by John Edwards

The sad tale of the paper phone

Apr 15, 20042 mins

Back in 1999, inventor Randi Altschul thought she had a killer idea-an inexpensive mobile phone, priced at about $10, that could be tossed away on a whim. Five years later, Altschul’s killer idea may itself be dead.

At the telecom boom’s height, Altschul’s invention sounded like a surefire proposition. Her phones would be so cheap that fast-food chains would want to sell advertising-emblazoned models along with their combo meals. “I took the toy mentality to telecom and turned a phone into a toy,” she says. “It can be made of paper or polyester and is so inexpensive that it’s disposable.”

Altschul’s dream ran into trouble when she tried to attract financial backers. Altschul’s harrowing experiences in the world of high-tech capitalism led her to self-publish a book: Financiers, Lawyers and Other Assorted Snakes. By the time Altschul was ready to move on, the bloom had faded from the telecom market rose and investors were licking wounds created by other seemingly no-lose telecom ideas. “Nothing ever hit the market, though many people talked [to me],” she says.

The mobile phone market has now evolved beyond Altschul’s original concept. With more phone buyers looking for high-end features, such as MP3 file downloading and color cameras, the market for a 1999-style disposable phone has faded. Yet Altschul remains undaunted. “I still envision the same opportunities and much more,” she says. “It will just begin a little later than I wanted.”