Apple’s new futuristic headset might look like ski goggles you’d be too embarrassed to leave the house in, and at £3,500 is out of reach for almost everyone. But in the future, versions from rivals will look like fashionable sunglasses and cost a few hundred pounds.
That is the prediction of William Paterson, UK & Ireland Country Director at TCL and its subsidiary Alcatel – a man who helped bring smartphones to the masses.
William is talking as he marks 25 years at the company and 35 in the mobile phone industry. He started out in 1988, just three years after the first mobile call was made in the UK. Back then, mobile phones were the size of bricks, and they could only make calls – which cost the Earth and didn’t work everywhere.
Apple still just made computers, and the first iPhone was almost two decades away.
Paterson was a 20-year-old from East Kilbride when he started trying to convince sceptical small businesses that they needed to spend thousands of pounds on a mobile phone.
“Back then I had no idea mobile phones would develop to become the most ubiquitous product on the planet,” he said. “To be honest I didn’t really think about it. Technology wasn’t a thing then like it is today. There was VHS and Betamax and video games. What I really wanted was a job in sales.”
He had left a shop job to join Woodend Communications, taking a pay cut. And for the first four months, he didn’t even get to do sales – he was a “canvasser”. This meant traipsing around businesses on industrial estates in Scotland and asking the receptionist if the company had considered getting mobile phones.
“I learnt a lot – mostly about how to read people and how to talk to people who were in a bad mood. You had to predict whether people were having a good or a bad day, or were pleased, indifferent or unhappy to see you. The skills I picked up then have helped me in negotiations to this day. As a canvasser, I would get a compliment slip with contact names on it and give it to the salespeople back at our office. I wasn’t actually allowed to try to sell phones.”
At the start, mobile phones weren’t aimed at consumers at all. Handsets which cost £1,500 – or £4,000 in today’s money – were too expensive.
He said: “There was a scepticism because of the cost – not just the handset but the running costs. There was a £60 connection fee, £25 a month and then 25p a minute for calls. It was a lot of money.”
So, a ten-minute call was £2.50 – or £6.60 today. How did he sell that to businesses?
He grins – a grin you can tell helped him win over sceptical firms in the 1980s – as he explains: “I can’t exactly remember my sales patter – though I am sure it was good. It was mostly aimed at how it could help them – ultimately to make them money. For example, I would explain how they could generate work even when away from the factory, yard or office by being able to take a phone call while driving or on-site. That is commonplace today but was a pretty alien concept back then.”
Anyone out and about might have a pager, and they would then stop off at a phone box and call back. William convinced enough firms to get a mobile – even winning a trip on Concorde for being the top salesman – that he ended up running a team of salespeople.
In the mid to late 1990s, consumers started buying mobile phones too – and shops to sell them started popping up. He switched to being a buyer for devices for shops and ended up dealing with the makers like Nokia and Alcatel. And he made the switch to then French-owned Alcatel in 1998 – and it was good timing as a football fan.
He said: “They sponsored the 1998 World Cup and I joined just before it, so I got to go to the matches. There were Alcatel billboards everywhere. That was when it dawned on me that this was a big company. They had an HQ on the Champs Elysees. It was a long way from East Kilbride.”
Alcatel was an early pioneer in budget mobile phones after entering the market in 1996. Back then it offered cheaper alternatives to market leaders like Nokia and now after the smartphone revolution, it does the same with rivals Samsung and Apple.
Recently, parent company TCL – which took over the Alcatel product portfolio under a brand license in 2005 – has been making phones too. The plan is for all handsets to go under that brand, which is better known globally for TVs. For example, TCL’s flagship 40 R 5G smartphone is under £200 but it matches up well with an iPhone from a few years ago that would have cost seven times that.
His job as account manager was to get networks like Vodafone, BT Cellnet (which became O2), Orange and One To One (which became T-Mobile and then merged with Orange to become EE) to buy handsets.
“We were going up against Nokia, Motorola, Erikson and even Phillips. We tried to be as good value as we are today, and also a bit different. Our products had dozens of different colours, and for one we teamed up with Duracell so you could put ordinary batteries in if the main battery died.”
Before the iPhone came out in 2007, he said mobiles all looked different – rather than today where they are all a black rectangle covered in glass. “There were lots of different form factors – flip or clamshell, sliders that open upwards or sideways, and even one that looked like a games console controller.” But he knew the iPhone had changed everything.
“It wasn’t the first smartphone”, he said. “There were a few before that such as BlackBerry. “But the touch form factor was really grabbing people’s interest. You could see they were here to stay.”
Coming to the present day, I ask him about the biggest new gadget launch in recent years – Apple’s Vision Pro in early June. The standalone gadget – due to go on sale in the UK next year for around £3,500 – will let users do all the things a smartphone or computer does but via a screen inside the headset.
Control via eye movements, hand gestures and voice replaces the touchscreen.
Aside from the eye-watering price, a major drawback is that it is likely to be confined to home use due a tiny battery and its unusual appearance.
As rivals to Apple have produced alternative, and often cheaper, versions of the iPhone, the same will happen with Vision Pro, according to William.
“We are already working on products like this but we will only launch them when people are ready for them. In a few years’ time, maybe ten, there will be versions of the Vision Pro that look like a pair of Ray-Bans but maybe a little bigger. And they won’t cost £3,500.”
Still, many people still wonder what the point of such goggles will be – whether they’re Apple or cheaper versions from the likes of TCL. “You can do lots of things,” he says. “You can talk to me in Chinese and I get the translation up in front of my eyes. You can get maps and directions in front of you with ‘augmented reality’ to show you where to go. You can take pictures with them.
For now, he says, TCL has more simple smart glasses that act as a second screen for existing phones, tablets or laptops. The NXTWEAR S smart glasses costs £450 and plug into the other device and puts a giant screen in front of you – whether sat at home or on a plane.
“It is great for movies,” William says.
What else is on the horizon?
Evolving screen technology – “rollable, foldable and any other word you can put ‘able’ on the end of” – will shape future devices, he says.
Handsets will have a screen that rolls out, and it will also open the way to much bigger smartwatches that wrap around the wrist.
William also thinks faster web connections will make it easier for us to have multiple gadgets that act as a phone does today – and that you swap between during the day.
That could be a phone, the glasses, the wraparound watch, a tablet – or a few different versions of each for different occasions.
“Instead of everything like photos, music, contacts, messages being stored on the phone, it will all be in the cloud,” he says. “You pick up what you want to wear that day and it links to the cloud. If I am going out for dinner it might be a watch, but if I am going walking and need directions it would be glasses.”
I suggest we reconvene to see if his predictions are correct once he hits 50 years at TCL. He grins again: “I love the industry but maybe not that much. I am 55. I might want to be relaxing by the beach under my smart parasol.”
By Daniel Jones