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Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story Paperback – June 13, 2017
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The Amazon Book Review
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Named one of the “Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2016” and one of the “20 Books That Defined Our Year” by the Wall Street Journal
Named a Book of the Year 2016 by the Economist
An Amazon Best Book of the Month
A Hudson Booksellers’ Best Book of 2016 (Best Business Interest)
“Engaging and ambitious . . . Eccentric Orbits is maximalist nonfiction, 500 pages of deep reporting put forward with epic intentions . . . a panoramic narrative, laced with fine filigree details, that makes for a story that soars and jumps and dives and digresses . . . [A] big, gutsy, exciting book.”―Wall Street Journal
“Those with visions of vast satellite communications networks dancing in their heads would do well to read John Bloom’s new book on [Iridium] . . . Bloom . . . tells this story well . . . He does a good job of explaining the technology and the importance of the inventors who made the technology possible.”―Washington Post
“Think of Final Cut, Steven Bach’s gripping account of the notorious movie disaster ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ Or The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s chronicle of the collapse of Enron, and The Big Short, Michael Lewis’ tale of the cratering of the national economy. Eccentric Orbits . . . is a tale of ham-fisted management that’s lively enough to invite comparisons to those modern classics.”―Los Angeles Times
“An exhaustive account . . . Eccentric Orbits not only offers good corporate drama, but is an enlightening narrative of how new communications infrastructures often come about: with a lot of luck, government help and investors who do not ask too many questions.”―Economist
“Eccentric Orbits is a story rich in larger-than-life characters, including shady Cold War operatives and warrior-like Motorola executives . . . Bloom gives a wonderful sense of what an engineering marvel Iridium was.”―Bethany McLean, Strategy + Business (Best Business Books 2016)
“An inspiring history as well as an effective business thriller . . . Bloom argues convincingly that creating and then saving Iridium was one . . . desperately difficult―and brilliant―achievement.”―New Scientist
“Extensive . . . Sprawling . . . A detailed and entertaining history of the rise, fall, and rebirth of Iridium.”―Space Review
“A good read.”―Marketplace
“Highly engaging . . . Check it out.”―News Tribune
“A prize-worthy example of the investigative genre . . . [Eccentric Orbits] has conflict and triumph on a Wagnerian scale . . . John Bloom has achieved in Eccentric Orbits an admirable balance of the human and the technological in what is at heart an age-old tale of one man’s triumph against apparently insuperable odds.”―Literary Review
“An outstanding read . . . [An] inspiring story . . . Highly recommended.”―ATC Reform News
“Eccentric Orbits does for the 1990s birth of the satellite phone industry what Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine did for the next-generation computer business. It’s a wild story . . . Funny, informative, exciting . . . A sprawling masterpiece of history and reporting.”―Shelf Awareness
“Spellbinding . . . A tireless researcher, Bloom delivers a superlative history . . . A tour de force.”―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Eccentric Orbits is a remarkable work. I had known about Iridium but not about its fascinating history. John Bloom’s writing style is attractive and the level of detail is astonishing. This was a page-turner for me!”―Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist, Google
“Interested in giant, head-scratching miscalculations by a great American company? The power of one man to rescue the world’s biggest deployment of low-earth satellites? A place where genius engineering meets a total lack of common sense? Then John Bloom’s book about Motorola’s multibillion-dollar debacle, Iridium, is for you. Eccentric Orbits is both a novelistic thriller and a cautionary tale, a page-turner about a reach for the heavens and a business primer on a near-fatal fall back to the earth.”―Julian Guthrie, author of The Billionaire and The Mechanic
“John Bloom’s Eccentric Orbits, which tells the story of one of the most ambitious projects in the history of technology, is the most compelling book I have read in a long while. Bloom somehow coaxed the deepest thoughts and darkest secrets out of many satellite engineers, skeptical VCs, business royalty, inner-city tycoons, Italian marketers, Russian rocket launchers, Arabian princes, corporate CEOs, African leaders, Washington insiders, insurance giants, Pentagon brass, government lifers, politicians, and frustrated bankruptcy judges. This is a masterpiece of research and storytelling. If not for Bloom, one of the greatest stories of American ingenuity and bullheadedness would still lie scattered in thousands of documents and the memories of those who lived it.”―Gary Kinder, author of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea
“This is a monumental piece of non-fiction, not just for the breadth and depth of the research, but for its audacity: Bloom seeks to make technology and marketing and high finance dramatic and funny and instructive of the human condition―and succeeds. Until I read this, I had always assumed that my cell phone was created by something like spontaneous combustion; like one day, it just appeared between my right hand and my ear, as if it had always belonged there. Bloom has given all of us―all billions of us―the back story on it, and what a strange, tangled, convoluted, fairly hilarious one it is.”―Jim Atkinson, Texas Monthly contributing editor
“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will erect every possible obstacle to its success. That’s the sobering lesson of John Bloom’s book on the progress of a reliable, cheap, encrypted, worldwide mobile phone system to supermarket shelves. The exhilarating lesson is that it can be done if you have visionary geeks, hard-boiled veterans, retired capitalists, and the occasional eccentric rebellious bureaucrat determined to do it. This is high scientific journalism, exciting business journalism, and a rattling good tale. It even includes Nazis.”―John O’Sullivan, author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World
“Impeccably researched, and in smooth, easy prose, John Bloom interweaves fascinating historical trivia about the space race, satellites, and global communications with detail-filled personality snapshots and cringingly revealing, often disturbingly humorous, insights about the many ways big business can shoot itself in the foot.”―John Brewer, former president and editor-in-chief, New York Times Syndicate and News Service
“Pacy [and] . . . worth reading, not just for the wild ride that involves secretive Saudi sheikhs, plucky terrorists, never-say-die businessmen and Bill Clinton, but also as a reminder of how vast business can be vastly dumb . . . A thrilling boom-to-boom corporate drama.”―Sunday Times (UK)
“John Bloom’s account of the Iridium satellite network is more than a ripping read, it is both a commentary on the way we do technology today and a reminder of Friedrick Hayek’s observation that presumed experts and planners are the last people you want picking winners. A tale well told is a thing of delight, and John Bloom’s Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story does not fail.”―Quadrant (Australia)
“Riveting . . . I’ve never used the term ‘tour de force’ in a book review before, but if it ever belonged in one, it is this review of Eccentric Orbits.”―800-CEO-READ
About the Author
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To preface my review of Bloom's book it is worthwhile to briefly lay out my experience in this area with satellites, mobile systems and Motorola. I had a thirty-year relationship with Motorola, as a joint venture partner, as a consultant to the Chairman, as a customer when COO of NYNEX Mobile now Verizon, and as the CEO of a company in which they had invested. The relationship allowed me to see most of the principals in the book first hand and further to see the company in a broad context. I also spent time in the satellite world, actually architecting one of the first mobile systems in the 70s. I also had a parallel experience to Colussy, albeit an order of magnitude smaller.
Thus I approach Bloom's book with a somewhat multiple exposure experience set. I also approach it with a firsthand knowledge of many of the principals and moreover of the technical and business facts as I was exposed to. Bloom tells a fantastic story. I have no knowledge of his principal, his Odysseus, and his sailing through Scylla and Charybdis. But I can commiserate with him and his frustrations. I dealt with only 20 countries and an order of magnitude less in scale of the financing. But the trials and tribulations all ring true. It is told with a sense of being there and having to deal with the many characters thrown in the way. One wonders how anything gets accomplished given what the entrepreneur goes through in today's world. There are very few who set out and continue to the completion. Bloom takes the reader on that journey, and his inclusion of the steps are essential to appreciate the success.
Bloom presents a fast paced tale of the birth and near death of the Iridium satellite system. This is really a story of three "characters" First of Iridium, the satellite system developed by Motorola to provide global telecommunications coverage. Second, Motorola and its management and how they mis-managed the whole process. Third, it is about Colussy, the man who sought to revive Iridium just at its death's doorstep, and managed to working through the problems of financing, bankruptcy, Motorola, the US Government, and some 200 plus countries. The book then is the interplay of all three of these characters, animate and inanimate.
First, Colussy, ostensibly a successful businessman, in retirement, sees an opportunity in resurrecting Iridium just as Motorola is ready to push a self-destruct switch. Just what he sees is often problematic because each time he takes a hill, there are several more in front of him. But he manages to persevere. His interactions are all too familiar to any person who has tried to start a business, especially one spanning many countries and involving the US Government. He in many ways is the quintessential entrepreneur.
Second is the Iridium project. Here Bloom touches on some of the details but this is not a book for anyone who wants to understand Iridium the technology. It is clear again and again that Bloom is not technical and that he does not want to venture down that path. However, I do believe that understanding Iridium is essential to understanding the overall understanding.
During the 1990s, mobile communications was expanding. It moved from analog in the late 80s to digital systems in the 90s with CDMA and TDMA in the US and GSM (a TDMA variant) throughout the world. With digital one had ever improving voice compression systems but the need to expand coverage was ever increasing. Cell sites had at best a 1-mile radius of coverage and that meant about 3 sq mi of coverage per site. The large cities were being covered at a rapid rate but major portions of the world had none. To achieve that would be very costly. Thus Motorola, and some others, came up with what could be called cell sites in the sky, lots of satellites. In addition to work properly they had to be low, to reduce the delay in the voice signal. Classic satellites like those of Intelsat were at 23,000 miles and the voice delay was about 0.25 sec, which was unacceptable. Thus Motorola came up with a constellation of dozens of small satellites that were close to the earth and allowed low power and minimal delay. However, they had to "hand-off" calls, like cell sites did on the earth, but to do so in space, thus using a complicate dynamic inter-satellite link. Then of course they needed bandwidth and agreements with 200 countries, no mean task.
Third, we have Motorola. This book is as much about Motorola as about anything. Motorola was a Chicago based company with a great record in radio communications for the public and government entities. They made boxes, transmitters, receivers, processing units. They sold boxes to customers who then did something with them. Mobile companies integrated then into cellular systems, paging companies integrated them into paging services, and police and fire departments integrated them into their operations. Thus Motorola was a manufacturer with great quality and a sales force that sold the boxes better than anyone else.
However, Motorola was not a service company. It was a product company. What is the difference between a product business and a service business? It is best characterized by the metaphorical statement: "The dogs have to eat the dog food". Product business sells to the owner of the dog. Nice label, good price, great placement, fantastic advertising and promotion. The service business requires that the dog food be consumed, again and again. The dog does not care about the label, about the sales person. The dog sniffs it and eats it, or not. Service means that one must understand the end customer, the "dog". The lack of this comes through again and again in Bloom.
Iridium was to be a service company. The structure became Byzantine however, in an attempt for Motorola to still execute its role as a product company. Motorola just did not understand the service business. It thus created a monster in the way it structured Iridium, protecting its underlying product business construct.
Also Motorola management was oftentimes blunt and aggressive. It grew up dealing with truckers, police departments, local governments, and never really dealt with customers. It was reflective of a Chicago culture. They knew how to "push" a sale through a difficult channel, and yet did not understand the end user customers. The "dogs" at the end of the dog food.
Bloom lays out each of these elements on a step by step basis giving examples so that by the time the reader completes the book they all fall elegantly in place.
Now the problem was, as Bloom notes, Motorola had a brilliant team on the design of the system. The built off of the Star Wars technology of Brilliant Pebbles and related designs. What is clear from Bloom, but perhaps should have been more emphasized, is that no one seems to have thought of revenue or costs. Who was to buy this system and what price? The team never seems to have signed up users ahead of time, they relied on weak third party inferences that there were customers.
The second problem was that the system design, albeit elegant was very technically challenging and the overall system was complex. Bloom lays this out in detail.
The third problem was just time. It took longer but at the same time the world was changing. GSM penetration exploded, digital was pervasive, and the Internet was the stalking horse of the future. Voice was becoming a tertiary service at best. Data, namely Internet access, was becoming the critical element. I was at the time this was occurring switching from a IP voice business to a fiber Internet backbone system. The irony was that Motorola was one of my investors and they should have seen this happening as it did in literally a few months! Namely the world was changing under their plan.
Thus Bloom starts out with Chris Galvin commencing the deorbiting of about 80 satellites, namely allowing them to just drop from orbit and hopefully burn up before hitting anyone. Then the tale takes Colussy through the never ending impediments thrown in his path by Motorola, as Motorola itself is starting its own downward spiral, which will take a bit longer.
Bloom then takes Colussy from the near death of the system to his final snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It reads superbly and should be viewed as how not to do something in the corporate world and how a real entrepreneur works.
Bloom on the other hand from time to time makes statements which do not necessarily reflect the facts. It seems clear he got them from somewhere but reality may have had an alternative.
On p67 Bloom makes the statement that Comsat was not interested in voice communications. Having done the architecture for Intelsat V at Comsat in 1975 I remember, and still have the documents, that were mostly voice. This is a typical statement I see again and again in Bloom and it detracts, and was unnecessary for his exposition.
On p69 he talks of inter-satellite links. Lincoln Lab had designed and launched several satellites for the Air Force, the LES series. I was at Lincoln before Comsat. I was in that Group and interfaces with DoD. When I did Intelsat V we looked at inter-satellite links and the design actually had them. It would be microwave because the problem of pointing a laser were too complex. In 1993 my colleagues from Lincoln and I met with the Motorola Iridium management to discuss these factors. It was then known that laser pointing still had a bit to advance.
On p 90 there is a discussion of the antenna. The Marisat satellites of the 70s had such antenna for the same reasons.
On p 111 there is a discussion of the Galvin discussions. Here as elsewhere the question keeps coming up; where is the revenue coming from. I recall one of the senior management saying they were targeting executives on elephant hunts in Kenya. I did not know any of these folks but somehow the source of revenue should have been a bit stronger than that.
On p 122 was the balloon discussion. I had seen at least a dozen balloon proposals over the years and I still see a few. Needless to say they never materialized for a variety of reasons, most obvious from just an operational perspective.
On p 150 the discussion of Motorola and the Russians is classic. I never had any problems with the Russians, but then I did not act so arrogantly.
On p 180 there is a discussion regarding the fact that the system was not interoperable with mobile and it had poor propagation characteristics inside buildings. By the late 90s GSM could work inside a beer house in Prague. Thus user expectations were changing. The system required a complex interoperability capacity and that just added costs and complexity.
On p 183 there is the discussion of the FBI and CALEA. Any telecom operator would know of CALEA, namely we had to have access for Government agencies using a CALEA warrant. This was something they should have known, especially given their government businesses. Also their cellular systems we often carrying more wiretaps than the fixed line businesses.
On p 198 is the most telling part. "How to get the million subscribers/" One would have thought they had this laid out before spending penny one, but alas this was classic if you had never been in the service business.
On p 330 it relates the crash of a Soviet satellite and the concern. The reason for concern was twofold. First the Russian made indestructible satellites. They just did not burn up. Second this satellite if I remember had a nuclear power source, I believe plutonium. It landed somewhere in western Canada. The concern was radiation as well as the indestructible Russian design.
Overall the book is superbly well organized and does a great job in presenting each of the characters. It also presents a near tragic tale of over management and under estimation. To recall my father's warning; prior planning prevents poor performance. My corollary was; always make sure there is a second exit.
Iridium is probably the most interesting corporate death and resurrection story of the last 25 years. Engineering and finance driven, and sucked financially dry by Motorola, Iridium simply put its head in the sand about whether customers would actually want their product. They were literally stunned when customers didn’t behave as their business plan said they should.
The book tells the unbelievable rescue of Iridium by Dan Colussy and an unlikely set of allies. If even half of it is true Dan deserves a business medal of honor. (And Motorola management deserved everything that happened to them in the 21st century.)
As per the authors note, “I researched the book with face-to-face interviews, letting people tell their own stories, and then filled in the rest of the narrative with archival material.
Therein lies the problem. This really isn’t a business book. It’s a bunch of guys sitting around (primarily Dan Colussy) telling business war stories to a writer - who never figured out how to make sense of it all.
1) Imagine a technical and business story written by a gossip columnist and you’ll understand the constant stream of long drawn-out biographies, anecdotes that sounded like they came after a few drinks, bizarre suppositions, and missed insights. Individually they're stories you might throw out as one-offs, but reading them page after page for no discernible purpose in the narrative made them exhausting.
2) The story would have been much better told if an editor would have insisted that the book be half or maybe 2/3rds its length. But that would have required understanding which of the stories were important and what were the lessons to be learned. Instead we get an almost daily diary of Dan Colussy’s meetings, phone calls, plane flights etc.
3) Iridium was an engineering marvel, but other than stringing together boilerplate phrases and paraphrases from his sources the result is “technology word hash" – words that strung together appear to mean something but don’t. The Iridium system was brilliant. The satellites were worthy of something more than the cursory description. Instead the author gets sidetracked into a content-free discussion of the choice of rocket suppliers. Unfortunately, Dan Colossi and most of the cast of characters interviewed came after the satellites were designed and built.
4) Iridium failed when the original business case for the phone didn’t match the market (cellular adoption was growing rapidly, the phone wouldn’t work indoors, the phone looked like a brick and was unlikely to be a status symbol,) no one seemed to blow the whistle and say, “let’s pivot to a different set of customers and stop hemorrhaging money on this one.” Or, instead of complaining about the enormous cash-drain Motorola was extorting from the company, why any of their CEOs didn’t have the guts to threaten chapter 11 to slash that burn rate. Spending more than a few paragraphs on that would have actually made this a business book. Unfortunately, Dan Colussy and most of the cast of characters interviewed came after that debacle.
5) After 500 pages you would think there would be some insight or lessons learned from the author or any of the participants. Nope.
If you’re interested in the death and rebirth of Iridium this is barely worth the very painful read.
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