October 01, 2011

Laptops and Looms: A Modern History Lesson

This is another post sparked by the recent Laptops and Looms event. To see the rest of my thoughts on it, and links to other people's reports, check out my main Laptops and Looms write-up.

One of the themes running through Laptops and Looms was the decline of the British manufacturing industry. Given the old mills that we visited, a lot of it was around the decline of the textile industry, but also the heavy industry of steel, shipbuilding, etc.

The heyday of most of those industries was in the 1800s and the first half of the 20th Century, and most were in steep decline before any of us discussing them were born. As a result, most of our experience of them is second-hand, and there was (quite rightly) a concern that we were romanticising the past.

Thinking about things after the conference, it occurred to me that in my career so far, I have already lived through the rise and fall of an, albeit much smaller, industry here in the UK. This is a very personal, and potted history, and so I'm not presenting it as the definitive story of how things happened. However, hopefully there's some value in relating the tale.

I graduated from uni in 1995, which was around the time when the Internet was starting to gain traction, and mobile phones were just beginning to reach the point were ordinary people might get one. It was a time when the ability to send text messages was a high-end feature that not all phones had, and portable computing was the domain of PDAs - devices like the Psion Series 3a or the Palm Pilot, which were standalone devices that only synchronised with anything else when you plugged them into your PC at your desk.

In the summer of 96 I joined STNC, a fledgling startup based in Cambridge who were writing software to add connectivity to PDAs. We worked closely with OEMs and low-level operating system providers to give them email and web browsing capabilities.

Thanks to a continent-wide standardisation on GSM, Europe was leagues ahead of the US in mobile phone adoption and innovation, but that's not to say we had it all our own way. As it became clearer that a combined mobile-phone and PDA would provide exciting new possibilities, it was US firm Geoworks who seemed to be in the lead. They'd managed to sign up two of the top three mobile phone manufacturers to use their GEOS operating system. However, their coronation as mobile OS kings was short-lived: although Nokia released it in the 9000 Communicator (and later the 9110), Ericsson fell out with them and canned their smartphone project at the eleventh hour - even after getting to the point of having it featured in the latest James Bond film (remember when he steers his BMW 7-series from his phone on the back seat...?)

Alongside software startups like ourselves, there were also people in the UK building hardware. One of those was TTPcom, based just South of Cambridge. They built mobile phone hardware platforms that the OEMs (people like Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, etc.) could license and use as the base for their own phones. In 1997, a collaboration between STNC and TTPcom saw us create the first ever web browser on a mobile phone - a fully-featured (for its day) offering with HTML3.2 and GIF and JPEG image support.

Come 1998 and Psion morphed into Symbian, going one better than Geoworks and pulling all three of the top manufacturers as partners/customers - Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola.

As the millennium loomed, the heart of the mobile Internet was firmly centred on the UK, but the sector was becoming big enough that it attracted the attention of Microsoft - who decided to refocus their efforts with Windows CE and build their first smartphone.

As it turned out though, that only bolstered the UK's position. In July 1999 STNC was bought by Microsoft, but unlike other technology or expertise acquisitions, it made sense for them to keep us in Europe.

There were other UK tie-ups with Microsoft too - Orange debuted the smartphone platform (which was completely unrelated to the work we were doing at STNC), in the form of the Orange SPV, and Sendo, based in Birmingham, were an early licensee before a controversial eleventh-hour switch to Symbian.

Integrating into Microsoft turned out not to be all it promised. An eight-hour and three-thousand-odd mile separation naturally means you've not got as much contact with surrounding groups as those based in Redmond, and the fact that funding was no longer a pressing concern meant that we lost our focus on getting customers and getting products out. Coupled with some short-sighted decision-making from the leadership of Mobile Devices Division, and in early 2002 our group was shut down and the scattered across the globe and across the industry.

I spent the next few years working with a number of other mobile-related startups in the UK: Trigenix, who were later acquired by Qualcomm, and the final iteration of Pogo Mobile, who had a rather nice Internet-focused, keyboard-less touchscreen device (ooh, who else has done something like that...) that sadly didn't get beyond prototype stage.

In the same time period Symbian struggled to make good on their initial promise, largely through trying to please all of its partners all of the time, Sendo went into administration and were bought by Motorola, who also acquired TTPcom a year later.

Not long after the acquisition of TTPcom, I spent six months contracting with Motorola. I led a skunkworks team hidden in an neglected corner of the ex-TTPcom-now-Motorola site just outside Cambridge where we prototyped a new (and most importantly, usable and not horrific) UI for a low-end handset.

The UI was developed by the team who'd done a really nice job on the Motorola Z8 (a Symbian-based handset from the Sendo group in Birmingham) and five of us learnt how to code for the TTPcom AJAR OS and built most of the basic apps in less than six months. Unfortunately, we then had to engage with the Motorola bureaucracy which deemed the TTPcom engineers too expensive, and so ruled out a small team in Cambridge/Denmark in favour of a big team in India or China or Russia, possibly project-managed from Italy. Not surprisingly, none of that came to pass, and I don't think it would have produced anything cohesive and usable if it had.

Within two years both the Cambridge and Aalborg sites had been closed, and with it the TTPcom legacy gone.

The ex-Sendo group didn't fare any better. There was a successor to the Z8, the Z10, released in 2008 but even in 2007 it was clear that the Motorola smartphone focus was no longer with Symbian, and the Birmingham site was closed in 2008

Symbian survived a little longer, slowly becoming more and more subsumed into Nokia, who then basically pulled the plug earlier this year with an announcement of their switch to Windows Mobile. With it the last glimmers of the UK's mobile phone industry (rather than third-party app development) died away.


Posted by Adrian at 03:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack