wake of the dot-com collapse but had somehow managed to continue with its research and development. But within a year of my arrival, it became clear that TTP Communications couldn't carry on on its own. I left in 2005, and a few months it was taken over.

And who was it that came riding to its rescue? Why, Motorola, of course.

In the years that passed after that, I didn't keep up much with the fate of TTPCom. Today, amazingly, its name came up once again. I attended an Anti Market Abuse training course in the office, and what did I hear? In 2006, the general counsel of TTPCom, having learnt that Motorola was about to acquire it, got his father-in-law to buy TTPCom's shares. Two days later, the acquisition was publicly announced, the share price soared, and a month later, the father-in-law sold his stock for a profit of £49,000. He then gave the legal eagle a half share of the proceeds.

In 2009, both men became the first to be sentenced in the UK under the FSA's insider dealing purview. A later appeal was dismissed, and the solicitor had to spend 8 months at Her Majesty's pleasure.

I used to have occasional nightmares of finding myself back in Motorola, writing requirements documents and creating systems designs. I enjoyed my time with that company and I have always wished it well. But now finally, I can congratulate myself that its pursuit of me has pretty much ground to a halt.

Happily, there's not much danger of them ever buying up a financial institution.


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