The Ericsson GS 88 (codenamed Penelope) is a true icon in the history of the smartphone. The model in the museum collection is one of only 200 manufactured and only a few still exist.
The phone was never released, but is notable for being the first (almost) commercial product to be marketed as a “Smart Phone” – a term which was used on the packaging for the device (see below). This descriptor was the brain-child of Ericsson’s Mats Barvasten
who initially struggled to convince marketing and communications chief, Jan Ahrenbring
it was the correct terminology to use.
The GS 88, which was developed in Kista, Sweden in 1997, was an early example of the integration of personal digital assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones. Other notable examples at this time were the Philips Ilium Synergy
, Motorola / Psion Odin, and Nokia’s 9000 Communicator
The phone is a double-sided product. On the front face it features a mobile phone module similar to the Ericsson SH888
and on the rear face of the phone there is a flip-down cover that reveals a touchscreen and qwerty keyboard. The device also has a slide-out stylus for use on the resistive greyscale touch screen. Initially, Ericsson had planned for owners to use a finger rather than a stylus to interact with the GS 88, but it was decided a stylus was more appropriate at the time.
Like the Nokia 9000 Communicator, the GS 88 used the Geoworks GEOS operating system which offered a variety of features including an email client, basic web browser, calendar, notepad, address book and world clock. The phone also had an infrared port and could be connected to a PC for synchronisation. While the GS 88 was being developed, Ericsson was unaware that Nokia was also using the GEOS operating system, but found out when the Geoworks team in California mistakenly sent a fax to the Ericsson team which started: “Welcome Velo Matti Soni”.
The GS 88 was two devices in one – and not a pure GEOS-powered product. The front face used the standard Ericsson mobile phone operating system with its own user interface. The PDA-like capability on the rear touchscreen was powered by GEOS and also had its own user interface. The challenge of making the two devices and operating systems sync with each other was a major headache for the software developers working on the device. This was another reason the Ericsson R380 (powered by EPOC32 (which would become Symbian)), was a significant step forward. It still had two discreet processors, but there was only one operating system to manage to overall user interface.
During the development of the GS 88 Ericsson invested €25m. In addition to developing the product, the company had scaled up to mass-produce the device (this was included in the development cost). Everything was ready to go, but in the end, only 200 units were built.
Although the team was extremely excited about all the advanced features in the product, such as email, web browsing and other capabilities, when they conducted focus groups to test the product with consumers one of the things that people liked the most was the built-in speaker, which was arguably one of the least innovative capabilities of such an advanced device.
It has previously been reported that the commercial launch was abandoned due to the size and weight of the device as well as the poor battery life, however the real reason was due to the operating system. By the time Ericsson was ready to launch the GS 88, it had decided to partner with Motorola and Nokia to form Symbian. It made no sense to invest in the GEOS platform when the future of Ericsson’s smart devices would be aligned with Symbian (which was built on Psion’s EPOC operating system).
Ericsson eventually launched its first commercial “smartphone”, the Ericsson R380
in March 1999.
The codename for the GS 88 device – Penelope – was derived from the wife of Odysseus in Greek mythology, as a reference to the idea of the device being a loyal and reliable companion. The team working on the device also saw it as a play on words because of the stylus in the device: Pen(cil).
Marketing collateral developed at the time for the GS 88 can be found here
Below is an early design image of what the GS 88 would look like which was shared at a planning meeting to discuss the product on 5th January 1995 (Source: Mats Barvesten