Nortel Europa smartphone

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Nortel Europa smartphone




Nortel Europa
(description courtesy of Mobile Phone Museum)

The Nortel One (also known as the Europa handset) was an early instance of what’s come to be known as a ‘smartphone’, developed to show off the future that Nortel envisioned as a product family it called the Orbitor. Work on the Orbitor vision started at Bell-Northern Research (Nortel’s R&D subsidiary) in the early 1990s with a series of concept models focusing on what a handheld personal communicator could be like. 

Once this proof-of-concept was validated through extensive user and chooser research, the design for Nortel One started apace in early 1995. It used the GSM radio and physical interface module from theNortel 92x/1920 phones with a digital signal processor (DSP) core for speech recognition and added an ARM processor module that interfaced with the touchscreen and powered the screen user interface. 

The first working units, of which 80 were made, were delivered at the end of February 1998 in time for the GSM World Congress in Cannes, France.

The development of the Nortel One device was primarily a skunk works  project undertaken at Nortel's Bell-Northern Research (BNR). It required the incorporation of many new technologies, overcoming internal corporate process challenges at Nortel, and managing a variety of logistics issues that the team working on the product had to address.

The project largely flew under the radar at Nortel but succeeded thanks to a dedicated multi-disciplinary design team drawing on broad expertise at BNR (Ottawa, Canada) and AEG Mobile Communication (Ulm, Germany), then part of Matra-Nortel.   Initially, the prototype devices were going to be manufactured at an AEG factory in Berlin, but the manufacturing was moved to an SCI factory in Bordeaux, France where the final units were built.

When it was originally conceived, the Nortel Orbitor was envisaged as being a “highly featured, pocket-sized wireless device” that would use advanced voice-recognition technology and a touch-sensitive screen to deliver voice, messaging and graphical notes in “one convenient, easy-to-use mobile communications devices.”

The team working on the device boldly claimed they were “creating a new vision of personal communications for this decade [the 1990s] and into the next century.” They made it clear that the Orbitor was not a telephone, pager or a personal digital assistant (PDA) but that it was “something new, different and unique.” They preferred to describe it as being part of “a new category of personal communications management products that would put the user in control of emerging services and applications.”

The original idea for the Orbitor was to be a compact, lightweight personal device, about the size of a wallet, that would be attached to a person’s clothing or easily fit in a pocket or handbag.

The early design ideas centred on users being able to “dial” a number by simply speaking a number or a person’s name – a concept, that at the time, seemed like science fiction.

Early concept models also included a detachable speaker that was designed to fit over a user’s ear “for handsfree operation and private conversations” – akin to a detachable Bluetooth headset that would come in later years.

Nortel also envisaged that the Orbitor would support multimedia capabilities allowing users to communicate in different ways. For example, sending written messages to one person while having a call with another at the same time – yet another example of a use-case that is now taken for granted.

Another revolutionary feature of the Orbitor was the use of animation in the user interface rather than plain text and static graphics – a capability that was only just starting to emerge on PCs at that time.

The graphics on the Orbitor were animated offering an early example of skeuomorphic design – which mimics real-world experiences in the user interface. For example, when a message was received, an envelope moved onto the Orbitor’s screen and when the user selected it, the envelope unfolded to reveal the message. When the user deleted the message, the paper crumpled up and dropped off the bottom of the screen.

The designers believed these “real-world images would make the Orbitor extremely easy to use by attracting user’s attention to the action being performed in a clear, unambiguous and memorable fashion.”

A further example, that is also taken for granted these days, was when the Orbitor played a voice message an animated slider on a bar moved across the display. Users could use the touch screen to stop the message and play back portions of it by touching the bar at the appropriate position.

Another innovation was offering “canned messages” such as “leave a voice msg.” or “call back to reschedule” so users could respond discreetly to calls when they were in a meeting or otherwise occupied.

The early concepts of the Orbitor were validated starting in late 1992, using industrial design models in videos where various users were seen using the Orbitor in real-life situations. This was a smart approach as it avoided the costly and time-consuming process of building working prototypes. Screen simulations were super-imposed onto the devices used in the video which were so realistic at the time that some viewers thought the Orbitor models being used were real products.

More details of the Orbitor concepts and underlying research can be found in the article that featured in the BNR in-house magazine, Telesis, Issue 97, December 1993.

The first reveal of a functioning Orbitor device occurred in the BNR Futures Room at Nortel’s booth at Telecom’95 in Geneva, Switzerland.

It was a fully featured device with a GSM radio, large 320 x 160-pixel eight-shade greyscale touch-sensitive screen and a graphical user interface, combined with advanced voice dialling and personal hands-free capabilities that had been pioneered on the Nortel 922 mobile phone. The prototype was powered by General Magic's MagicCap OS.  This demo garnered intense interest and was successful enough to give Nortel the confidence to progress down the road towards a commercial product. The Orbitor concept became the Europa device, which was eventually branded commercially as the Nortel One.

By 1997, the design team decided to replace the MagicCap OS with Microware’s OS-9 combined with P-Java (a.k.a. Personal Java). The use of Java pioneered the notion of downloadable applications (today known as “apps”) to further personalize the user experience.

The Nortel One worked in conjunction with the “Nortel One Server” which these days would be described as a “cloud platform”, or perhaps even an “app store". This allowed operators to provide customised data and services to users, including personalised menus and home screens, as well as being able to deliver apps in the form of Java applets.  Users could back up their phones to the server.

Nortel believed that typical applications that would be offered on the Nortel One could include timetables and schedules, restaurant guides, stock prices, sports results, road and traffic information, ticketing, work scheduling and more. All types of content that are commonplace today.

The phone had a range of features including text entry using the stylus either via character recognition or a soft keyboard, a “business card style directory”, a rudimentary browser with virtual buttons (tiles) that allowed users to access content and PIM (personal information manager) capabilities.

The handset had a range of features including text entry using the stylus either via character recognition or a soft keyboard, a “business card style directory”, a rudimentary browser with virtual buttons (tiles) that allowed users to access content and PIM (personal information manager) capabilities, integrated speech recognition for voice-activated dialling, and a personal speakerphone.  A novel sliding keypad preserved the familiar 3-by-4 cellphone keypad with SEND and END buttons— when slid open the large touch-sensitive display was revealed.

The first 80 pre-production handsets were manufactured in February 1998 to be showcased at the GSM World Congress trade show that month in Cannes, France by members of the Nortel team, including Ken Blakeslee. The Nortel One appeared again at the CeBIT fair in Hannover, Germany in March 1998.

Initially, Nortel had planned to showcase the device as a major feature on its exhibition stand. However, the decision was taken to move the prototype devices to a back room away from public view. They were demoed by invitation to a few selected customers and industry personnel (including Nokia's Anssi Vanjoki) who were hugely impressed by the device with its futuristic capabilities such as weather data on a greyscale map with real-time data being transferred over SMS. 

Nortel was also secretly working with the UK’s BT Cellnet to deploy the Nortel One offering a complete end-to-end solution combining the handset and a server solution hosting Java applications that could be downloaded onto the device. The team at BT Cellnet comprised several individuals including Simon Robinson, Tony Eales, Brian Greasley and others. The trial was destined to take place following GSM World Congress in 1998 with a goal of launching in the summer of 1998. The device and service portfolio was also shown to a number of retailers including Carphone Warehouse founder Charles Dunstone.

Sadly, the BT Cellnet trial never came to fruition when John Roth, the then CEO of Nortel, abruptly ended the project. He felt that Nortel lacked the expertise required to be successful in consumer electronics devices and would not be able to hit the price points needed to be successful. Ultimately, this meant the future commercial iteration of the phone never came to market, but it has become a notable (albeit little-known) device in the history of the smartphone.

Interestingly the patents and prior art that Nortel created around the Orbitor project have gone on to feature in several court cases concerning intellectual property in mobile phones, reflecting what a ground-breaking device it was for its time.

Addendum: Nortel Europa historical context
(by Z. Stachniak)

Integration of different, often disparate, functionalities within a single personal device, as exemplified by the smartphone, is not a new concept. In the 16th century, crucifix dials served as instruments to determine the time of day. These were small boxes in the shape of a crucifix typically crafted from brass and engraved with hour numbers and religious scenes. A built-in magnetic compass was used primarily, though not exclusively, to orient the instrument. It also aided in determining directions while traveling. Some of these dials incorporated other functionalities such as the conversion of "Italian hours" (24 hours of a day and night) into "common hours" (1 to 12 day hours) and vice versa carried on using built-in rulers. Thus, the dial addressed temporal and spiritual needs, provided secular guidance and helped to contemplate things eternal.

16th century crucifix dial made by Melchior Reichle. The British Museum, museum number 1874,0727.3.

16th century crucifix dial made by Melchior Reichle. Source: The British Museum, museum number 1874,0727.3.

The rapid advancements in microelectronics during the 1970s and 1980s enabled the integration of multiple information management functionalities into single handheld devices, such as electronic organizers and personal digital assistants (PDAs). The Psion Organizer, released in 1984, offered users an electronic diary, searchable address database, flat-file database, calculator, and clock, as well as the execution of application programs and limited programmability.

Nortel Orbitor prototype

The Psion Organizer, 1984. Source: York University Computer Museum.

In the same year, Motorola introduced the DynaTAC 8000X phone, recognized as the first commercially available portable handheld cell phone. It offered approximately 30 minutes of talk time on full charge and limited call management features.

The immediate social acceptance of PDAs and cell phones contributed to the popularization of the concept of personal, portable communication and information management devices. It was inevitable that sooner or later, a new generation of personal electronic devices combining PDA-like functionality with mobile telephony into a single device would emerge, and several companies began to work on such projects, including IBM (the Simon smartphone launched in 1994), Nokia (the Communicator released in 1996), and Alcatel (the One Touch Com introduced in 1998). Notably, BNR began its work on its vision for such a device (known as the Orbitor) in 1992.  Comprehensive market research was conducted to identify the types of products and services that would address crucial user needs through the use of such devices, as well as key user values for personal communications and data management.

The Orbitor project was initiated by the BNR's Corporate Design Group which aimed at defining and implementing a new vision for personal communications. Initially, the device was envisaged as

compact, lightweight, personal device—the size of the wallet—that would attach to a person's clothing or fit easily into a packet or purse. Offering voice, messaging, and graphical notes capabilities, Orbitor would be operated via voice-recognition capabilities and a touch-sensitive screen. Users could "dial" a telephone number simply by speaking a number or a person's name (provided that name has been entered in the personal directory) into the Orbitor's microphone. Orbitor would be designed with a detachable speaker that would fit comfortably over a user's ear for hands-free operation and private conversation.

Orbitor would also be equipped with a detachable stylus to enable users to write messages, destined for other users, directly on the screen. As envisaged, Orbitor would also incorporate a multimedia capability that would let users communicate in different ways with more than one party at a time -- sending written messages to one person, while carrying on a voice conversation with another, for example. [1]

Nortel Orbitor prototype

One of the Orbitor's concept designs. Source: [1].

The concept was first visualized in 1992 through videos produced by BNR as part of their extensive behavioural research. A variety of potential communication services were demonstrated by simulating them on a non-operational mock-up of the device.

During the following three years, the Orbitor's design progressed to a state where its main features could be showcased in a working prototype. “We’ve been talking about and working with this concept for some time now, and we wanted to show our customers that its market implementation is not that far away," explained Arlan Anderson, manager of BNR's Portable Terminals Platform Development, in a press release from 1995 [2].  "We decided the best way to do that was to develop an operational prototype that could be demonstrated on a real switch.”

In October 1995, such a technology demo was prepared for the Telecom ’95 trade show held in Geneva, Switzerland. "I was recruited/tasked to create a tiger team to create a working demo that could be put on display at T’95," recollected David Cuddy, former director of Nortel's Advanced Terminals Technologies group [3]. "This wasn’t a prototype of a product. It was a technology demo, or more accurately perhaps, a concept demo. What we built wasn’t based on Java - that design decision came later - but used the Magic Cap platform created by General Magic. [...] Given the positive response from prospective NT customers and trade journalists who saw our T’95 Orbitor demo, a decision was subsequently made to launch a product development program."

The Orbitor's demonstration—among four special presentations featured at the BNR Futures Room at Nortel’s Telecom ’95 booth—showcased simultaneous voice and data communications through the DMS GSM system at Nortel's booth. “We demonstrated new audio and acoustic values that we call “Personal Handsfree,” which allow you to conduct a high-quality telephone conversation without having to hold the handset to your head," Arlan added [2]. "We also demonstrated several different types of messaging – handwritten messages, voice mail, and text messaging – accessed through the handset display.”

During the 10-day event, the Orbitor demo was shown to over 800 customers and key government officials. According to Arlan, feedback was overwhelmingly positive:

There is a lot of excitement around personal communications services in general, and people were very enthusiastic about what they saw and heard. The need for the types of user values exhibited by the Orbitor prototype was clearly acknowledged. In particular, the service providers noted the potential of Orbitor as a new wireless communications format that can help them evolve their business and differentiate themselves from competitors,

Des Ryan, senior product design manager, Corporate Design Group, concurred. “The prototype enabled our customers to experience a future of their business where high-value services will be very easy to use, and showed that this future is within reach today.” [2]

In the following two years, the Orbitor's design foundations underwent major transformation driven by many factors, most notably the commercialization of the Internet and the introduction of Sun Microsystems' Java. In 1986, NSF created its NSFNET network which soon became the primary Internet backbone. However, the network's mandate limited its usage exclusively to research and educational support endeavors. The "privatization of the Internet" culminating in NSF's retirement of its network in 1995, widely expanded Internet accessibility and paved the way for a wide range of new services from personal and corporate websites to e-commerce platforms.

The release of Java 1.0 software in 1996 marked another pivotal factor impacting Orbitor's development. The BNR design team promptly recognized the significance of Sun's platform as an enabler of a vast array of sophisticated communications services. Consequently, in the same year, BNR decided to implement Orbitor as a Java-enabled device  code-named "Europa" — the first personal communications device of this kind. In an article for Talking Business magazine back in 1996, Ken Blakeslee, former head of the Business Development team at Nortel's Wireless Networks UK office, observed, "People understand what they want to do with mobile phones. It's only now that the technology arrived to enable it."

The Europa handset, later rebranded as “Nortel One” [5], was officially unveiled during the 1998 GSM World Congress in Cannes in February 1998 and, a month later demonstrated at the CeBIT'98 International Trade Fair that took place in Hanover. The device had evolved into a full Java-enabled smartphone, running Microware OS-9 as the core operating system. It offered an advanced touch-sensitive graphical user interface, speech recognition, personal handsfree, and other advanced features. In addition, thanks to the Java underpinnings, it supported downloadable ‘apps’ as part of a client-server architecture.

Sadly, as part of Nortel corporate refocusing, the Orbitor/Europa project was abruptly terminated in 1998. Nortel subsequently withdrew from the telephone handset market, divesting its portfolio of GSM, wireless, enterprise and landline telephones. The Advanced Terminal Technologies group was dismissed in 2000, and the following year, Nortel shut down the entire Corporate Design Group.

Several groups within Nortel/BNR and outside companies participated in the Orbitor/Europa project including:

  • Corporate Design Group, Nortel,
  • Advanced Terminal Technologies Group, Nortel,
  • Nortel Wireless Networks, UK,
  • Marta Communication Cellular Terminals, France,
  • AEG Mobile Communications,  Germany,
  • Sun Microsystems, USA.

In 1997, over 50 contributors from various BNR/Nortel groups and departments involved in the R&D  project signed a commemorative Europa poster.

Europa poster

Nortel Europa poster, 1997. Source: York University Computer Museum.


[1] Brown, M., Fairless, J., French-St.George, M., Lindsay, M., Roberts, T., and Ryan, D.,"Orbitor: a new personal communications concept," Telesis 97 (1993), pp. 5--13.
[2] Orbitor, Nortel press release(?) (1995).
[3] David Cuddy, private communication (2024).
[4] Talking Business Magazine, Sun Microsystems (1996).
[5] Nortel One: Nortel's Multimedia & Service Delivery Solution, promotional brochure, Nortel (1998) .

Nortel Europa main features and technical specifications (as of 1998)

Main features:

  • Java-powered cellular handset: Java enabled secure access to data from both the Internet and local Intranets,
  • touch screen graphical user interface with handwriting character recognition and animated graphics (operated via touch, stylus, and keypad)
  • business card style directory,
  • ink notes: set-to-set ink messaging, allowing to send electronic hand written notes, diagrams, etc. from one device to another,
  • text editor,
  • built in help facility,
  • Personal Information Manager (PIM) functions,
  • integrated message center including SMS, voice, fax, e-mail, as well as notification and voice-mail interface,
  • Internet browsing: Inpact browser,
  • voice activated dialing,
  • hands-free operation.

Hardware specifications:

  • motherboard: based on the Nortel 920 and 922 handsets,
  • daughter card (the Europa Daughter Card, a.k.a. the EDC) containing: CPU, RAM, Intel Flash, and other components,
  • CPU: Digital Equipment Corp. StrongARM SA-1100,
  • RAM: 524,288 x 8-bit, implemented using eight Mitsubishi M5M5408ATP static RAM chips,
  • flash memory: several types including Intel StrataFlash T28F800 and boot sector flash memory AMD AM29LV002B,
  • SIM card: micro SIM,
  • wireless network protocol: GSM, TI Gemini processor(?),
  • keyboard: sliding, 20 keys (12 alphanumeric and 8 direction, phone, and function keys),
  • display: 320x160 pixels touch screen, back-lit, 8-shade grey scale, controlled by the National Semiconductor COP472-3 liquid crystal display controller,
  • audio-analog front end: Philips UCB 1200 (aka Betty),
  • dimensions: 166x64x30,
  • weight: 300g.


  • operating system: Microware OS-9,
  • Personal Java platform, compliant with Java Telephony Application Programming Interface (JTAPI) ver. 1.2,
  • GUI written in Java,
  • variety of planned downloadable user applications, including: timetables/schedules, work scheduling, What's-on-Guide,
    restaurant guides, ticketing, stock prices, e-commerce, sports results, road and traffic information.

Museum holdings

  • Nortel Europa 900, SN 004900 01 015129 0,
  • Telesis, Nortel, issues 93, (December 1993) and 103 (July 1997),
  • Nortel One: Nortel's Multimedia & Service Delivery Solution, promotional brochure, Nortel (1998),
  • other Orbitor related holdings can be reviewed in the museum's Nortel archive,
  • A 1997 commemorative Europa poster.


Bell-Northern Research


unveiled in 1995 at Telecom’95


donated by David Cuddy




Bell-Northern Research, “Nortel Europa smartphone,” York University Computer Museum Canada, accessed July 19, 2024,

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