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Apple and Nortel Patents - Very Interesting

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July 22, 2011

Apple and Nortel Patents - Very Interesting

By Peter Bernstein
Senior Editor

Having covered the Apple earnings last week (before and after, actually) along with closely following of all of the Apple, Google (News - Alert), Microsoft, HTC, Oracle etc., intellectual property battles, an intense case of first envy and then curiosity hit me.


  • Envy: Until my current contract allows me for a phone upgrade all I can do is gawk at friends and family with iPhones and Androids.  
  • Curiosity: So what did Nortel (News - Alert) have that Apple may have coveted?

On the first, I am getting near the end of my period of Blackberry indentured servitude. On the second, I decided to search my internal hard drive as well as the ‘Net. I distinctly remembered while I was helping Nortel with its launch of the Companion wireless phone system, being in Ottawa and wandering into a laboratory where I was shown a model of the prototype of a wireless handset named “Orbiter.”

It was really cool. In fact, on a later visit, several industry analysts and I all volunteered to be test users once we got a full glimpse of the capabilities. Unfortunately, many years ago I shredded the presentation that contained a picture of the Orbiter and no longer can find one. I do remember it fit in your hand easily. I also remember its touch screen. And then I stumbled across two interesting items:

  • An article in the Ottawa Citizen from June 2007 with the long title, “Redesigning Nortel to prepare for risks Could the iPhone (News - Alert) have been invented in Ottawa? The question is not as off-the-wall as it seems.”
  • A paper presented by André Vellino, Computing Research Lab, Nortel Technology, Institute for Information Technology, National Research Council Aug 2nd 1996, “ Agents for Mobility with a Java-enabled Orbiter.”

The Ottawa Citizen article confirmed my hazy memory on all of the Orbiter capabilities. Orbiter incorporated a graphics display that could be activated through a combination of voice and touch, using a stylus. The screen was animated, showing things such as a crumpled e-mail upon deletion. And then it revealed something I did not know:

“The developer of the Orbiter's user interface was Don Lindsay, a rare talent who left Nortel in 1994 to join Apple, based in Cupertino, California. There, Lindsay was put in charge of the ‘User Experience’ team that created Mac's OS X operating system. The significance of this? The team built by Lindsay went on to create the user interface for Apple's iPhone.”

The paper was interesting because it showed how prescient Nortel Corporate Design Group folks were in their thinking at the time. The whole notion of agents was very nascent, as was the prospects of “software systems designed to act on the user’s behalf to achieve a goal.” Nortel was experimenting with such concepts on the phone side of things at the same time Marc Porat, Andy Hetsfeld and Bill Atkinson were convincing then Apple CEO John Scully to invest in what was known as the Paradigm project. In fact, for you tablet fans, look up the history of the project which eventually was spun-out of Apple into a start-up called General Magic. The new company attracted the likes of Sony, Motorola (News - Alert), Matsushita, Philips and AT&T as investors and users of the General Magic suggested/inspired form factor, touch-screen, intuitive user interface (concepts exquisitely extended upon in the 1994 movie Disclosure) and its scripting language for creating and launching personal agents.

Apple then got annoyed, created the Apple Newton, sued General Magic (which ended in a draw but General Magic ultimately disappeared), and this was the beginnings of the knowledge base for not just the iPhone but the iPad.

While I have no knowledge of what intellectual property of Nortel is in the hands of Apple, the linkage back to the Orbiter seems if nothing else fascinating.  It thus begins where I started, envy for an Apple a day to keep the doctor away, and curiosity about the next piece of drama to be created in the ongoing intellectual property wars.

NOTE: Anyone with Orbiter drawings please send along.


Peter Bernstein is a technology industry veteran, having worked in multiple capacities with several of the industry's biggest brands, including Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent, Telcordia (News - Alert), HP, Siemens, Nortel, France Telecom, and others, and having served on the Advisory Boards of 15 technology startups. To read more of Peter's work, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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