Orange at 20: Remembering the ups and downs of a game changing mobile operator

April 28th 1994: The day that Orange went live, and customers were able to choose between a wonderful Nokia 2140 mobile phone, or a horrible Motorola mr1, and connect to a network that massively shook up the mobile phone industry.

Orange was also a major turning point for my business, JM Communications, and on day one I received my first batch of phones from Hugh Symons (now part of Carphone Warehouse) and excitedly started on doing the connections, in time for the courier to collect and deliver the phones to equally excited customers the next day.

Compared to the method of doing credit checks and connections on other networks, Orange was so far ahead of the game too. Oh, and the commissions were also rather good too!

Nokia-OrangeThe very first customer was in fact myself, giving me the same mobile phone number that I still use 20 years on.

Naturally I went for a Nokia 2140, which seemed so small and offered such incredibly battery life compared to all the handsets I’d owned before – ranging from the Nokia Cityman 100, through to the Nokia 101, and various models from NEC, Panasonic, and Sony.

The Motorola mr1 was cheaper, but inferior in every single way. I always tried hard to put people off buying it and pay the extra money, and thankfully most people did. Those that didn’t often took advantage of the 14-day money back guarantee.

The Motorola mr1 was cheaper, but inferior in every single way

And Orange not only had a great phone to launch with, but per-second-billing and the ability to send SMS to other Orange users, which I don’t even think was charged for at the start.

After all, who was going to use SMS? It was just this little feature that hardly anyone would use, right?

Without wishing to replicate everything on Wikipedia,  I have such fond memories of so many good things that Orange did over the years – including some impressive press trips. Like flying to Bristol by Helicopter to hear about doing network testing, or being flown in a private jet to Cumbria to see a cell site disguised as a tree.

Orange was a pioneering firm that was really sticking it to the stuffy incumbent operations from Vodafone and Cellnet, while One2One was still a mostly London-centric operation that was suffering from having offered free local calls in the evenings and weekends, without having the capacity to cope.

The list of things introduced and offered by Orange was extremely impressive (and listed below in no particular order):

  • Per-second-billing, with the first three seconds free (so no charge if the call didn’t set up properly).
  • Free calls to 0800 numbers.
  • Free itemised billing.
  • 14 day money back guarantee.
  • Talk plans with inclusive minutes – such as Talk 15, Talk 60, Talk 200 and a ‘massive’ Talk 540. Later, Orange would allow some talk plans to be shared between family members, or business users.
  • Over-The-Air SIM programming, including putting phone numbers in your address book (SIM) after filling in and posting off a sheet of paper you filled in by pen.
  • Audio cassette welcoming you to your new phone and explaining how things work.
  • SMS messaging (outgoing), which was free for some time and then offered for a fixed fee.
  • Two-hour phone replacement, if your phone broke down or was stolen.
  • Orange Office, which allowed business users to call each other by internal extension numbers, or transfer calls, just like a fixed line, with all internal calls free of charge – even if users were miles away.
  • Line Two, a second line that enabled users to properly split business and personal calls.
  • Cheap international calls, comparable to calling services on landlines.
  • Everyday 50, 50p a day for 50 minutes of off-peak calls to landlines or Orange mobile phones.
  • HSCSD, high speed dial-up data for speeds of 9.6Kbps and rising to 14.4 and 28.8Kbps. This was later enhanced with the introduction of GPRS, offered on the Nokia 7110.
  • Wildfire, an advanced voicemail system that responded to voice commands and phrases (‘what does a cow say?’, ‘Do me a favour’) and could also make and receive calls from an online phonebook, or speaking the number.
  • Everyphone, a service to let users change diverts from any phone – making it quick and easy to divert calls if you left your phone at home, or more likely, ran out of battery.
  • Orange Value Promise: Found a better deal elsewhere? Well, you could move – but why not let Orange replicate the tariff and allow you to stay instead? Orange once joked that it had more users on the Virgin Mobile tariff than Virgin Mobile itself!

(No doubt there are many more things I’ve forgotten about – please do tell me).

‘Simplification’ saw loads of things get more expensive

Sadly things went somewhat downhill with the take over by France Telecom. Suddenly many of the innovations were left to rot (and then get scrapped), while ‘simplification’ saw loads of things get more expensive, so as to make them more ‘simple’ and easy to understand.

The incredibly advanced-for-the-time Wildfire service was a good example of a service that was run into the ground, through a total lack of support, no new updates, and the service not being offered to new customers. All despite having bought the firm that created it and gave it its name.

20 years on, Orange has become nothing more than a sub-brand that will soon be phased out completely, but for some people – like me – it will never be forgotten. Some will question why such a strong brand like Orange had to give way to a totally unknown name like EE. To be fair, EE has done a pretty impressive job.

But whatever happens in the future, for those who can remember back to 1994, Orange will always be seen as the network that really did show the future was bright.

Edit: Thanks to japaul for helping me expand the above list, especially with regards to the Orange Value Promise.

Also, here’s some audio from Wildfire – again thanks to japaul for the link.


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