The development of the Ilium Synergy started in late 1996 using the codename Snowball. This was in the very early days of mobile data support on GSM networks. Cellular data PCMCIA cards were starting to be offered with mobile phones to allow them to be connected to a laptop via a cable to send and receive data.
At the time, it was extremely difficult to integrate all the necessary components to create a fully integrated smartphone. In 1996 the displays used on mobile phones were approximately 5mm thick with an additional 3mm for the resistive touch panel. Today the combined screen and touch panel is around 1mm.
Given the competitive imperative to have a small, lightweight device, adding a large touchscreen display to a phone that was already 20mm thick would have made it too large to carry around, particularly when users would only need the touchscreen capability for a small proportion of the total time they were using the device. A good example of the necessary compromise required to have an integrated device was the IBM Simon
which had been launched in late 1993 and was 34mm thick and weighted 510 grams.
At the time, the most compelling use-case for a smartphone-type device was the ability to send and receive a fax. In fact, this was even more popular than email which was only just starting to emerge at the time. Other capabilities such as a personal organiser were also believed to be of value.
Notably, the Ilium Synergy was featured in the Guinness Book of Records in year 2000 for being the smallest fax machine in the world.
Philips initially evaluated Microsoft’s Windows CE operating system but also had discussions with Psion about its Epoc32 operating system which had been developed over a 10-year period and was optimised for small computing devices. At the time, Epoc was almost exclusively used on Psion products.
When first approached, Psion wanted to keep Epoc for its own devices but eventually Philips managed to reach an agreement to use the operating system. Psion only had limited resources available to support the development, but the team at Philips was confident it could work with Epoc and managed to negotiate source code access so they could develop the platform for the Ilium Synergy device. The Philips team quickly realised Epoc was extremely well suited to portable devices and unlike Windows CE, it was very power efficient. Philips was the first phone maker to sign a legal agreement with Psion Software.
Interestingly, Psion’s decision to license Epoc to Philips, was likely a key milestone in the eventual road to the creation of the Symbian operating system. In June 1998, shortly after Philips’ device was announced, Symbian was formed with Epoc as the basis for “single common operating system for smart phones and digital communicators”. A good example of how the relationship with Philips influenced Psion’s development decisions at the time is shared in David Wood
’s book Smartphones and Beyond
where he states that Psion “accelerated it programme for Epoc32 to support receiving faxes, in addition to the functionality to send faxes which had already been developed for the 16-bit version of Epoc and migrated to Epoc32.” This was something that later “helped cement the interest of Nokia as a licensee of Epoc32.”
Philips also selected ARM to power the Philips Ilium Synergy which is reported in this press release
. The combined device used the ARM7100 processor which was the same chip used in the Psion Computer Series 5 device.
In parallel with working on the Snowball project, Philips evolved its Philips Spark
GSM phone to make it capable of supporting mobile data transfer, but the testing took too long due to the lack of available GSM data networks. As a result, the decision was taken to de-couple the Snowball device from the Spark phone (which launched in the third quarter of 1997). This led to a special version of Spark being developed, known as the Ilium, which had built-in data support and could work in conjunction with the Snowball device, which was christened with the name Synergy. This combo was launched in March 1998 at the German-based CeBIT trade show and the combined devices were known as the Philips Ilium Synergy. According to David Wood
, “Philips confidently forecast annual sales of 250,000 units for Snowball” and this “turned Psion Software heads sharply back in 1996.”
At the time it was announced the Philips Ilium Synergy was arguably the most advanced smartphone-type product on the market. We note that it was announced a year before the Ericsson R380s
which was powered by the same operating system and evolved the concept to offer an all-in-on phone.
The Philips Synergy device was described in a press release (see below
) at the time "as a Smartphone clip-on device" that introduced "a new product category into the mobile phone market." The release also noted that "when voice communications capabilities are all that are required, users have the option of carrying around just the Ilium phone. When voice, data and messaging communications are needed for full mobile functionality users can clip on the Synergy device."
The Ilium Synergy had a graphical user interface displayed on a backlit LCD black and white 640x200 pixel resolution touch screen. This showed icons for the Epoc applications installed on the device which included Agenda, To Do lists, clock and calculator. It also had an on-screen keyboard and there was also support for a built-in handwriting recognition application called Papyrus. The device also included a stylus that was housed within the unit.
To transfer data to-and-from a PC, the Ilium Synergy had an RS-232 port and an infrared port, but users were required to purchase separate software from Psion to be able to interact with a PC.
Sadly, the device never shipped commercially. Philips and Lucent entered an ill-fated joint venture in late-1997 creating Philips Consumer Communications. This resulted in Lucent staff being put in charge of the Snowball project early in 1998 and through a lack of vision and poor management the project languished resulting in it being cancelled when Spark was replaced by the Xenium which was a different form factor and not compatible with Snowball. Very few examples of this device remain of the rumoured 1000 prototype units that were manufactured.
With thanks to Hugh Brogan
who provided some extensive insights to help with this write-up.