Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: Eccentric Orbits

I picked up Eccentric Orbits after learning that there was a book about the Iridium satellite system. I'd always thought that the system had been decommissioned and was no longer used, but it turns out that Iridium is alive and well, and has even launched a second generation set of satellites.

The interesting thing about Iridium is that it truly is a "world phone", as in, it would work anywhere in the world. The conception behind is improbably and only a company the size of Motorola could have done it --- launching 66 satellites into low earth orbit and designing and building a system where satellites could pass connections to each other in real time while routing calls to an Earth gateway station. It is even today an astonishing bit of engineering in an age where big companies seemed content to do unambitious stuff like continually launching new messaging apps and copies of each other's phones.

Unfortunately, the book spends preciously little time on the engineering of the system. It mostly focuses on Dan Colussy, who basically organized a buyout deal for Iridium after Motorola gave up on it and was about to de-orbit the satellites. That story is interesting: Motorola could have run the system at a reasonable profit, but chose not to. The lack of vision by Chris Galvin (who's clearly the villain of the book) fore-shadows the ultimate destruction of Motorola until its repeated sale to Google and Lenovo.

But there's only so much stomach I can have for stories about financial desperation, of chasing after Arab sheikhs with retinues whose jobs depend on showing how important they are. After the nth iteration of such stories I simply started skimming the book. I didn't get the feeling I missed much even right at the end, where the author simply skimmed on current applications of the Iridium Satellite system, Iridium NEXT, and the analysis of how nobody cared enough about Iridium despite it's obvious benefits.

Here's what I got out of the book from a marketing point of view:

  • Iridium was flawed in that it required a clear line of sight to the sky. It wouldn't work inside buildings, so despite being a truly world phone, it's market was pretty restricted to outdoors people. Soldiers, hikers, sailors, maritime applications were the only major markets willing to pay for a phone with such restrictions.
  • The low bandwidth meant that once the mobile internet took off, there was no chance of Iridium getting mass market appeal.
  • The handsets were huge and expensive. They did get smaller, but never got very much cheaper.
  • All the other technology solutions being investigated by Google and Facebook (balloons, etc) were investigated by the Iridium researchers. All of them had crippling flaws which was why Iridium is still the go-to- system today for the military and maritime applications.
All in all, the book's barely worth a read unless you're Dan Colussy or much more of a financial nerd than I am.
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