The Nortel One (also known as the Europa handset) was an early instance of what’s come to be known as a ‘smartphone’, developed to show off the future that Nortel envisioned as a product family it called the Orbitor. Work on the Orbitor vision started at Bell-Northern Research (Nortel’s R&D subsidiary) in the early 1990s with a series of concept models focusing what a handheld personal communicator could be like.
Once this proof-of-concept was validated through extensive user and chooser research, the design for Nortel One started apace in early 1995.
It used the GSM radio and physical interface module from the Nortel 92x
/1920 phones with a digital signal processor (DSP) core for speech recognition, and added an ARM processor module that interfaced with the touchscreen and powered the screen user interface.
The first working units, of which 80 were made, were delivered at the end of February 1998 in time for the GSM World Congress in Cannes, France.
The development of the Nortel One device was primarily a skunk works project undertaken at Nortel's Bell-Northern Research (BNR). It required the incorporation of many new technologies, overcoming internal corporate process challenges at Nortel, and managing a variety of logistics issues that the team working on the product had to address.
The project largely flew under the radar at Nortel, but succeeded thanks to a dedicated multi-disciplinary design team drawing on broad expertise at BNR (Ottawa, Canada) and AEG Mobile Communication (Ulm, Germany), then part of Matra-Nortel. Initially the prototype devices were going to be manufactured at an AEG factory in Berlin, but the manufacturing was moved to an SCI factory in Bordeaux, France where the final units were built.
When it was originally conceived, the Nortel Orbitor was envisaged as being a “highly featured, pocket-sized wireless device” that would use advanced voice-recognition technology and a touch-sensitive screen to deliver voice, messaging and graphical notes in “one convenient, easy-to-use mobile communications devices.”
The team working on the device boldly claimed they were “creating a new vision of personal communications for this decade [the 1990s] and into the next century.” They made it clear that the Orbitor was not a telephone, pager or a personal digital assistant (PDA) but that it was “something new, different and unique.” They preferred to describe it as being part of “a new category of personal communications management products that would put the user in control of emerging services and applications.”
The original idea for the Orbitor was to be a compact, lightweight personal device, about the size of the wallet, that would be attached to a persons’ clothing or easily fit on a pocket or handbag.
The early design ideas centred on users being able to “dial” a number by simply speaking a number or a person’s name – a concept, that at the time, seemed like science fiction.
Early concept models also included a detachable speaker that was designed to fit over a user’s ear “for handsfree operation and private conversations” – akin to a detachable Bluetooth headset that would come in later years.
Nortel also envisaged that the Orbitor would support multimedia capabilities allowing users to communicate in different ways. For example, sending written messages to one person while having a call with another at the same time – yet another example of a use-case that is now taken for granted.
Another revolutionary feature of the Orbitor was the use of animation in the user interface rather than plain text and static graphics – a capability that was only just starting to emerge on PCs at that time.
The graphics on the Orbitor were animated offering an early example of skeuomorphic design – which mimics real world experiences in the user interface. For example, when a message was received, an envelope moved onto the Orbitor’s screen and when the user selected it, the envelope unfolded to reveal the message. When the user deleted the message, the paper crumpled up and dropped off the bottom of the screen.
The designers believed these “real-world images would make the Orbitor extremely easy to use by attracting user’s attention to the action being performed in a clear, unambiguous and memorable fashion.”
A further example, that is also taken for granted these days, was when the Orbitor played a voice message an animated slider on a bar moved across the display. Users could use the touch screen to stop the message and play back portions of it by touching the bar at the appropriate position.
Another innovation was offering “canned messages” such as “leave a voice msg.” or “call back to reschedule” so users could respond discreetly to calls when they were in a meeting or otherwise occupied.
The early concepts of the Orbitor were validated starting in late 1992, using industrial design models in videos where various users were seen using the Orbitor in real-life situations. An example of one of these videos is featured below. This was a smart approach as it avoided the costly and time-consuming process of building working prototypes. Screen simulations were super-imposed onto the devices used in the video which were so realistic at the time that some viewers thought the Orbitor models being used were real products.
More details of the Orbitor concepts and underlying research can be found in the article that featured in the BNR in-house magazine, Telesis, Issue 97, December 1993. A copy is available to view via the link below this description.
The first reveal of a functioning Orbitor device occurred in the BNR Futures Room at Nortel’s booth at Telecom’95 in Geneva, Switzerland (see pictures below courtesy of David Cuddy).
It was a fully featured device with a GSM radio, large 320 x 160 pixel eight-shade greyscale touch sensitive screen and a graphical user interface, combined with advanced voice dialling and personal hands-free capabilities that had been pioneered on the Nortel 922 mobile phone. The prototype was powered by General Magic's MagicCap OS. This demo garnered intense interest, and was successful enough to give Nortel the confidence to progress down the road towards a commercial product. The Orbitor concept became the Europa device, which was eventually branded commercially as the Nortel One.
By 1997, the design team decided to replace the MagicCap OS with P-Java (a.k.a. Personal Java). The use of Java pioneered the notion of downloadable applications (today known as “apps”) to further personalize the user experience.
The Nortel One worked in conjunction with the “Nortel One Server” which these days would be described as a “cloud platform”, or perhaps even an “app store". This allowed operators to provide customised data and services to users, including personalised menus and home screens, as well as being able to deliver apps in the form of Java applets. Users could back-up their phone to the server.
Nortel believed that typical applications that would be offered on the Nortel One could include timetables and schedules, restaurant guides, stock prices, sports results, road and traffic information, ticketing, work scheduling and more. All types of content that are commonplace today.
The phone had a range of features including text entry using the stylus either via character recognition or a soft keyboard, a “business card style directory”, a rudimentary browser with virtual buttons (tiles) that allowed users to access content and PIM (personal information manager) capabilities.
The handset had a range of features including text entry using the stylus either via character recognition or a soft keyboard, a “business card style directory”, a rudimentary browser with virtual buttons (tiles) that allowed users to access content and PIM (personal information manager) capabilities, integrated speech recognition for voice-activated dialling, and a personal speakerphone. A novel sliding keypad preserved the familiar 3-by-4 cellphone keypad with SEND and END buttons— when slid open the large touch-sensitive display was revealed.
The first 80 pre-production handsets were manufactured in February 1998 to be showcased at the GSM World Congress trade show that month in Cannes, France by members of the Nortel team, including Ken Blakeslee. The Nortel One appeared again at the CeBIT fair in Hannover, Germany in March 1998.
Initially Nortel had planned to showcase the device as a major feature on its exhibition stand. However, the decision was taken to move the prototype devices to a back room away from public view. They were demoed by invitation to a few selected customers and industry personnel (including Nokia's Anssi Vanjoki) who were hugely impressed by the device with its futuristic capabilities such as weather data on greyscale map with real-time data being transferred over SMS.
Nortel was also secretly working with the UK’s BT Cellnet to deploy the Nortel One offering a complete end-to-end solution combining the handset and a server solution hosting Java applications that could be downloaded onto the device. The team at BT Cellnet comprised several individuals including Simon Robinson
, Tony Eales, Brian Greasley
and others. The trial was destined to take place following GSM World Congress in 1998 with a goal of launching in summer 1998. The device and service portfolio was also shown to a number of retailers including Carphone Warehouse founder Charles Dunstone
Sadly the BT Cellnet trial never came to fruition when the project was abruptly ended by John Roth
the then CEO of Nortel. He felt that Nortel lacked the expertise required to be successful in consumer electronics devices and would not be able to hit the price points needed to be successful. Ultimately, this meant the future commercial iteration of the phone never came to market, but it has become a notable (albeit little-known) device in the history of the smartphone.
Interestingly the patents and prior-art that Nortel created around the Orbitor project have gone on to feature in several court cases concerning intellectual property in mobile phones, reflecting what a ground-breaking device it was for its time.