Last updated: August 20, 2015

Motorola's Wireless Data Division/MDI - Overview and History
Creating the world's first private and public wireless data networks


Nature of the business

Motorola's Wireless Data Division was a developer and manufacturer of in-vehicle and handheld wireless computers, base-stations, and related enterprise software applications. Motorola acquired Mobile Data International (MDI) in 1988.


Personal Impact

Working for Motorola, both locally, and at their HQ in Schamburg, IL and other wireless data design and production facilities in the US and south east Asia, was my first and only experience as an employee of a 100,000+ person multi-national corporation. My experience as a Project Manager for wireless handheld terminals introduced me to 6 Sigma quality programs and high volume off-shore manufacturing techniques and vendor relations. It was an honour to be part of a team that succeeded in creating some of the very first wireless data networks, as well as be associated with the legacy of MDI and its founding status as one of BC's great technology success stories.


Corporate/Employment History

I started working for Motorola's wireless data division as an Engineering Project Manager, responsible for its handheld wireless data modems and terminals, in May 1989, just after Motorola had acquired MDI - Mobile Data International, perhaps the world's first wireless data systems vendor, founded in 1978 (end to end solutions: from terminals and base stations, to back end data processing), which itself was as a spin-off of MDA - MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (founded by two UBC professors with crazy ideas about geo-information data mapping software and systems). In order to talk about Motorola's wireless data division, and its pioneering work on private and public wireless data networks, we must first talk about MDA and then MDI.


MDA - one of the founding fathers of all modern BC tech companies

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) was founded in 1969 by two British Columbia entrepreneurs who were also profs at the University of BC: John MacDonald (Engineering dept), and Vern Dettwiler (Computer Science dept) with the objective of delivering on a contract to work on a government weather satellite - thereby creating the foundations for a company that specialized in providing geo-information, aviation & defense software and systems with special emphasis on Landsat ground stations - hence MDA's long list of military and government customers in their early years. Today MDA has more than 3000 employees worldwide and is a diversified company.

There are only a handful of pioneering technology companies in BC that were around in the 1970s: BC Tel's research offshoot, MPR Teltech (where some great technologies like CDPD - cellular digital packet radio - were in part spawned from) , Glenayre Electronics (which at one point in the early 1990s held a commanding 80% share of the worldwide pager business), and companies like MDA and its offshoot MDI. It is a small list, and most any senior tech industry executive in BC today who worked in BC in 1970s or 1980s spent time working for one or more of these companies.

There is a long list of successful tech entrepreneurs who started their careers working at MDA, and in the case of Intrinsyc Software, at one point we counted perhaps a dozen employees who had been prior MDA employees and/or managers. Ken Spencer (former co-founder and CEO of Creo, BC's first basement to $1B tech company success - in terms of revenues) came from MDA, as did his partner, Dan Gelbart, who before co-founding Creo in 1983, was the scientist and founding father of MDI, after he invented a wireless data modem while working at MDA that had no direct application in MDA's core services oriented business pursuits.

As a related point, Dan came to Canada as a young scientist from Israel in the early 1970s in search of peace and prosperity (and to escape from war in the middle east). After arriving in Vancouver he searched the Yellow Pages phone book and only found 3 technology companies to apply to work for - and MDA was one of them.


MDI - faster, smarter, better

Mobile Data International (MDI) was founded near the end of the 1970s with Dan Gelbart's early prototypes of his wireless data modem. Barclay Isherwood, also a transplant from MDA, was MDI's President.

Dan Gelbart's wireless modem was based on a communications technique that was eventually branded as the MMP4800 protocol. This wireless data protocol could reliably transmit and receive 4800 bits per second of digital data over either a 25Khz UHF/VHF voice radio channel or a 12.5Khz side band channel. By accomplishing this, Dan had helped pioneer and commercialize the idea of marrying voice and data use on the same radio frequencies assigned for commercial vehicle two-way voice only radios, and he was lining up a business model to offer police, fire and safety services (and soon thereafter taxi companies) digital transmission of critical information via in-vehicle mounted computers.

Here is a CBC TV special on MDI that covers the period of 1980-1986:




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