Thursday 8 November 2018

Dial W for Weird: The Strange First Days of 3

Back in the early days of 3G handsets, it seemed that nobody really knew what the next-generation of mobile phones would look like. Companies such as Siemens came up with some wild-looking concepts which never made it to production. We take a look back to some of the early phones available on the fledgling 3 network in the UK, when handsets were scarce and phones were... weird.

Motorola A920 and A925

Motorola A920 and A925
Motorola was also a key player in early 3G handsets, with the A920 and A925 perhaps being somewhat recognisable precursors of today’s smartphones. In addition to 3G support, the A920 and A925 had a 2.8” touchscreen display, ran the Symbian operating system with the UIQ touch interface, and had GPS support and the single swivelling camera could be used for basic photography and video calling. Although the screen was relatively large for its day, the huge bulk of the handset dwarfed it and made it look relatively small.

The differences between the A920 and A925 are mostly cosmetic – the A920 launched first with all the design charm of 1960s East German tractor factory. After working frantically together, Motorola and 3 came up with the A925 which had the design charm of a 1980s East German tractor factory. This was progress of sorts.

NEC E808

Perhaps the most striking phone in 3’s early line-up was the NEC E808, which was one of those visionary devices that demonstrated that neither carriers nor manufacturers really knew what consumers wanted.

Rather beautifully engineered in black and chrome, the E808 had a full QWERTY keyboard and a relatively large 2.8” display along with both front and rear-facing cameras. It looked like a tiny laptop computer, but the reality was a bit disappointing. The large display only had a resolution of 162 x 132 pixels, and because 3 had a “walled garden” approach to the internet in most regions, you couldn’t actually browse the web. You could use the keyboard for text messages and emails, but the phone was too limited to do much else. You could make video calls on it though – this was a big thing for 3G networks – but in reality, hardly anybody did.

NEC E808 and E808Y
It didn’t take too long for NEC to come out with a more sober version of the E808 called the E808Y which transformed the elegant but enormous clamshell into something that looked rather more BlackBerryesque. Essentially though the hardware was unchanged other than its looks, and again it promised rather more than it could deliver.

Nokia 7600

But if you thought that the E808 misjudged the market... there was Nokia. Their mainstream 3G phone was the batshit-crazy Nokia 7600 which so fundamentally missed the needs of potential customers that it ended up being a high-profile disaster. The insane keyboard, tiny screen and lack of video calling just made it rather pointless.

Nokia 7600
Customers of that era would obviously want a Nokia, but they didn’t want THIS Nokia. There was another 3G Nokia handset available, the 6650. But you couldn’t have that. Oh no, that would be TOO easy. Even with heavy discounting, consumers stayed away from the 7600 in droves.

NEC E616 / E616V

NEC E616

Admittedly these weren’t the only phones, but the NEC E606 and Motorola A830 were like the last kids to be picked for the team, and they were never going to win 3 any medals. By late 2003 there was finally a less awful handset in 3’s line-up, the NEC E616.

The E616 looked rather nice, although like all 3G phones at the time it was a bit large. Two separate front and back facing cameras delivered on the promise of video calling without having to swivel a camera around, there was expandable memory and a decent media player and the 2.2” screen may not have been very good but the 176 x 240 pixel resolution was better than most. The E616 did have a pretty rubbish main camera though at just 352 x 240 pixels, but this was rapidly replaced with the E616V which boasted 640 x 480 pixels.

It took a long time for 3G phones to be the standard – a big problem for 3G-only networks such as 3. The market took about 5 years to fundamentally shift away from 2G with the rise of the Android platform helping to drive high-speed data use. Today most these curious relics of early 3G telephony are still fairly easy to find and not expensive.

Image credits: NEC, Motorola, Symbian, Nokia, TimSE via Wikimedia Commons, Conrad Longmore via Wikipedia, Retromobe

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