Colour screens and camera phones

The UK mobile phone industry could have gone one of two ways in 2000. Everyone who wanted a phone could afford one and prices of basic handsets were in free fall. If mobile handsets remained just phones, then they would become a throwaway commodity, built cheaply and sold cheaply, or given away with little profit for the manufacturer or network provider.

The other path was, of course, to offer more than just a phone. But what?

The Mitsubishi Trium Eclipse and the Ericsson T68m, the first phones on the UK market with full colour displays

The first colour screens

Phones in the last century were monochrome. Would colour screens be enough to get people to ditch their old phone and buy a new one?

Colour had already been tried. The first phone with a colour screen was the Siemens S10 from 1997. It only offered four colours which were just different coloured text and it made little impression on the market.

But what about a phone with full colour graphics?

Two of the hottest gadgets on the 2001 Christmas list were the Ericsson T68m and the Trium Eclipse. Both had colour screens which displayed acceptable images using a 256 colour palette. The Trium was the first on the market in mid November 2001 at £149 with a contract.

The Trium was the first, but the Ericsson was much better. It was the last phone sold under the Ericsson brand, but this new phone was all about the present not the past. It was small, stylish and sexy and its large colour screen put it ahead of the Nokia 8310, the leading consumer phone of the time.

The Ericsson T68m pointed the way to the future of mobile phones. Colour screens meant that phones could display pictures. The Ericsson T68m was able to take a firmware upgrade in 2002 making it capable of sending and receiving reasonable resolution digital images using new technology called Multimedia Messaging Service or MMS. It was a precursor to the next development: camera phones.

Sony Ericsson T68i

Camera phones

In July 2002, Andrew Harrison, the CEO of Carphone Warehouse, took his vacation in Italy. On the first day of his holiday he sent a picture of Tredozio near Bologna back to his office in the UK, using a camera phone and MMS. He wanted to show his colleagues back in the UK the future of the picture postcard. Harrison hoped that camera phones would save the industry and the Carphone Warehouse from oblivion.

Japanese teenagers took to camera phones in their millions a couple of years earlier, but the outlook for similar success in Europe looked doubtful. A certain level of take up, pundits thought around 30%, was needed before people would want to buy camera phones in large numbers. If your friends did not have one, there was little point in you having one.

The European roll out was slow and cautious. Ericsson did a deal with Vodafone to supply the infrastructure and the first phone that supported MMS, but first steps as far as customers were concerned were tentative.

Vodafone D2 launched an MMS service in Germany and there was Westal in Hungary, Oni in Portugal, Telnor in Norway and Telecom Italia in Italy all doing the same in the first half of 2002.[1]

Nokia 7650

The first UK service came in June 2002. T-Mobile's picture messaging service offered only one phone, the Sony Ericsson T68i, with a camera attachment. Customers had to pay an extra £20 per month to use the service as well as £200 for the phone. Commentators thought that these high costs would exclude young consumers, who were the most likely to use the service.

Orange, Vodafone and O2 followed with their own services by August 2002. By then Nokia got their long awaited 7650 phone onto the market. It was just what the market needed, a phone with a built in camera. The Nokia 7650 was much more than that though. Its Symbian OS offered picture management, a calendar and a to-do list. It was a pre-3G smart phone and you could get one from Carphone Warehouse for less then £200 with a Vodafone contract. [2]

It was still not obvious that phones with cameras were good thing. However, the Nokia 7650 became one of the most desirable gadgets for a short time and made all consumer phones without a camera old hat. The cost of picture messaging came down and the industry had given their customers a reason to upgrade and operators prepared for the next revolution, 3G.


1. Telecom Italia Mobile launches MMS, published by the Sunday Business Group EuropeMedia in 22 May 2003

2. Can Nokia save us? by Paul Durman, published in the Sunday Times 4 August 2002

Article by Steven Braggs, November 2011, corrections June 2012

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