Saturday, 20 January 2018

BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 (2013)

BlackBerry Q10 and Z10 (2013)
Announced January 2013

It’s one of the stand-out phone in the history of handset disasters – announced five years ago this month the BlackBerry Z10 was a catastrophic failure that very nearly killed its maker. Sitting squarely on the downward slope of BlackBerry’s status of a darling of the technology industry to a company that people are surprised is still in business, the Z10 and companion Q10 deserve to be looked at once more.

A brief history lesson – BlackBerry was called Research in Motion (RIM) when it was founded in 1984. During the 1980s and early 1990s, RIM explored markets in communications and point-of-sale devices. In the later 1990s, RIM diversified into two-way pagers which led to the BlackBerry 850 in 1999, followed by email-enabled smartphones such as the BlackBerry 6230 in the early 2000s.

What started out life as a product appealing to large corporations ended up – somewhat by chance – as being an enormous consumer hit, fuelled in part by devices such as the BlackBerry Pearl smartphone. Even the launch of the iPhone in 2007 couldn’t stop RIM’s growth, and in 2011 it had sales of an astonishing $19.9 billion, compared to just $595 million in 2004.

BlackBerry 850, 6230, Pearl 8100
But although BlackBerry devices were always superlative when it came to email, they were pretty terrible when it came to other things – especially web browsing. As the impact of iOS and Android smartphones began to change the way people used the web, the clunky interface of BlackBerry devices was off-putting.

Sure, BlackBerry had tried to improve things but by 2011 had pushed their old platform as far as it could go with the BlackBerry Bold Touch 9900. But too many elements of the operating system were unchanged from the 6230 nearly a decade earlier. RIM had tried an all-touch device as early as 2008 with the BlackBerry Storm 9500 which turned out to be catastrophically awful and very buggy. Despite RIM’s best efforts to put lipstick on a pig, consumers could still tell that it was a pig.
BlackBerry Storm 9500, Bold Touch 9900

RIM had been aware that their products were becoming increasingly uncompetitive and by 2010 they embarked on a project to adapt the Unix-like QNX operating system into a mobile OS good enough to fight back against Apple and Google. QNX was designed to be a real-time operating system, and had (and indeed still has) a reputation for stability and reliability – and best of all as far as RIM were concerned, they already owned QNX.

The first QNX-based product to be announced was the BlackBerry Playbook. Despite initial promise, the Playbook was deeply flawed and full of bugs. Customers stayed away in their droves, but it did at least show that QNX had the right potential.

BlackBerry continued to work in turning QNX into the BlackBerry 10 operating system that their next-generation phones would need, but it took over two years after the launch of the Playbook to finally announce their new BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 smartphones, which they did in January 2013.

To put this in context – the original Apple iPhone had been launched six years previously in January 2007 (a line that had progressed all the way to the iPhone 5) and Android devices had been selling in increasingly large numbers for four years. RIM (who changed their name at this point to BlackBerry) were very, very late entrants into this market, and the Z10 and Q10 would need to be something special.

Black BlackBerry Z10
Although both products were announced at the same time, the Z10 and Q10 would not ship at the same time. The Z10 was a conventional-looking touchscreen smartphone with a decent hardware specification. The Q10 on the other hand was much more BlackBerry-like with a QWERTY keyboard, but it still featured a touchscreen and the new BlackBerry 10 operating system.

BlackBerry 10 was a radical departure from most smartphone operating systems when it came to the user interface. Lacking any button the whole things was based on a series of different swipes (rather like the modern iPhone X). It was a steep learning curve for BlackBerry users, and it wasn’t a surprise to find out that it had some serious bugs at launch. There were also only a small number of native applications for it, which was hardly going to tempt people away from other platforms.

The fact that the Z10 was released months before the Q10 was the result of huge infighting at RIM, with management divided over whether to launch the all-screen one first, or the one with a more traditional design. This process reportedly pushed back the launch of either device by a full year. And history pretty much proved that the Z10 was the wrong decision, because BlackBerry customers who wanted something like that had long ago defected to rivals, and the Z10 failed to appeal to traditionalists who wanted a physical QWERTY keyboard.

The Z10 bombed. It didn’t appeal to either existing or new customers, and it turns out that BlackBerry had built a lot of them in order to meet demand that never materialised, leading to a billion-dollar write off of inventory. Sales continued to collapse, losses began to mount and the stock price cratered. Senior management were thrown out, to be replaced by managers who would also eventually be thrown out. Most industry observers agreed that BlackBerry was doomed.

It didn't help when BlackBerry "brand ambassador" Alicia Keys was caught Tweeting from her Apple device either.
BlackBerry? Alcatel? TCL?

Lost among this was the Q10 which now had become toxic because of the failure of the Z10. Customers were buying phones from BlackBerry, but they were just the Curves and Bolds that they had been buying for years.

BlackBerry seemed doomed, but its enormous cash pile and a stubbornness to die means that it is still is business today, but with a very different business model. Handset production is licensed to TCL who base current BlackBerry devices on designs they sell under the Alcatel brand (oddly enough, licensed from Nokia) and who also bought the Palm brand from HP. Current BlackBerry devices run Android with a BlackBerry software stack on top… which is probably what BlackBerry should have done all along.

Had either the Z10 or Q10 hit the market three or four years earlier then they might have made the impact that BlackBerry needed. In the end, they were so late to the party that there was really no point in turning up at all.

Z10s are currently widely available for less than €100, and BlackBerry are committed to supporting the handset until 2020 and the software these days is *much* better (and you can load Android apps). The Q10 is a bit cheaper. If you like collecting heroic failures, then perhaps either (or both) devices are for you.

Video

If you really want more of the Z10 and Q10, here are a pair of videos we prepared much earlier..


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Amstrad PPC 512 / PPC 640 (1988)

Amstrad PPC 512
Launched January 1988

In the late 1980s, British company Amstrad was enjoying huge success, first with a range of home computers, then some esoteric low-cost business computers, followed by a massively popular range of IBM-compatible PCs. Feeling confident from its growing sales, Amstrad decided to use its expertise to tackle a new market – portable computing.

In January 1988, a top-of-the-range portable computer such as the Compaq Portable III would have cost about $5000 or £2700 at the time (and about twice as much in modern money). Amstrad set off to create something that could do much of the same thing, but at a fraction of the cost.

Initially the Amstrad PPC 512 was shown at CES in Las Vegas in January 1988. Costing about a quarter of the price of the Compaq, the PPC 512 was indeed a computer that you could move about from place to place and it even had its own integrated LCD monitor. And it was about a million miles away from what we would consider to be a portable computer today.

The hardware was largely based on the existing PC1512 and PC1640 desktops,  but where they had a compact 85-key keyboard the PPC (portable PC) went for a full 102 keys which is essentially the same full-sized keyboard you’d see on a PC today (with a few extra buttons). Given that you couldn’t even fit a 102-key keyboard to the desktop PCs, it was an odd design decision.

Odder still was the tiny 9” LCD screen perched on the very left edge of the case, meaning that whoever was typing on the huge keyboard would always find it annoyingly offset. The display itself was pretty poor even by the crummy standard of late 1980s LCD screens, but you could hook an external CGA monitor up if you wanted.

The PPC 512 had 512KB of RAM, the PPC 640 had 640KB and a built-in modem in a darker case. Both machines were available in single or twin-floppy configurations, although frustratingly for Amstrad users these were superior 3.5” 720KB drives rather than the 5.25” 360KB drives on the desktop machines. Power could be provided by an external PSU, a whopping set of 10 C-cells (for one hour’s run-time) or from plugging it into an Amstrad proprietary monitor. Amstrad made a large carrying bag that it would all fit into.

An optional expansion box could provide a hard disk and expansion cards, but in those days most people could fit the operating system, application and data on a single floppy with some work. Hard disks were fearsomely expensive in those days as well, and 1980s-era hard disks were notoriously fragile and could suffer catastrophic failures if the heads were not parked prior to transport.
Sinclair PC200

Weighing 5.4Kg, the PPC was quite luggable and the built-in modem in the PPC 640 made it very appealing for certain types of customer. But overall the PPC range was not a success despite a creditable attempt to build something useful with the available technology at a price people could afford. An attempt to repackage the PPC as a home computer (the Amstrad PC20 and Sinclair PC200) again came up with an interesting but commercially unsuccessful design.

The PPC and its derivatives are rare and quite collectible today, with prices for complete systems running into several hundred pounds. Amstrad tried to break into the portable computing market a couple more times with the ALT in 1990 and ANB in 1991, but ultimately this was one market that they never managed to crack.

Image credits:
W3ird N3rd via Wikimedia Commons
Marcin Wichary / Ubclue via Wikimedia Commons
ITU Pictures via Flickr


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Tough as nails: Ten years of rugged Samsung Phones

As smartphones have progressed they seem to have become more and more fragile, with the highly advanced iPhone X being dubbed "the most breakable phone ever". But not everyone wants a device that will break every time it is dropped, and for ten years Samsung have been catering to that market.
Although they're not the only maker of rugged smartphones, Samsung have been in that business longer than most with a variety of devices that you can actually use, starting with the Samsung M110 ten years ago.

Samsung M110 (January 2008)

People were still happy with 2G feature phones back in 2008, and the Samsung M110 (also known as the Samsung Solid) was just that. A 128 x 128 pixel 1.5" display with a VGA resolution camera with a flash that doubled as a torch, an FM radio and Bluetooth, the M110 had just enough technical features to be useful. And as with most phones of that generation, you could talk for hours on it and the battery would last for days.

However, the IP54 rated toughened body meant that it was splash-proof and resistant to being dropped, and the chunky black or olive green casing was rather nice to look at. Weighing just 90 grams, it was a lot lighter than the rival Sonim XP1.

The M110 was successful enough for Samsung to follow it up with several other products, evolving over time. Five years and several handsets later, this led to the..

Samsung Xcover 2 (January 2013)

The Xcover 2 was Samsung's second toughened Android smartphone, and the thick rubber casing shares many features with the M110 from almost exactly half a decade earlier. Rated IP67, the Xcover 2 was fully waterproof and dust-proof but this time the 4" WVGA display and 5 megapixel primary camera, 3.5G support, WiFi, GPS and all the usual Android smartphone features meant that this could be used in the real world plus it retained the FM radio.

It wasn't the world's most advanced smartphone, with features near the bottom of the Samsung range, and all the toughening made it quite big and heavy. But very few smartphones at the time could compete in terms of ruggedness, and the hardware and software would prove familiar to anyone who already had a Samsung Galaxy. The Xcover 2 was successful enough to spawn a couple more sequels.

Samsung M110 (2008), Xcover 2 (2013), Xcover 4 (2017)

Samsung Xcover 4 (March 2017)

Never really cutting-edge, Samsung has been coming out with a new Xcover every couple of years leading to the current Xcover 4 announced in March 2017. Now sporting a 5" 720p display, a 13 megapixel primary camera, 4G support plus al the typical features of a contemporary lower-end smartphone while still retaining that FM radio that has always featured in these devices.

Bigger and even heavier than its predecessors, the Xcover 4 is even more water resistant with an IP68 rating. Although certainly not unbreakable (big screens are always vulnerable to being dropped on pointy things) it would certainly last a lot long that an iPhone X in any demanding environment.
So feel free to raise a glass to ten years of rugged Samsungs. And if you own one, it won't matter if you spill some drink on your phone either.


Image credits: Samsung Mobile

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Motorola RIZR Z10 (2008)

Motorola RIZR Z10
Announced January 2008

These days Motorola is strictly an Android operation, but a decade ago it flirted with both Windows and Symbian. The Motorola RIZR Z10 was one of just a half dozen Symbian phones (along with the Z8, A920, A925, A1000 and the unreleased A1010) running the UIQ version of the operating system.

The Z10 was in many ways a very typical Motorola phone - most of the hardware was rather good, but the implementation of the software rather less so. UIQ was primarily a Sony Ericsson product, designed in part to be a touchscreen version of Symbian that ran on their own phones. When ported to the non-touch Z8 and Z10 it seemed that Motorola's engineers just couldn't get it right and usability and stability issues followed.

Coming a full year after the announcement of the iPhone, the RIZR Z10 was a "kick slide" phone that curved around the user's face. The 2.2" QVGA display wasn't even big for 2008, and the iPhone's 3.5" touchscreen and N95's 2.8" panel were much more usable. Even though it was a high-end phone in Motorola's line-up, it lacked WiFi and only supported one HSDPA band.

Although the RIZR Z10 clearly followed the flawed RIZR Z8, many of the features seemed a step back from the touchscreen A1000. But this wasn't really a traditional Motorola product as much of the engineering for the Z8 and Z10 had been done by former Sendo engineers, a British company that had been taken over by Motorola and which had previously designed the Sendo X and X2 which are rather more like the Z10 in terms of implementation.

The RIZR Z10 wasn’t the success that Motorola hoped for, and this was their final Symbian-based smartphone. Motorola continued plugging away at the smartphone market, and in addition to Windows it brought out a series of devices running a version of Montavista’s embedded Linux along with some mid-range devices running the Linux-based MOTOMAGX platform. But none of these were a success either.

It took a long time for Motorola to get smartphone devices right, but a decade later Motorola has established a successful niche with its Android smartphone range under new owners Lenovo. If you are a collector of obscure Symbian devices, then unfortunately the Z10 is a rather elusive thing to find these days.

Image credits: Motorola

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 (1993)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Piloted January / February 1993

Launched twenty-five years ago this month, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (ST:DS9) was a spin-off from the successful Star Trek: The Next Generation Series (ST:TNG), running for seven seasons until 1999. Set on board a second-hand space station on the fringes of Federation space, DS9 was a more gritty and complex show than TNG ever was. Using the advantage of the large fixed sets that the station setting allowed, DS9 was less reliant on the "planet of the week" approach that TNG had. And also unlike TNG, DS9 was a show of conflicts and war ending up in the epic struggle between the Federation and the seemingly unstoppable Dominion.

But that wasn't the only space station-based science fiction show that you could watch. Piloting in February 1993 was Babylon 5 (B5). Set in its own unique timeline, Babylon 5 also stood out because it was designed from the start to have a five-year story arc compared to Star Trek's traditional self-contained episodes. Babylon 5 introduced pioneering CGI animation and groundbreaking alien prosthetics, running for five seasons from 1994 to 1988 and then followed by a number of feature films.

DS9 was created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller for Paramount, B5 by J. Michael Straczynski for Warner Brothers. There was some intense rivalry between fans of the two shows, but less so between the two shows themselves. B5 itself was created as a sort of antithesis of ST:TNG, striving to create more consistency between episodes (so that a solution for a problem one week could also be a solution another week, and not forgotten as so often happened with TNG) and it also strove to break some of the cliches (in B5 the cute kid almost always dies). DS9 on the other hand showed that not all the Federation was a futuristic utopia, and the integrity of the Federation itself was not assured.
 
Babylon 5

There were some striking similarities - both DS9 and B5 were originally under the direction of a Commander (not a Captain) in the form of Benjamin Sisko and Jeffrey Sinclair respectively, both of whom had question marks hanging over their careers. Both series feature a fight against an enemy that might be unbeatable (the Dominion and the Shadows). Both series explored moral ambiguities, betrayal, politics and diplomacy. Both series acquired a kick-ass ship to protect them (the USS Defiant and White Star). Oh yes, and both space stations had a number. But on top of that, Walter Koenig (from the original Star Trek series) plays a major role, and even Majel Barrett (wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) had a small role. The argument of who might have borrowed what ideas from whom has rumbled on for decades.

But anyway - what of gadgets? Well, the biggest gadget in either show was the Babylon 5 space station, with the statistics spelled out in the series one opening sequence -  5 miles long, weighing 2.5 million tons and with a population of 250,000 humans and non-humans. Designed and built by Earth in the mid-23rd century it lacked artificial gravity, so Babylon 5 featured rotating sections. Shuttles and other small ships could enter the station directly and dock inside the hangars, and the station also had dorsal launch tubes for its Starfury fighters, plus an impressive defense grid that could take on a cruiser-class enemy ship.

Deep Space 9 was much smaller, reportedly about a mile long but weighing 10.1 million tons. Spacecraft had to dock on the outside. The station's armaments were complemented by deflector shields, and it could house up to 7000 people. As with all Star Trek series, the principles of artificial gravity had been long ago mastered. Originally known as Terok Nor when it was built by the Cardassians in the mid-24th century, DS9 was quite unlike anything else the Federation operated.

Both of these shows were made in a golden age of TV space opera. Twenty-five years later mainstream television has largely abandoned this format. Perhaps it's time will come again? Maybe we won't have to wait until the 23rd century to find out.

Image credits: iTunes [1] [2]


Tuesday, 26 December 2017

2017: things that didn't quite make the cut

This year we've covered gadgets and geeky things from 1907, 1927, 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997, 2007 and 2012 (and actually even 2017). Out of all these years, 1977 stands out as the year that gave us the Commodore PET, Apple II, TRS-80 Model I, Atari VCS and DEC VAX. All of these were ground-breaking technologies that helped to shape the world we live in today.

But there were a few other things that didn't quite make the cut which are worth making a note of.

1927 may have been the year of the Jaffa Cake, but it was also the year that Newcastle Brown Ale was launched. Unusually for a brown beer, it comes in a clear bottle and the recipe has only slightly changed over the past 90 years to remove the caramel colouring. A huge export success, Newcastle Brown has been a little taste of home for Geordies the world over.

As well as chunky telephones and fancy cars, 1967 also brought the world's first Automated Telling Machine (ATM) in Enfield, London. Despite the rise of cashless payments, ATMs are still very common fifty years later... and perhaps just a little bit too common.

Another computer system launched in 1977 was the NASCOM-1 which was a computer kit built around a single board. Popular in its day due to the relatively low cost, it couldn't really compete with the fully assembled systems from rivals.

Newcastle Brown Ale (1927), ATM (1967), NASCOM-1 (1977)
 1977 also saw the release of the classic Crowther and Woods Colossal Cave Adventure. Featuring a rudimentary natural-language processor and some fiendish plot twists, Colossal Cave ended up being ported to a huge variety of computer systems and was massively popular.

We talked about the 1977 Matra Rancho, a stylish affair that looked like it could go anywhere but couldn't. Launched the same year, the Lada Niva actually could go just about anywhere but the 1970s Soviet styling couldn't compete with the chic French Matra. Thanks in part to its lightweight unibody design and dependabili, the Niva survives to this day (called the Lada 4X4 in most markets) where its simple and rugged charms start at less than €11,000 for a new one.

In 1987, personal computers were becoming more powerful with the likes of the IBM PS/2, Apple Macintosh II and Acorn Archimedes but they were also becoming more portable. The Compaq Portable III replaced the small CRT of previous models with a 10" plasma screen. At 9 kilograms it was still no lightweight, but it was finally a practical and reliable business computer that could be used on the move.

Colossal Cave Adventure (1977), Lada Niva (1977), Compaq Portable III (1987)

That's the lot for this year. See you in 2018.

Image credits:

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

YotaPhone (2012)

Announced December 2012

A long time ago, phones used to have a really great battery life. Then powerful big-screen smartphones took over, and suddenly you had to charge your phone more than once a day. A lot of that problem was down to the screen itself, and as screens got bigger and bigger the problem became more acute.

Not every type of display is a power hog though, and electronic ink displays such as those found on e-readers offer much better battery life. But while displays such as that are good for reading text, for a lot of other applications they are not usable because of their slow refresh rate. So you can’t really fix the power drain problem of smartphones with electronic ink displays.

Russian company Yota had different ideas, and their approach was rather radical – give the phone TWO displays. The YotaPhone had a traditional 4.3” LCD panel on one side, and on the other a 4.3” 360 x 640 pixel capacitive touchscreen electronic ink display. The secondary display was designed for things like notifications, email, calendars and other reasonably static displays. Some clever software trickery was required to do this, but otherwise the YotaPhone was a pretty standard Android smartphone.

Although it was announced in December 2012, it took nearly a whole year to get to market, finally shipping in November 2013. The €499 price tag was somewhat expensive, but it found a market niche and its own fan base. In February 2014 the YotaPhone 2 was launched with some much needed improvements and in 2017 the YotaPhone 3 followed.


The YotaPhone concept lives in that no-man’s land where products that neither fail nor succeed live. Perhaps if the YotaPhone had a better-known name on it, it might have been more of a success. But perhaps the YotaPhone is simply ahead of its time, and in another five years we’ll all have dual-screen smartphone like this…

Image credits: Yota