The Orange Videophone was first conceived in the late 1990s and the project was formally commenced in 1999. At the time it was a revolutionary concept.
The basic idea was to build a videophone for use on a GSM network from scratch. The project was led by Graham Fisher
who managed Orange’s UK based Strategy and Technology team at the time.
The initiative gained extra momentum within Orange, when charismatic CEO Hans Snook told the financial markets that Orange would be launching a video phone.
The device was not only a videophone, but also a fully featured PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), arguably a forerunner to today’s smartphones.
In order for video calling to be supported, a proprietary video codec was required. The research and development of the video codec was led by the University of Strathclyde, with support from Orange.
Between 1995 and 1997 the university had been developing video codec technology. This was capable of exchanging high quality images over restricted bandwidths, such as GSM data links. It was also capable of running on low power, general purpose processors that were available at that time. This was ideally suited to the Videophone concept.
The operating system used on the Videophone was Microsoft’s Windows CE, which was first released in 1996. The key benefit was that it was optimised for devices with minimal storage capacity; a Windows CE kernel could run in under a megabyte of memory.
Microsoft and Orange worked very closely on this project and a base station connected to Orange's live network in the UK was deployed in Microsoft's offices in Redmond for testing. This base station carried the first live video call using the Videophone which was initiated in the UK by Orange engineer, Andy Thomas
The videophone featured a 3.9-inch resistive TFT colour touch screen which was operated via a stylus provided with the device. The camera was a CMOS fixed focus sensor with 2x electronic zoom.
As part of the patent
that Orange secured for the Videophone (citing Graham Fisher as the inventor
) it included a reference to a “rotatable” camera – this became a valuable asset to Orange. It is still regularly cited in patent litigation as ‘prior art’ for a camera on a mobile device.
The Videophone used High Speed Circuit Switched Data (HSCSD) technology
which had recently been introduced on the Orange GSM network. The connection to the network was provided by a Nokia PCMCIA data card which was hidden within the Videophone casing. We believe only 1000 units were manufactured.
When the Videophone battery was fully charged, over one hour of video calling was possible. The device provided approximately 6 hours of voice calls and/or PDA usage. The battery would last for 24 hours on standby with the phone enabled.
At launch, video calls were only possible between Orange customers. An issue that Orange had to overcome was that a customer purchasing a videophone would understandably want to try it out. However, in most cases it was unlikely they would know many people with a videophone. To address this, Orange created a service that allowed owners to talk to an Orange employee in a call centre via a video call.
Reflecting the limited up-take of the service, the call-centre video link service sadly proved to be one of the most compelling uses for Orange videophone. Arguably the biggest benefit of this service was that it proved a useful way to understand the practical issues that would need to be addressed as video communication became more established.
The Orange Videophone was a device that was ahead of its time. It ultimately played an important role in laying the groundwork for Microsoft's Stinger project to create a smartphone operating system which led to the Orange SPV range of smartphones.
Below are some of the original design concepts developed by Andreas Mehne when he was working at Cambridge Consultants Ltd who were contracted by Orange to help with the creation of the Videophone.
Image credits: Andreas Mehne
Some information courtesy of Nigel Linge & Andy Sutton, the authors of 30 Years of Mobile Phones in the UK (Paid Link)