Sunday, 19 November 2017

Apple Newton MessagePad 2100 (1997)

Apple Newton MessagePad 2100
Launched November 1997

More than a decade before the launch of the iPad and iPhone, Apple had another range of handheld computing devices called the Newton series. Launched originally in 2004 to a press fanfare but mixed reviews, the Newton range was improved over its lifespan up to the final device in the range – the Apple Newton MessagePad 2100.

Not too dissimilar in footprint to an iPad Mini, but much thicker and heavier, the MessagePad 2100 sported a 6.1” monochrome LCD display with a 480 x 320 pixel resolution and a stylus. Inside is a 162 MHz ARM processor with 4MB of RAM and 4 MB of flash storage. Connectivity was through infra-red or an Apple LocalTalk connection with two PCMCIA expansion slots that could be used for things like modems or network cards. Software available included a word processor, e-book reader, web browser and email client.

It sounds like a modern tablet, but really it wasn’t anything close. There was no kind of cellular or mobile data (GPRS and EVDO would come a couple of years later, as would generally available WiFi) so connecting to the internet would typically involve a cable and the horrors of a dial-up modem. To a large extent the MessagePad was just an electronic personal organizer rather than the sort of device we’d see today.

The MessagePad struggled against the market-leading Palm Pilot and early shortcomings had tarnished its reputation in the public eye. Despite a great deal of goodwill from Apple fans of the late 1990s, the Newton range wasn’t the success that Apple were looking for. The entire platform was axed by Apple’s new CEO, a certain Steve Jobs.

Fans of the Newton platform argue that it was killed off just as it was getting into its stride, and that Jobs may have been partly motivated by revenge against the people who ousted him in 1985 from the company he founded.

It took another decade or so to get to the technology level that allowed the iPhone and iPad, and although the Newton range was certainly influential it was a dead-end platform, as was the rival Palm Pilot. But not all PDAs of this era went the same way, and Psion’s Series 5 (also launched in 1997) helped to give birth to the Symbian OS that eventually became the dominant smartphone platform... for a while

MessagePads of most varieties are still popular collectors’ items, with prices for the 2100 varying between about €50 to €400 or more, depending on condition and accessories.

Image credits:

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Amazon Kindle (2007)

Launched November 2007

Ten years ago this month, Amazon started a surprise revolution with the launch of the original Amazon Kindle e-book reader. Launched at a time when single-purpose devices were beginning to converge into smartphones, the Kindle created a niche for that type of product that it still dominates today.

These days we are used to having our cameras, handheld games consoles, music players, GPS navigation, web browsers, email clients and telephones all in one smartphone. And while you certainly can read e-books on your mobile device, dedicated readers such as the Kindle still sell very well.

Probably the most significant element that the Kindle brought was the large 6” electronic ink display. Lightweight and with a very low power drain, the display operated best in bright light where other devices would struggle. A Kindle would run for weeks on a single charge, and the 250MB storage of the original was good for a couple of hundred books.

It wasn’t the first consumer product with an electronic ink display (that was the 2006 Motorola FONE F3), and it wasn’t the first e-reader such a display either (that was the Sony PRS-500 also from 2006) but Amazon’s unique selling proposition was that they could sell you the book from their own catalogue and it would be delivered instantly to your Kindle without any waiting around.

When launched, the Kindle sold out almost instantly and it took another five months for stock to become generally available. This initial success seemed a bit of a surprise, given that the original Kindle cost a staggering $400 and there were only a limited number of titles available. Oh yes... the original Kindle was also a bit weird looking too.

The original Kindle was only available in the US, but the second generation device launched in the US in February 2009 started shipping in worldwide markets in October of that year. The third generation devices hit the market in 2010 by which time Amazon had a major hit on its hands. These later models tend to be available in both WiFi and 3G variants.

Subsequent models lost the keyboard, came with better displays of varying sizes and capabilities but the basic principle has remained the same. In 2011 a range of more conventional Android-based tablets were launched called the Amazon Kindle Fire (later shorted to just Amazon Fire) – these were a significant success for Amazon, but an attempt to make a smartphone to follow this up flopped.

In the US one of the quirky first generation devices will cost you about $40 used, a new basic Kindle costs around $80 (£60 / €70) with the popular Paperwhite model coming in at $120 (£110 / €130). And although not every digital e-book is cheaper than its paper rivals, book lovers have certainly found that they don’t have to worry about the never-ending battle for shelf space, which is a little victory in itself.

Image credits:

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Android (2007)

Announced 2007

January 2007 saw the launch of that smartphone from Apple, but while that was helping to usher in a new epoch of smartphone the competition wasn’t exactly sitting around doing nothing. Partly in response to Apple, and partly seeing an opportunity to grab a slice of the smartphone ecosystem itself, Google and its partners announced the Open Handset Alliance and the Android operating system in November 2007.

Although Android is a Unix-like operating system just like Apple’s iOS, it is designed to be more open and less tightly controlled. Any manufacturer with a compatible device can be loaded with a free open-source version of Android, with additional features that can be licensed from Google. Applications can be downloaded from Google Play or indeed any other application store, and applications are permitted on Android that simply are not allowed by Apple (for example, programming languages).

Philosophically, Android had a similar approach to Symbian (led by Nokia), which could also run on a variety of different devices with no restrictions on the types of applications available. In the end, Android proved that it could do it better, and since Nokia didn’t pursue Android at the time it ended up being side-lined.

T-Mobile G1 (2008)
Today, Android has a market share of around 85% for new handset sales, with Apple accounting for almost all the rest. This has come at the cost of fragmentation though, and while Apple have made only about 40 different iOS devices over ten years, Samsung on its own has made nearly 400 different devices which are all different (and often have limited support). On top of that, different manufacturers like to put different add-ons on top which can make it confusing to move from phone to phone.

It took a long time for the Open Handset Alliance to bear fruit, with the first Android device being the T-Mobile G1 (also known as the HTC Dream) in September 2008. The first Samsung Galaxy handset was launched nearly a year and a half later.

Despite millions of handsets being sold, the website of the Open Handset Alliance has not been updated since 2011. Android however has gone from strength to strength despite its problems. Ten years ago Symbian was the biggest selling OS… will Android still be the biggest in another ten years time?

Image credits: T-Mobile and Open Handset Alliance

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Jaffa Cakes (1927)

Cake.. or biscuit?
Introduced 1927

Ninety years ago, McVities introduced a triumph of miniaturisation – a biscuit-sized cake they named the Jaffa Cake. A tiny sponge cake coated with chocolate with a layer of orange jam, the Jaffa Cake because a British teatime icon.

The name wasn’t trademarked, which led to other manufacturers coming up with “Jaffa Cakes” of various qualities being sold by other companies worldwide, but in the UK at least the name is still very strongly associated with McVities. And there are all sorts of variants with different fillings and chocolate, but the traditional version uses dark chocolate.

The Jaffa Cake itself was at the heart of a legal battle between the UK’s Customs and Excise department and United Biscuits, who own McVities. The Revenue contended that the Jaffa Cake was actually a biscuit (primarily due to its size and the fact it is sold on the biscuit aisle of shops), UB said that it was a cake due to its texture and the fact that when stale it goes hard, and a biscuit does the opposite. In the end it retained its status as a cake, even though a wholly unscientific recent poll indicates that many people think it is a biscuit.

There is quite a market around Jaffa Cake collectables such as mugs and toys, but if you want a packet of McVities Jaffa Cakes to eat then they are about £1 for a pack of 10.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Jerusalem Virus (1987)

Not a screenshot of the actual virus
Discovered October 1987

Thirty years ago we saw a maturing of the personal computer market, but this was also joined by the rise of the phenomenon of malware. 1987 brought not only the Stoned virus, but also the infamous Jerusalem virus… discovered in Jerusalem in October 1987.

Where Stoned wasn’t deliberately destructive (but was accidentally, due to bugs), the Jerusalem virus was. On each Friday 13th (except for 1987), the virus would try to delete any program run on the DOS PCs it infected. It was an executable file infector, adding its code to the applications themselves.

Of course, this would be a trivial thing to recover from if you had the original installation diskettes, but in those days it was extremely common for software installed on a PC to be a copy of a copy of a copy, and many people didn’t have the disks. And of course, the act of copying software itself helped the virus spread from infected PCs to other PCs via infected programs on the floppy disks.

Back in 1987 anti-virus software was also in its infancy, with products such as McAfee VirusScan being early entrants into that market. Few people had anti-virus software, and given the high levels of piracy of applications it took some years for the first wave of computer viruses to be brought under control.

Later variants of the Jerusalem virus were created, but eventually they all vanished completely. File infecting viruses do still exist these days, but are still quite rare and old DOS viruses such as Jerusalem won’t even run on Windows. However, thirty years of PC malware evolution have led to things that are much, much nastier than the Jerusalem virus.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Dictaphone (1907)

Original Dictaphone, early 20th century
Created 1907

One hundred and ten years ago we were beginning to see the first signs of office automation. That year brought us not only the Photostat machine but also saw the creation of the Dictaphone Company.

For millennials, Dictaphone made machines that you could dictate speech to, typically so that it could be typed up by a personal assistant. The word “Dictaphone” became generic, although the trademark was actually created by a spin-off of Columbia Records.

Although the type of machine most often called a “Dictaphone” will tend to be a mini cassette recorder, back in 1907 Dictaphone machines used a waxed cylinder which was by then almost obsolete, having been out-competed by vinyl discs. The big advantage of a waxed cylinder over a disc was that it could be re-used, assuming you had a special machine to shave the top layer of wax off.

Of course these days we expect that even leaders of nations do their own typing, but back in the early 20th Century those leaders (usually men) would delegate such tasks to their secretaries (usually women). Thankfully in the early 20th such sexist archetypes are a thing of the past.

The original Dictaphone machines were huge, but technology (especially cassette tapes) made them smaller and smaller. So small that eventually the brand vanished after a series of takeovers and divestments. Today the Dictaphone where it is largely relegated to speech-to-text systems aimed at corporations and hospitals, and is owned by speech applications specialists Nuance Communications.
Post-war Dictaphone advertisement

You can still buy dictating machines, some even call themselves “Dictaphones” because somewhere along the way the trademark became genericised (as with the Photostat) but you can’t actually buy new Dictaphone Dictaphones. Original early twentieth-century machines belong in a museum, but post war models are often available for collectors of office ephemera for less than €200 or so.

Image credits:

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

NSU Ro80 (1967)

Launched October 1967

Sometimes leaps forward in automotive technology come from unexpected directions. In October 1967 the rather niche German manufacturer NSU was the one to shock people with the launch of the radical Ro80 saloon.

In the post-year wars, NSU had followed other European manufacturers in making small family cars before branching out into sports cars, including the NSU Spider which was the world’s first production car powered by a Wankel rotary engine. The Spider was a conventional-looking two-seater though, and it didn’t even hint as to what was to come.

When launched, the Ro80 was quite unlike anything else on the market. Like the Spider, it came wth a Wankel rotary engine, in this case capable of producing 115 PS in a car weighing less than 1300 kg.  But that was hidden beneath the remarkable exterior, which is what grabbed everyone’s attention.

The wedge-shaped design gave the Ro80 very slippery aerodynamics, and the huge glasshouse on top gave excellent visibility. It also featured front-wheel drive, an automatic clutch, all-round independent suspension and all-round disc brakes, with rack and pinion power steering. In terms of features, the Ro80 was very much ahead of its time.

The heart of the car was the Wankel rotary engine – it was very smooth, compact and light which reduced the overall weight of the car and allowed a more aerodynamic design. But it was also hugely unreliable with critical design flaws… and those flaws killed off NSU.

NSU had worked with Mazda to develop rotary engines for cars, but where NSU had poorly designed apex seals Mazda did not. Mazda went on to produce a range of reliable Wankel-powered cars up to 2012, ending with the Mazda RX8. NSU on the other hand went bankrupt and was bought up by Volkswagen who folded NSU into their new Audi brand.

Later “Audi” Ro80s were more reliable, but the damage was done.  An attempt to make a version of the Ro80 with a more conventional engine (called the K70) but this was not very successful. Production of the Ro80 ended in 1977, but the Neckarsulm assembly plant moved to building Audi models which it still does today.

The Ro80 was considered a disaster at the time, but the design and feature set were hugely influential, especially on Audi who incorporated many of the design themes that it set. The brilliant designer Claus Luthe worked for the VW/Audi group for a while and then moved to BMW where he created classic designs such as the E30 revision of the 3-series. Tragically he was convicted of killing his own son in 1990 and was jailed for manslaughter. He died in 2008.

Today the NSU Ro80 is a very rare car, with only a few dozen on the road in the UK and an overall production run of about 37,000 worldwide. Typical prices seem to be around £10000 for one in working order, but of course that engine is hardly worry-free. Perhaps this is one to be admired at a car show or museum, rather than something to own...