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Classic Handsets: the NEC e606 heralded 3G video calls

NEC e606 Main Pic

In another of our “classic handset” series, we take a brief look at another handset of yesteryear and sprinkle in a few insights into the chosen phone from my personal experiences.

In this instalment we focus on one of the very first 3G handsets that launched in the UK on Three: the almost universally hated NEC e606 flip phone.

The NEC e606 made video calls a reality

Why reminisce through rose-coloured spectacles about the e606, you might say? Even though it’s not remembered very well now, or particularly fondly, it certainly helped to change the mobile landscape in the UK. We didn’t say the ‘classic’ phones had to have been loved now, did we?

Back in 2003, Three (my employer at the time) was the first company to roll out a commercial 3G network across the UK, and the NEC e606 was one of several UMTS-capable handsets that worked on the then-fledgling network (the Motorola A830 was also available around launch).

In those days, 3G held a lot of promise but had been over-hyped (the networks paid billions for a license, so you can understand why), and Three was touting itself as more than simply a dumb data pipe. It wanted to become a content portal and offer all kinds of exciting web-based apps and content, as well as promoting the video-calling capabilities of 3G which as we all know now, turned out to be little more than a gimmick.

Video calling in those days on a mobile could not deliver the kind of quality most of us are accustomed to now. For two-way video, phones used a 64 kbps circuit-switched connection and the old H.263 video format to encode and decode video.

Still, Three can be commended for trying, and they attempted to persuade the public that 3G video calls was the way to go on the NEC e606, which was a Japanese-style flip phone. One of the problems with the phone was that during a video call the battery couldn’t suck up juice fast enough and it would still go flat after a few hours…

Revolutionary, or just bad?

NEC e606A little insider information here, as I was fortunate enough to work in the Media Technology group within Technology Strategy in Three UK at the time. To put it bluntly, the 606 did suck, but nevertheless it was an extremely important phone for the company as it attempted to stand out from the competition and offer something new.

The 606 was provided as a staff device, and as employees we often experimented with the phones and features. On a business trip to Hong Kong, I made a video call to a colleague back in the UK, and it was amazing back then – to be able to chat and actually see the other person more than 6,000 miles away. It really doesn’t sound revolutionary now, but it really was in those days.

I also managed to make what I believe this day to be the first 3G video call between Slovenia and the UK, whilst on holiday. I’m still claiming credit for that to this day…

A capable smartphone…?

Now, the e606 wasn’t just a video calling device (video calls cost around 50p per minute in those days) – it was also quite a capable smartphone in the sense that it had a fully-featured (for the time) browser that could display HTML, rather than the simpler WAP that everyone else was using. The phone’s resolution was just 132 x 160 pixels, and it had 32 MB of internal memory (full specs can be found on GSM Arena here).

One of its reviews of the time says: “don’t be fooled into thinking this is a low-spec phone”, which seems laughable today.

ZDNet had this to say about the e606 in 2004:

The e606 impressed us for being the first mobile phone in Australia to support video calls, the handset itself had a couple of flaws. Most notably, the handset was huge and battery life was shocking — the compromise of most high-end 3G handsets.

3 Video Call Bob Fuller
Early video calls – Bob Fuller (ex-CEO) pictured on a Motorola A830.

Three insisted on launching with their own content portal, with a variety of products accessible through the “Hutch” button (a kind of triangular logo on a dedicate key), which opened up a web-based portal with various services – such as football, weather, news, local maps and other content.

Unfortunately, the performance of the 606 (and possibly the network speed) was atrocious. The network was supposed to deliver up to 384 kbps for packet-switched data, though I doubt that many people at the time actually got the full rate. But with Three’s content-rich pages, page loading times were way slower than the 10 seconds or so that was requested by upper management. One Christmas, senior managers in the Technology division were called into all-day crisis meetings to come up with ways to improve web page loading times on the 606. As it stood months before the launch, it was too slow for Canning Fok and the Hutchison Whampoa executives.

A step backwards

You may be one of those people that were subjected to the e606 back in 2003. At the time, it seemed like a step backwards due to its battery and size, at least compared to the slim and svelte 2G Motorola Razr that became the phone du jour the following year. But the e606 in its own way heralded a new era in mobile – Three were forced to optimise the hell out of both their web services and 3G network to support video calling and web browsing to an acceptable level of user experience.

Without the e606, Three would perhaps not have launched on time (03/03/03), and 3G in the UK may have taken longer to gain critical mass. Looking back, maybe Three did launch a year too early while over-promising and under-delivering on the phones.

But the 606 made it all possible, and for that we have to acknowledge the amazing feat that Three did manage to pull off (just). I’m not sure what happened to my old e606, but you can now find them on eBay for a paltry 99p…!

Thank you, NEC e606. You will be missed…


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