The Vista 350 telephone and the birth of SaaS
Warning: this is a retrospective post… don’t worry, it concludes with a happy “today” message for the Software as a Service industry (SaaS).
In 1988, the top song was George Michael’s Faith… or Tracy Chapman’s Fast Cars – depending on the chart. Not a bad soundtrack to this post. I had just joined Northern Telecom’s lab – Bell Northern Research.One of my first projects was to design a phone (correction: “consumer appliance”) that would enable third party interactive services to be delivered via ordinary analog phone lines. This project was sponsored by the Bank of Boston and BellSouth. We hacked up a data protocol, built a few hundred phones and conducted trials for the “home banking machine” in Nashville. That was 1992. The phone was code-named SESAME … as in “open Sesame”…a new portal to service. By the way, the awful acronym stood for Subscriber Enhanced Services Access Made Easy. The phone is pictured here – a three line bit-mapped display with softkeys.
The results were “OK”… but the phone looked just like a phone. There was no way the device could support a $250 price tag. Back to the drawing board. The next year we created the concept for the Vista 350… the market research was definitive: no one was going to pay $350 for a “phone”. So Northern (soon to be Nortel) compromised. We got to build the Vista 350 (with it’s large display and softkey interface.) We also build the Vista 250 – with a tiny display and hardkey interface. The 250 was going to sell for $250. Both the 350 and 250 operated on the same firmware. Common sense would dictate that the cheaper version of the product would prevail. So wrong.
The 250 didn’t see the light of day! The 350 took off beyond everyone’s expectations – eventually selling a couple million units. The analog protocol developed to deliver data over ordinary telephone lines ended up as a Bellcore standard (TR-1373).
But did people buy it for access to those third-party services that was the genesis of the project? No. The Vista 350 (branded in Canada), PowerTouch 350 (branded elsewhere) was just a great phone. It didn’t need a user guide. The softkey user interface was contextual… everything made sense. The industrial design was out of this world at the time. It’s still influences industrial design for current VoIP phones. Its design was even honoured with its own Canada Post stamp… The industrial designer was friend and colleague Cliff Read. We share a couple of US patents on that one.
The 350 began its retail life in 1995. At the same time, the web was catching fire – growing exponentially every week. Companies saw the web as the future delivery pipe for their services.
Despite it’s huge success as a product, the 350 failed as a services appliance. Despite its failure, we learned it was possible to open up the “fortress telco” to deliver third party services. We also learned that the quality of the user experience has a huge impact on margins and customer loyalty.
Ok – so the 350 wasn’t really the “birth” of SaaS. It was just another step towards Service Oriented Networks.
So, fire up your old “Minitel” and comment this post!