A Brief (and Personal) History of Mobile Telephony 1992 – 2002

What I want to do in this article is to document one particular perspective on the history of mobile telephony in the UK, between 1992 and 2003. This may all seem a bit random, but it corresponds to my time from being a Human Factors Engineer at BT Laboratories (now known as Adastral Park) to my time at O2 (the UK mobile phone operator) and the mobile gaming company Digital Bridges. This takes us from the launch of the first digital mobile phones (using the GSM standard) up to the launch of smart phones with JAVA processors.

BT Laboratories

BT Laboratories

I felt that it is useful to document this history as I was involved in many significant developments throughout this career, some developments now having been forgotten, and others which never made it to market, such as Nortel’s Orbitor, a handset which had a touch sensitive screen, a Java processor and a full client-server architecture. I thought it would therefore be interesting to document this history from the inside, and look at the decisions and motivations, trials, tribulations and successes we had along the way. This is a very personal account, and others’ accounts will differ and be from different perspectives, such as from the handset manufacturers. This is deliberate and I make no apologies for it.

In 1992 I graduated in Psychology from Nottingham University and my first job was in the Human Factors department at BT Laboratories. BT was still developing it’s identify as a private company having been a government organisation as part of the post office for many decades previously. The purpose of the Human Factors department was to carry out research that challenged emerging technology to meet real human needs and at that time it was the largest usability facility of its kind in Europe. A key concept was the notion of designing the customer experience as opposed to designing new technology, and I can see a lot of the thinking developed in the early 1990s now becoming much more visible in the form of design thinking and business design.

To give you just one example of the types of trial we did. BT’s Marketing department did not think they had problems with their answering machines, but people were calling customer helplines after purchasing them. Our department set up some trials whereby we would wait for people to buy a machine in the BT shop in Ipswich, and then ask if we could go home with them to watch them set them up. Customers were filmed in their actual environments, i.e. at home with children distracting them, visitors coming and phones ringing etc. It was only when they saw the video footage of people not setting the machines up in the clinical and expert way in which Marketing did, that they realised they had to improve the user interfaces and instructions etc.

In the first week or so I was taking a special course for new graduates BT It’s Systems and Networks. This was easy for all the new engineering graduates, who made up the majority of employees at the Laboratories. As a Psychologist this was a bit of a mad course, but it was incredible to learn about just how complex BT’s global network was, and for example how you could send more than one phone call down a single line. Even back then BT was beginning to examine Video on Demand, of which Ipswich were the Laboratories were was  one big test bed. Video on Demand would allow customers to order whole films down phone lines, and I remember many discussions about would the phone networks be able to cope or not.

Sony CM-H333

Sony CM-H333

In 1992 I didn’t have a mobile phone. The cost of calls was high, and the first mobile project I worked on was BT Chargecard, a payphone card which would allow customers to add the cost of the calls to their home phone bills. I also worked on Callminder, a revolutionary voicemail system which used voice recognition instead of people having to use their keypads. It was fascinating to run trials with members of the public and see how they would react differently to saying yes or no as opposed to typing 1 for yes and 2 for no.

Also the business model for Callminder was compelling. There were millions of calls which went unanswered due to people not owning an answering machine. If everyone gave people a free answering machine, then they would be able to collect 5p for each message which connected. However, there was a lot of anti-monopoly legislation and it was no simple matter just to do this for free since BT would have to give this ability to competitors.

Another area of complexity was the BT billing system. At the time, about one quarter of BT’s costs went into its billing system. If it stopped billing per call and charged people a monthly flat rate, it would be able to save billions.

At this time, 1992 – 1994 the key buzzword was not the internet but multimedia. Many of my colleagues were specialising in this, and I was told that to move up through the company I would need to specialise. We had a fantastic director, Peter Cochrane, who was the head of the research department of which we were a part. He was fascinated by the recently launched Nokia 2110, and for some reason was talking to me about it, asking why was it that this phone was so compelling to use.

Nokia 2110

Nokia 2110

I am sure many of you will remember phones prior to the 2110. Phones had function keys, and you had to remember combinations of buttons. They lacked large screens, and were therefore hard to use. The Nokia 2110 changed all of that, with a revolutionary soft key which changed depending on the context of the screen. The screen itself was a work of art, being moulded with its futuristic oval shape, designed to highlight the link between the screen functions and the soft keys below.

Ericsson GH 337

Ericsson GH 337

I still have mine and it is still working. The phone had SMS which was launched as a new GSM feature in 1992. Another phone I loved was the Ericsson 337. This was a very tactile phone with lovely buttons which remind me of a children’s game from the 1970s the name of which I forget. It also had Bang and Olufsen audio technology inside with great clarity of sound.

Having spoken to Peter Cochrane I set up a project to study the ease of use of the popular phones on the market, and contacted manufacturers who then sent me samples of their phones. I did not just want this to be an academic exercise, and began to look for potential in-company “customers” at BT Cellnet. At the time BT Cellnet had batteries of tests for new phones regarding their technical qualities, but they did no testing for ease of use, and this work became a new set of indicators for them.

In parallel I began working with BT Mobile, the commercial arm of BT who sold mobile solutions to corporate clients. They were developing a new concept of phone in partnership with Ericsson, the Onephone. This was to be a phone which was both GSM and DECT. DECT is the technology used in cordless home phones, and it made sense to offer customers this new dual phone since they could have mobile when out and about but save money when they were at home. This was a hugely challenging project, since the phone had to be able to tell customers what network it was on, and it would not be until 1999 that Onephone was launched. By this time mobile phone calls were falling rapidly, reducing the need for such a handset.

In 1995 I co-authored the paper Delivering Competitive Edge in which my colleague Mike Atyeo and I described our process ‘designing the customer experience’. In our book Customer Experiences with Soul Maria and I cite an extract from this paper as it has a great deal of historical significance. The paper shows the level of thinking about customer experience design we had reached, and also how we were explicitly locating design thinking inside Marketing, right at the very start of product and service life-cycle development.

One of the great things at BT Laboratories was that we could get involved in a few skunk works, a few below the radar projects in order to develop our curiosity, creativity and inspiration. I still remember a colleague showing me how to load up Mosaic, a browser which most other employees were not allowed to install. “Look at this – graphics!” BT overall was still focussed on multimedia rather than really putting energy into internet services in the very early 1990s.

Cellnet Logo

Having spent much time with BT Mobile and having had meetings at BT Cellnet, I met Tony Eales who was the head of the very small business development team, consisting of himself and two other team members. BT Cellnet overall was a small company in terms of numbers of employees, with Vodafone being far bigger. Tom Alexander (who would later be CEO of Orange) was Head of Value Added Services, and so the Business Development team were focussing on hardware (such as in-car and data cards) and the Value Added Services team on services such as voicemail, text messaging and content services. As you can see from this advert from 1996, the emphasis was still very much on voice calls being more affordable than before, and on the fact that mobile phones were no longer business tools.

I am really grateful to the opportunity Tony gave me. He recognised that BT Cellnet lacked usability and design thinking, and he saw an opportunity to add me to his team, as head of smart phones. At that time phones still only had SMS and data, but BT Cellnet was beginning to talk to manufacturers about handsets in development and they would need someone to design the customer experience of these. I therefore decided to leave BT Laboratories and move internally to BT Cellnet in Slough. Tony was a hard negotiator, commercially extremely astute and very different to me as a person. But he spent a lot of time mentoring me, allowing me to develop commercial skills to complement my academic and analytic skills. For this reason I always look to see how well an organisation implements its own mentoring programmes, as these are incredibly powerful.

Tony Eales

Tony Eales

Just as I was joining Tony, he was finalising a deal with Trafficmaster, a company who had won a government bid to cover the UK’s road network with sensors which could detect the quantity of flow of traffic. The service launched in 1996 offering traffic information to Vauxhall Motors’ website, and in 1997 Tony launched the first GSM service using cell information. Mobile phones which detect three or more cell sites are able to tell the mobile network the geographical location of that handset. The service created allowed a customer to dial 1200 and listen to traffic information for that geographical region.

Traffic Master Freeway

This was a phenomenal achievement not only for BT Cellnet but personally for Tony. He had mentored me from the start, and I was given a front row seat watching Tony literally steamroll through obstacles in the company to get this service launched. Tony was totally driven and believed 100% in the service. He would never take no for an answer, even from the technologists who claimed things could not be done, but in fact, with monumental application and ingenuity could be. It seemed sometimes like every day Tony would come back to our part of the office where he would tell me who was putting up obstacles, and I learnt a huge amount, in terms of business development, negotiation, and working in a highly multi-disciplined and multi-company project at this time.

In 1998 Trafficmaster and the RAC added RAC traffic incident information, and having launched this, Tony left BT Cellnet to join Trafficmaster, becoming their CEO in 2005, as well as becoming the CEO of Teletrac in 2001 (a software company now owned by Trafficmaster).

The Barclaycard BT Cellnet phone

The Barclaycard BT Cellnet phone

I also became responsible for SIM cards from a business development perspective. BT Cellnet had launched a revolutionary mobile handset with Barclaycard, and as SIM cards were becoming more powerful and with more memory, more functionality could be added. BT Cellnet rebranded an Alcatel handset with a big blue button for Barclaycard services and the handset was sold to customers via promotions in the monthly phone bills. This proved successful and so we started to look at what the future mobile e-commerce solutions would look like.

In addition, I was asked to join the team to look at over-the-air SIM programming. This would allow the mobile operators to do things remotely without the customer having to go to a shop, and I began to work on commercial proposals with server vendors.

Sam Di Lieto

Sam Di Lieto

A recent graduate Sam Di Lieto was assigned to this project to help me examine the technical aspects of the server solutions. Sam was intelligent, vigilant, extremely hard working, offering interesting insights and ideas and a fantastic new member of BT Cellnet. I wanted to mention Sam here since just a couple of years later, in 1999 tragedy struck when a huge train crash occurred at Paddington. A great number of BT Cellnet employees lived in London and would take the train from Paddington to Slough each day. That day 31 people lost their lives, including Sam and another engineer from BT Cellnet. I just wanted to remember Sam as I feel that these things are important and obviously as well as the huge loss to his family, he was a great loss to the company having such obvious great potential which was cut short.

Psion Organiser

Psion Organiser

Back to 1996 and it is probably worth remembering what technology we were using. Psion dominated the electronic organiser market and I had one too of course. It was quite incredible to connect it to a Nokia 2110 and hey presto, text messaging without the need to use the numeric keypad of the phone. I think in 1997 a representative from a very small and unknown company called Tegic came to visit me and showed me a new way to type in text messages. Many companies would visit me and I was hard to impress. I remember being incredulous and I tried to think up some really obscure words. But amazingly the system worked and this would go on to be implemented by Nokia and many other manufacturers.

BT Cellnet logo

BT Cellnet logo

I should also note that in 1996 the UK market still was structured using airtime service providers. In order to develop competition, these two mobile networks were not allowed to sell direct to consumers. Airtime Service Providers were the companies who customers had their contracts with, and BT Cellnet did actually have it’s own one, but this had to buy airtime wholesale from the network division, just like all other airtime providers. Working for BT Cellnet was therefore a little schizophrenic at times. However, with the launch of OnetoOne in 1993 and Orange in 1994 the regulatory climate was less necessary, and eventually Bt Cellnet and Vodafone would buy-up the airtime providers and have direct relationships with their customers.

Nokia 8810 and 8110

Nokia 8810 and 8110

Two notable phones which stand out for me at this time were the Nokia 8110 and the 8810. The 8110 was sometimes known as the banana phone and sometimes known as the Matrix Phone. In fact the actual phone in the Matrix was an 8110 with a spring loaded cover which would only be launched with the up and coming 7110 of which I will write about in a moment. The 8800 was gorgeous, being tiny and looking like a Zippo lighter. At this time, I remember that only the MD Peter Erskine, someone else and I received samples from Nokia. I don’t know why I did, as I was not a director, and there was huge envy. The smaller the better at this time but how things have changed.

Amazingly enough, in 1995 customers were only sending an average of 0.4 text messages per month. This was partly due to poorly implemented billing options, and also in the UK customers on one network could not send a message to customers on another UK network. A BT Cellnet customer could only send a text message to another BT Cellnet handset. In 1999 this restriction was lifted, and by 2000 the average text messages per month went up to 35, and on Christmas Day 2006 205 million messages were sent in the UK (source Wikipedia).

I still remember being shocked at just how small the capacity of mobile operators was. I think a single mobile cell (i.e. a cell mast) could only cope with seven, yes seven, text messages per second. (Thanks to Kevin Bradshaw for reminding me of this figure). This capacity is unthinkable nowadays, although even in 2000 I remember messages taking a long time to be received at midnight at New Year.

It is worth remembering that neither the mobile phone networks nor the handset manufacturers foresaw txtspk (Text speak). This was a compact language developed by teenagers to help them cram as much information into a single text message and therefore save money. Txtspk can not be attributed to a single person, unlike the Twitter hashtag which is said to have been created by Chris Messina from Google.

I mentioned that handset manufacturers were developing smart phones, and smart phones would require server solutions to allow them to connect to the wider internet. At the time Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson were all developing server solutions which were only compatible with their handsets. Another company Unwired Planet was also developing micro browser which was proprietary, and Nokia was also developing a text messaging service which would allow text messages of 160 characters to be concatenated, i.e. joined up to form one single longer text message.

The business case just did not make sense. BT Cellnet knew this, and so did all the other mobile operators. A totally new business model would be needed and that was when the WAP standard was proposed. A WAP forum was created in 1997 bringing together handset manufacturers, mobile operators and also Unwired Planet, to develop open standards for the industry. This was a huge lesson for me attending the forum sessions around Europe, seeing such huge organisations, with many competitors of course in the different parts of the value chain coming together to develop a solution together.

Nortel Orbitor

Credit: Nortel

However, behind the scenes BT Cellnet was working in secret with Nortel, the vast Canadian telecommunications group to develop and launch the world’s first Java phone. This was way ahead of its time, and would have a touch sensitive and graphical user interface, running Java. It was not just the handset but an entire client-server solution and Java applications would be able to be downloaded from the internet. BT Cellnet were Nortel’s strategic partner and I was responsible for the project, along with Tony Eales who was responsible for the commercial negotiations.

Nortel Orbitor

Credit: Nortel

Working with me on the project were Phil Terrett and Ken Blakeslee from Nortel’s UK head office just down the road in Maidenhead. The design team headed up by Don Lindsay were based in Ottawa, Canada, and I went over to visit them to help develop the user interface, around 1997 I think. As well as a touch sensitive screen running real-time Java applications, the handset would have voice-recognition for commands. Nortel showcased the handset at the GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, and BT Cellnet were all set to trial 80 of the handsets then launch that summer.

The handset would be sold as a complete package, fully integrated into Genie Internet’s suit of mobile applications and services. Tony and myself made sure we visited a number of retailers, including a meeting with Charles Dunstone of The Carphone Warehouse to validate the customer proposition.

This was the Apple iPhone almost a decade before Apple launched its own killer handset. Don Lindsay left Nortel for Apple in 2004 which is when Apple began forming the design team for the iPhone. However, the most senior directors in Nortel got cold feet and the project was abandoned. They had many reasons, such as mobile manufacturing not being a core skill, and the need to develop new handsets at a much faster pace than compared to their core business.

Nokia 9000 and 9110

Nokia 9000 and 9110

I do remember on receiving the first handset that it was large, and we wondered if this would be accepted by the market. However, a Nokia 9000 communicator cost £1,000 at the time, and the Orbitor was set to be much less. Also, although I would never use one, people are nowadays using huge Samsung Galaxys, so maybe uptake would have been more than we were projecting at the time.

In the end it was Apple who would come to dominate the market, and eventually Nortel would collapse. Maybe the Orbitor could have saved the company, given what we now know about Apple’s performance.

Photo: Simon Robinson

This year someone who discovered that I had worked on the Nortel Orbitor, the handset that I am holding, got in touch with me this year to ask if I would like to acquire one. This is so rare I only know of one other existing prototype.

Genie Internet logo

I can not remember exactly when, but around this time I had made the move from the Business Development team into Genie Internet, which at this time was still just a concept. The Genie team was headed up by Brian Greasley, along with two or three others from the  Information Services team within Value Added Services, including Malcolm Appleby who was looking after the architecture and Rick Stock who was in charge of design. Consult Hyperion were used as the main contractors to help build the infrastructure and integrate back into BT Cellnet’s core network.

Me in front of a very early version of Genie's Entertainment page

Me in front of a very early version of Genie’s Entertainment page

Genie Internet is barely written about nowadays but I feel it warrants a key place in the development of mobile as it was truly groundbreaking. At this time, the dominant internet portals were AOL and Yahoo, but neither had any mobile functionality. Genie would aim to break into this space by being the world’s first internet portal. A deal was brokered with the Press Association to supply news, weather, sport and travel information, and users would be able to sign up for mobile alerts. I moved from a focus on hardware to being responsible for music, games and entertainment. There would also be the ability for the first time to go to a web page and send a message to a mobile phone. One critical point of difference would be that Genie would be for all users on all UK networks.

In the proof of concept stage we managed to connect the website to BT Cellnet’s short messaging service. The ability to sign up to alerts was not functioning, and we needed a substantial amount of more funding to get it to beta stage were it could be launched to customers. Brian hatched a cunning plan and I helped out. The top 200 managers in BT Group were meeting in Spain for a weekend workshop. Brian would go there to secure funding, and he knew that if the directors could experience Genie, it would be a sure thing. He sent me the mobile numbers of all the directors, and that weekend every so often I manually sent out messages, mainly sport, news and little information about BT. The directors were hooked and Genie could steam ahead.

We were moved out of the head office at Slough and into a rented office in Richmond-upon-Thames in order to be out of all the red tape and politics. Kevin Bradshaw from Hyperion began to work with me on the development of a massively multi-player gaming platform, and I learnt a huge amount from him on systems architecture and Java technology. He focussed on the technology and I focussed on the business requirements.

In the late 90s Nokia had an almost natural monopoly on ringtones. Nokia dominated the teenage and youth markets, and ringtones began to really take off. I wanted to buy their platform, which also included the ability to charge for ringtones using premium rate text messages, but I remember being overruled due to Nokia’s system only being compatible with Nokia handsets. This I think was a strategic error and BT Cellnet lost a great deal of ground to third party ringtone suppliers.

We launched Genie as a beta service and followed the Hotmail viral marketing model. Text messages were free, but there was a little advert telling recipients to sign up too. The idea rapidly took off, and Genie in the UK soon hit half a million registrations. At this time all internet start-ups were focussed on users, and Genie would soon reach a market capitalisation of £1 billion. There was nothing else like Genie in the market, and although we thought Vodafone and Orange would copy us, they didn’t, leaving Genie alone in this space.

Projecting the Genie url onto the BT Tower for the launch of GMusic Live

Projecting the Genie url onto the BT Tower for the launch of GMusic Live

I had to do some research for this article, and the official launch of Genie is 1997. At this time, we had very basic branding, and only a minimal set of services. But we did allow used to connect to their POP3 email service providers which was a huge benefit, as well as offering our own POP3 email which rapidly took off. This article is somewhat European in bias. Although the US always liked to think of itself as ahead in all areas of technology, when it came to mobile technology it was slow compared to the US. However, in 1999 LG Telecom in South Korea launched it’s ez-i internet service, which by 2001 had reached 2million users with a rich volume of content including games.

In 2000 I led a small delegation to South Korea to spend a week looking at how we could develop a strategic relationship which BT had been developing. In 2001 BT announced the strategic partnership, with LG Telecom integrating Genie’s now UMS (Unified Messaging Service) and Genie integrating a suite of LG Java games. LG Telecom deserve a mention in this history since they were the first in the world to launch a mobile service using ez-Java. I believe NTT DoCoMo in Japan can probably lay claim to launching the first java handset in February of 1999 with their i-mode service which Vodafone would invest heavily in to catch up with Genie and BT Cellnet.  (See also this press release LG TeleCom and Genie form strategic alliance for mobile internet services)

Myself with Jamelia

Myself with Jamelia

Music and youth-orientated content providers were taking a very close look at Genie. In the late 90s, Danny van Emden returned to work for Virgin Records with a remit to explore internet developments. She set up the UKs first New Media department at a record label, and quickly ensured that all artists had an internet presence, as well as setting up The Raft website for the label. EMI followed quickly (Virgin Records were a part of EMI at this time), with a New Media department headed up by Fergal Gara with Eric Winbolt. The record labels and artists were already seeing that for young mobile users their primary access to the web would not be via computers (iPads were never envisaged at this time) but via mobile, and they would need to partner with Genie to help reach music fans.

Atomic Kitten

Atomic Kitten

BT Retail were already talking to EMI Group and asked me along to see what I could make of their suggested technology. BT Retail were developing voice services, and Genie of course was dominating the text market. Combined, the idea would be to develop GLive Music, whereby EMI Group could send out alerts to music fans, and not only would they receive a headline in the text, but a phone number to call back on to listen to further information. I created four channels Stars, Guitars, Heartbeats and Breakbeats based around Rock, Indie, Pop and Dance music, and Virgin hired the BBC Radio 1 DJ Jo Wiley to be the voice of the service.

The most compelling part of the service is that the record labels (Virgin, EMI, Chrysalis and Parlophone) would also ensure that the bands themselves would record personal messages. This would give them unprecedented and personalised access to their fans in a way in which only Twitter would be able to the following decade. GLive Music launched with great fanfare at the top of the BT Tower, and I still have a recording from BT’s internet news service with many of those involved discussing the impact of this new service.

BT Cellnet had also launched a new sub-brand called U for the youth market. Although it did not last, it was well received and we also were able to co-promote with some of the new pop groups at the time including Atomic Kitten, Jamelia, Precious and Scootch. Many of my colleagues mocked me for having relatively unknown bands and for not acquiring the services of say Robbie Williams or Kylie Minogue, but at least Atomic Kitten and Jamelia would make it big. Scootch were created as a rival to the hugely popular Steps, but never made it big, and neither did Precious, with some members leaving to join other established acts.

Anyway, I know this will sound crazy, but in fact Atomic Kitten can lay claim to being pioneers in developing new ways of connecting with their fans way before either Twitter or blogging or any social networks were launched. Not long after this party, they released their single Whole Again which would become the forth largest selling single by a Girl Band of all time.

A second near revolutionary service would be developed, and I still remember receiving Paul Bennun from London-based production company Somethin’ Else coming to meet me for the first time. We quickly established a rapport, since Somethin’ Else produced many different radio and television programmes, including Giles Peterson’s show for Radio 1, the flagship show for the UK’s latin, jazz, funk and rare group scene of which I was a part. The idea would be to develop a wap-based service allowing users to listen to short shows produced by Somethin’ Else, and I really thought that this would be the showcase Genie needed to establish credibility and core production skills for future services.

XY Network

The service was called XY Network and launched in the first half of 2000. However, around this time Genie was becoming so successful that senior directors in BT were starting to take notice and wanting to become involved. It was around this time that I feel Genie began to lose some of its focus, especially as it was being readied for international expansion with some of BT’s partners in Europe, Asia and the US. I remember at the time that BT Openworld, the broadband unit of BT spent £1 million on rights to an Elton John concert. I felt that they had really failed to exploit these rights, and that I was looking for this sum of money to be able to take a stake in XY network. In the end the senior team of Genie were not interested in having a production and media component, and it would be Radio company Forever Broadcasting, owner of Liverpool radio station Juice 107.6 FM, would would invest this sum and be given a 15 per cent stake in XY Network.

The one key asset BT Group did feel it had was the Genie/ BT Cellnet wap home page which all users started at when going into their wap browser. This was valuable real estate, and so the commercial team began to sell menu items on the various sub headings such as news, sport, entertainment etc. Volume of WAP minutes was a source of revenue, but it was thought that selling this space would also be a key source of revenue. However, this business model killed off any applications from smaller providers due to the inhibitive costs involved. Smaller providers wanted a share of call revenue from their applications, but this was a complex area to say the least and it never took off.

In March of 2000 BT Cellnet and Genie undertook a massive press campaign to launch a whole suite of services, including the UK’s first pre-paid WAP handsets targeted at the youth market. Faster data was now available in the form of GPRS. It launched a new advertising campaign based around “surfing the BT Cellnet” but this campaign was roundly criticised for developing expectations that you could have what you had on your PC on your phone. In the advert above, you will see Dotmusic featured a lot. Dotmusic was the internet part of the music industry paper Music Week, and they were starting to develop wap applications including news and the music charts. It seems quite ridiculous nowadays to make an entire advert from this one little wap application, but I had no role in the making of it and I was as surprised as anyone when I saw it!

Genie was expanding rapidly, and had moved out of the Richmond offices and into much larger offices in Hammersmith. There was now a huge pressure to monetise services after having grown the customer base, but it the only billing mechanism it had was via credit cards. This was the proposed mechanism for charging users for GLive music and other information services, and it was never going to work. I helped out on the customer requirements for a new premium rate messaging service, but for me Genie was losing a lot  of the fun.

Digital Bridges

I know I am going backwards and forwards a little in this history, but it would be too hard to try and put everything in strict chronological order. Kevin and I had worked on the gaming strategy as far back as 1997 I think and there was a decision to be made. Should BT Cellnet and Genie invest in the development of its own platform. This would mean it would have to cover costs of equipment, hosting and maintenance, but costs would be saved by not having to lease it. The decision was made not to proceed with the development of the platform, but having faith in his own work, Kevin left Hyperion to set up Digital Bridges in 1998 and he and the small team he put together would build the platform themselves. Digital Bridges gained the seed funding required, and BT Cellnet would become its first client.

Nokia 7110

Nokia 7110

I was now the global head of music, games and entertainment but Genie had also developed country-specific teams. The UK team was created quickly by a team who had come from Worldcom, and so they too had people doing music, games and entertainment. It was not often clear what the strategy was in terms of roles and responsibilities. I was never great at politics, nor empire building and found this period very pressurised. There was a massive pressure from above to begin to bring in sizable revenues, something I felt Genie not quite ready for, but the networks were building incredible business cases in the build up to the government auctions for 3G network spectrums, hence the strains and stresses.

Games proved to be the killer app for WAP. BT Cellnet became the lead sponsor of the first few series of Big Brother, and they wanted to do more than just add their name. The marketing team asked me for a game, but I had literally just a few weeks time to develop something. I had been looking at a SIM City style game which was based on houses, and so I decided to develop this game, doing a simple rebrand to become the Big Brother wap game. It really took off, and BT Cellnet saw its WAP data traffic increase by 20% within the first six days of Big Brother airing. We also used the GLive infrastructure to launch a Big Brother gossip service, something Endomol, the producers really wanted and Genie, being cross network and not tied to BT Cellnet really fitted the bill.

I think Genie was becoming a lot less fun for Brian, and he left in 2001 to join Apax Partners. Digital Bridges was taking off, and Ari Honka joined as their commercial manager to develop deals with the UK networks. Apax Partners decided to inject further funding into Digital Bridges, along with their other major investor, and Brian would be placed into Digital Bridges as their CEO.

o2 logo

In 2002 BT Cellnet undertook a major rebrand, with BT Cellnet seeming far too nerdy especially when compared to Orange. It rebranded to O2, a huge risk I felt at the time but time has shown it to have succeeded I feel. The new brand saw the end of Genie, with its services being brought back in house, and so too did the vision for what it could have become. Brian asked me to join Digital Bridges as the Business Development Manager, and work became fun again, being back in a small and focussed team.

Digital Bridges continued to be at the cutting edge, developing major partnerships with the likes of Electronic Arts, Taito, Disney and Steve Jackson amongst others. I was responsible for developing a project with Sky, and against stiff competition we won the bid to become their mobile gaming partner. Sky integrated the Digital Bridges platform into its digital television platform, and users could download games onto the phones via their television handsets, with the cost of the game going on to their Sky bill.

Digital Bridges were the first to offer first WAP games in colour, and then the biggest selling Java games such as FIFA football for mobile. In 2003 I left Digital Bridges to begin a very different career trajectory, having started to develop an interest in sustainability and a nascent and gently spiritual connection with nature. I sold my house and took a year off, something that for many personal reasons too I really felt I needed at that time.

This history is by no means complete of course, and is my own personal recollection of events. There were many crazy moments as you can imagine, but it was amazing to have been a part of the mobile industry when it was absolutely buzzing, and also a part of Genie Internet which was even crazier. At the start we had huge funding from BT Group, and often we made it up as we went along. There were no precedents, and while certain things did not work, I feel our team should be recognised for the achievements we did manage, and we did win a number of industry awards for design.

Many of my friends and colleagues have gone on to many more exciting and innovative projects, but my own path as I have said was, shall we say, a bit off the beaten track. But my path is my path and as I have said, I began a new focus in reaching a deeper consciousness which I am now putting back into the business world in a number of ways. I hope you have enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Some of the developments you will have known about, others maybe not. But I hope it has been informative and of some use as well as being interesting.

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The Human Factor: BT’s Design Thinking and Business Design in the early 1990s


It has been interesting to see the comments on this article which has been re-posted on a few social networking and blogging pages. I know some of these photos are a bit cheesy, but we didn’t have camera phones and they are all I have. (I do have a few more, but they are at my parents; house in Scotland and I am living in Brazil so can’t scan them in.)

This was a very interesting comment by a colleague who was working with me in the Human Factors department at the time.

I was a colleague of Simon’s during this same era. I can remember showing the Mosiac web browser – for the first time – to a senior project manager, up from London, from the non-nerd side of the business. His response was to go absolutely crazy about the fact that we were racking up all these international phone calls to CERN – who the hell was paying for that frivolity? In fact the answer was “almost nobody” – at that time the whole R&D site had just one ISDN link to the internet – and it very nearly neglected to renew its “bt.com” domain name that somebody had snagged.

BT’s R&D labs were a strange cocktail: there was still the very rigorous and far sighted tradition that could be traced by to British Telecom’s previous research labs at Dollis Hill – and then further back to Bletchley Park – theses were people who developed the worlds first digital exchange back in 1968 (scroll down to that year for details). On the other hand the company did not seem to really have the will to push through the ideas: the digital phone exchange (which could have boosted the UKs GDP by a significant percentage if it were commercialised back then) was shelved after the exchange fell over and somebody complained to a board member.

It was not until the iPhone came out that I finally felt that a company had started to implement the sort of user interface driven device that we had been dreaming of way back then. If Apple had not been piloted by such an obstinate bastard as Steve Jobs I honestly believe we might not be there yet.

In my article I do mention the complexities of telecom billing systems and the business models around them. Here is what another commentator on my article had to say:

A friend, who used to be in BT’s PR, was at the demonstration at Martlesham Heath where ‘the Internet’ (ie, Mozilla, plus some email and I think a few other services) were demonstrated to the board in the early 90s. The chairman said “Yeah, very nice. It’s a fad. Like CB.” and that was that for a while.

BT’s internal politics and conservatism were extremely frustrating, especially when combined with the far-sightedness and technical excellence of many of the researchers. Martlesham Heath helped design the first cut of ADSL, for example, and had an experimental VoD/megabit network deployed over last-mile POTS to a village near Ipswich (I think – details escape me) for many years before it decided to make DSL available to mug punters. Likewise, it had an effectively-free 16 kbps nationwide network through the ISDN control channel, at a time when such things were really quite useful, but never made it available for two reasons: it couldn’t work out how to bill per-byte at an economic rate, and ISDN was thoroughly and repeatedly knifed in the back by the existing, established, business data division. Which really didn’t fancy any sort of cut-priced data getting out of the lab.

And it was an open secret that BT would make more money – indeed, every telco in Europe would – by ditching the billing system altogether and going for flat-rate subscription plus a per-call charge, anywhere in Europe, for less than the then-cost of a five minute local call. But the existing billing system provided all the cash, and it made sure it was very well protected. Which was a shame, it was huge and broken: one Christmas, all the 0800 number billing failed for about a week. Those are free to the customer making the call, but paid by the company at the other end … apart from that Christmas. And that’s just one I know about because another pal was in the billing centre on support over that period as a contractor. Lord alone knows the full picture.

Billing systems remain the dark secret of telcos – they define what can and cannot be done as much as, if not more than, the visible stuff, and they’re Not Very Good. A sharky contractor with the right expertise can still make an absolute killing in that game,

(I’ve never worked for BT, nor come close, but everyone I know who has, has a set of war stories to shame Andy McNab,)

12 responses to “A Brief (and Personal) History of Mobile Telephony 1992 – 2002

    • I’m sure you have some very interesting new projects up your sleeves! Did you go to the reunion in 2010? I think I must have been in South America when it was on.

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  10. Simon a great artical covering some of my past working life at BT and Cellnet, o2.. around 1994 Tom Alexander and I along with Nigel wall and the team at BT labs worked with Nissan to deliver one of Europe’s first factory fit mobile phone programmes, with andy palmer of Nissan who became CEO of Aston Martin.. I then ram a a mvno, serving Cellnet and by consumer customers, in 1997 I joined Cellnet and with Tony Eales and a wider team we launched 1200 traffic line at the motor show in Birmingham…traffic like was only turned off in 2019..not bad…I also developed mobileclocation services trials at Cellnet to verify technology options and we used GPS to synchronise the network for timing. After traffic line I launched the first pcmcia computer data card with novatel wireless in Europe.. I worked on the first telematics car services with the tax, and Ford and with bt999 we launched e call in the UK on January 2000..I also worked with Nigel wall and Paul Randal at BT labs to great the first travel and transport information portal, which we shared the findings of PROMIS EEC framework 4 project with Brian greasley for geinie… I was presenting and intetviewingvpartnets at the Ex El and was approached by a chap from AIG I took his discussions to catch keers, dir of marketing and that how the o2 came about.. along with Gilli Coston we created the successful m2m business at o2, aligning with the telefonica team after takeover…I was privileged to have worked on and lead some great projects and initiatives at o2. My basic grounding as a rail signalling and telecoms engineer gave me the basic technology understanding.. at BT I worked on deploying Prestel, implementing the x25 packet exchange in Leeds and connecting Leeds university first Cray computer using a modem 7 to the Janet network…today I lead on internet of things consulting for one of the world’s largest mobile operators and help mobile operators across the world establish, build and operate a lot business…I have met some great people along this journey, and I hope made a worthy contribution to society and technology..

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