Nortel built early iPhone-like handset
‘Orbiter’ had technical deficiencies
CCANWEST NEWS SERVICE ould the iPhone have been invented in Canada? The question is not as off-the-wall as it seems.
The key elements of Apple’s touch-tone wireless phone, which was launched Friday in the U.S., were present many years ago in a special Nortel lab in Ottawa known as Corporate Design Group.
Dozens of Nortel engineers worked in the early 1990s on futuristic products ranging from wireless Internet browsers to full-colour, touchsensitive graphical cellphones — long before competitors made these products commonplace.
One especially promising handset, dubbed Orbiter, incorporated a graphics display that could be activated through a combination of voice and touch, using a stylus. The screen was animated, showing things such as a crumpled e-mail upon deletion.
The developer of the Orbiter’s user interface was Don Lindsay, a rare talent who left Nortel in 1994 to join Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif. There, Lindsay was put in charge of the “User Experience” team that created Mac’s OS X operating system.
The significance of this? The team built by Lindsay went on to create the user interface for Apple’s iPhone.
Lindsay, who now is plying his design skills at Microsoft, says there were problems with Nortel’s blue-sky prototypes that had little to do with the design side of things.
Computing power available for the handsets was pathetically weak and touchscreen technology was neither advanced nor cheap.
And there was also the reality that Nortel, for all its attention to communications networks, was not actually in the business of making handsets.
When Nortel began slashing operations during the 2001 tech crash, it had little difficulty killing Corporate Design Group.
It’s impossible to know what was lost with this move, because designing the technology is merely the first, albeit crucial, step.
The products also have to be marketed well, and this is where Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs excels.
Nortel’s chief technology officer, John Roese, isn’t much worried about what might have been. After one year in the job, he has his sights on creating an R&D environment that would do Jobs proud.
Much of this flows from a very basic calculation Roese ordered up when he signed on as CTO.
He wanted to know where Nortel was actually spending its research dollars and was shocked to discover that 55 per cent of the budget had been earmarked for supporting older technologies such as GSM wireless.
Another 35 per cent was being spent on products (CDMA wireless gear, for instance) that are being installed in customers’ networks, while only 10 per cent had been allocated to emerging technologies (Wimax and other fourth-generation wireless products).
Roese resolved to shift the balance as quickly as possible.
The new target: 20 per cent of Nortel’s $1.7-billion annual R&D will go towards futuristic projects, while 60 per cent will support current generation products. This will leave just 20 per cent for older products that require R&D tweaking.
Roese says Nortel is making headway but is still some distance from meeting the new goals.
The emphasis on next-generation technology will of course play to the advantage of Ottawa, site of Nortel’s singlelargest collection of R&D staff.
About 5,000 employees are based here, nearly all of them associated with R&D.
Roese points out that a significant part of the reduction in R&D related to older products will be accomplished by transferring the maintenance of software code and other routine tasks to low-cost countries such as India.
This, in turn, will free up the more expensive engineers in Canada and the U.S. to develop more valuable technologies.