Saturday, 19 December 2015

AT&T Unix PC (1985)

AT&T Unix PC - Image Credit
Launched 1985

Thirty years ago, things were beginning to develop quite quickly in the microcomputer marketplace. The Apple Macintosh was a year old, Microsoft released Windows 1.0 and both the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were gaining fans too.

The Mac, Windows, ST and Amiga all represented a leap forward in usability over earlier generations. But despite their pretty interfaces, they were still pretty basic in terms of raw power compared to Unix, the operating system of choice for many businesses and academic institutions.

By 1985, Unix had been around for a decade and a half. Developed by AT&T Bell Labs (now part of Alcatel-Lucent), Unix could run on a variety of larger computers (and with a wide variety of variants) but typically a Unix user would be timesharing on a box run by somebody else, using a dumb terminal.

In academic circles and large corporations, Unix was starting to become the dominant operating system of choice. However, the growth of Unix was under threat from low-cost and simple computers that people could stick on their desk and do with what they liked.

In order to compete in this new world, AT&T commissioned a company called Convergent (now part of Unisys) to develop a personal computer capable of running Unix. What they designed was innovative and elegant... but also slow, noisy and rather expensive. The AT&T Unix PC was born.

Based on a 10HMz Motorola 68010 CPU (pretty similar to the processor in the Mac) with 512MB of RAM as standard, the AT&T Unix PC also typically came with a 10MB or 20MB hard disk and a 348 x 720 pixel resolution monochrome monitor. You could share your Unix PC with other users hooked up via terminals, and it also supported Ethernet and dial-up networking. Also, the Unix PC had its own optional graphical user environment which could be used with a three-button mouse.

Starting at over $5000 for a basic model, the Unix PC was roughly competitive with IBM’s PC AT which was much less capable, but rather more popular. In the end, the AT&T Unix PC was not a success, despite all its high-end capabilities.

Unix never actually became popular on desktop or laptop computers, with Windows having about a 90% market share. However thirty years on it turns out that Unix and Unix-derived systems such as Linux, Android and iOS have the lion’s share of the smartphone, tablet, web server and supercomputer markets.

The AT&T Unix PC is a very rare device today and seems to be highly sought-after by collectors.

Further reading:
You can see the Unix PC in action in the videos below:

Thursday, 10 December 2015

AltaVista (1995)

Launched December 1995

It’s difficult to imagine now, but once upon a time finding stuff on the web was *hard*.  In the early 1990s, the number of web sites grew from 623 at the end of 1993 to a quarter of a million in mid-1996.. but there was no reliable way to search for information on all those thousands of websites all at once.

In early 1994, the web directory Yahoo! was founded which attempted to catalogue the web by category. If you wanted to research a topic, you would have to drill down through Yahoo!’s categories in much the same way as using a library.

In mid-1994 the world’s first “full text” search engine was launched, called WebCrawler. But it only indexed a small part of the rapidly growing web, and the results were extremely hit-and-miss.

But in December 1995 the first recognisably modern search engine was launched. Predating Google by several years, Digital’s AltaVista service made the first real attempt to index a large part of the ever-growing web, and made a good effort to sort search results in a way that was meaningful to users. Originally the site was hosted at, only moving to in 1998.
 The effect was dramatic. It no longer took hours to find a piece of information on the web, but instead AltaVista could give the answer in a few seconds (usually) and the result you were looking for was usually on the first page.. or first few pages. AltaVista had some pretty advanced search functions which allowed users to tailor their results further.

The effect was dramatic. It no longer took hours to find a piece of information on the web, but instead AltaVista could give the answer in a few seconds (usually) and the result you were looking for was usually on the first page.. or first few pages. AltaVista had some pretty advanced search functions which allowed users to tailor their results further.

As is the case today, AltaVista made it easy to find obscure or precise bits of information, but was less good when it came to general topics. This meant that most users would use a combination of AltaVista and Yahoo! when researching topics.

Built in part to showcase Digital’s Alpha-based processors,  AltaVista temporarily transformed the stuffy old Digital Equipment Corporation into a major player.. for a short time.

But AltaVista had a significant flaw. The search engine results were initially based almost entirely on “on-page” factors (such as the title, headings and word density of a page) which meant that the the search engine could be easily manipulated, leading to a rise in search engine spam. When rivals Google came to market they used a fundamentally different approach which leaned heavily on “off-page” factors such as PageRank.

AltaVista grew quickly and in 1999 the majority was sold to an investment firm which valued the site at over $2.7 billion. A combination of the collapse of the Dot-Com Boom and the rise of Google severely dented AltaVista and after being passed around various owners it shut down completely in 2011.

For a generation of early internet  users, AltaVista transformed the way they used the web. Without doubt it helped to make the early web accessible and contributed to its phenomenal growth in the late 1990s. But sadly in the post-Google world, AltaVista has largely been forgotten as the great pioneer it once was,.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Samsung P300 "Card Phone" (2005)

Announced November 2005

A decade ago, manufacturers were still experimenting with mobile phone form factors, and the Samsung P300 was an attempt to create a handset that was the same shape as a credit card.

Measuring 86 x 54 x 8.9mm, the SGH-P300 (dubbed the "Card Phone") had exactly the same footprint as the plastic in your wallet.. but of course it was a lot thicker and you couldn’t actually put in in your wallet. It weighed just 81 grams and had a wide 1.8” 220 x 176 pixel display, a 1.3 megapixel camera with LED flash, Bluetooth and a MP3 player, although the internal memory of just 90MB or so did limit the amount of music you could store. Unsurprisingly, the P300 was a GSM-only device.

Because of the somewhat squat layout, the P300 had a wider keypad than usual which came with calculator-style keys. Combine that with the widescreen display and a folding case (with an external battery) to put it in, the P300 really did look very much like a pocket calculator. Peculiarly, one feature the P300 did not have was a built-in calculator function.

The unusual design polarized opinions completely, many people loved it and about an equal number seemed to loathe it. Priced at around $500 to $600 in the US at the time (today that would be equivalent to around £420 or €600), it was relatively expensive but ended up as being a niche success. Today, the P300 is quite collectable with prices ranging between £60 / €85 to £230 / €330 or so.

Samsung followed the P300 with the P310 launched the next year, and the touchscreen P520 launched in 2007. Some other manufacturers also tried the same format over the years, but none of them ever reached the cult status of the odd little P300.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Nokia 9300i (2005)

Announced November 2005

Ten years ago, the eccentric Nokia 9300i and its predecessor the Nokia 9300 became something of a surprise hit in the consumer market. At first glance, the 9300i was an ugly looking handset which was about the same size as the popular Nokia 6310i.. but there was literally more to the 9300i than met the eye.

The Nokia 9300i opened up to reveal a large QWERTY keyboard and a 4 inch 640 x 200 pixel display on the inside. Built-in was a web browser and email client, but you could also do wordprocessing and even spreadsheet work with it. And because this ran a version of Symbian, you could add other application to it.

The 9300i was an upgrade to the previous year’s 9300 – and that upgrade was basically the addition of WiFi support to the 2G-only device. Peculiarly, Nokia chose not to add 3G to the 9300 or even its bigger sibling, the Nokia 9500 Communicator – a decision that was possibly more about Nokia’s internal politics than being anything technical.

As with the BlackBerry 8700 launched at the same time, the Nokia 9300i was a business handset that crossed over into the consumer market. As a result it had a few idiosyncrasies, one of which was that it didn’t have a camera.

One other key drawback was that although this was a Symbian handset, it ran the Series 80 software platform rather than the more common Series 60, meaning that there was less software available for it than for other Nokia smartphones of the time.

Series 80 was discontinued after the 9300i was launched, making this arguably the last true “Communicator” device from Nokia. It was eventually followed by the Series 60-based Nokia E90, which didn’t really have the same capabilities.

The 9300i is still quite a usable device today, although the built-in Opera web browser will struggle with a lot of modern websites. If you want to add one of these to your collection, budget to spend around €50 or so.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Motorola RAZR V3i (2005)

Announced November 2005

Back in 2004, Motorola announced one of the most iconic mobile phones ever – the Motorola RAZR V3. It was an ultra-thin folding phone, elegantly designed in precision cut metal and with a hefty price tag attached. It was a huge hit, but it had one major problem. Underneath the elegant exterior, it was awful.

Motorola had a sort of 3G version of the RAZR which they had announced in the summer of 2005, but it was quite big and 3G phones weren’t very popular at the time. So, developed in parallel was the GSM-only Motorola RAZR V3i.

The V3i addressed several weaknesses with the original RAZR. Firstly, the 1.2 megapixel camera replaced the woeful 0.3 megapixel one on the original and it could now record videos, it came with TransFlash (microSD) expandable memory, had a proper music player (with iTunes support optional) with stereo output, and the whole look of the phone had been subtly reworked to make it look smarter and fresher. Over its lifetime, the V3i was produced in a wide variety of colours including silver, pink, purple, black, blue, green, red, violet and gold.

Although the hardware was more capable and the physical design more appealing, the biggest problem was still the software. The user interface was old-fashioned and difficult to use, and anyone who was hoping for something better after struggling with the original RAZR would be sorely out of luck. Compared with Motorola, the Nokia phones of the same era were much easier to use.

Despite its flaws, the V3i was quite a successful device, but even by 2005 the RAZR as a fashion item was beginning to look a bit stale. Unfortunately, Motorola found itself in a rut with the RAZR design.. they kept churning out phones based on the same concept, but consumers had lost interest and by 2007 Motorola’s mobile phone business were losing money at a huge rate. The rest is history.

Today, the V3i is a commonly available and popular device with prices for a good condition one ranging from £50 / €70 to around £100 / €140 or even more for the gold D&G edition. Despite all its flaws, the elegant V3i has plenty of “wow” factor and the design is certainly an antidote to the slabby smartphones of today.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

BlackBerry 8700 (2005)

BlackBerry 8700c
By 2005, BlackBerry brand owners RIM had been in the mobile phone market for a few years. Starting off with pagers, they then moved to simple messaging devices and then moved on to their own smartphone platform. The launch of the BlackBerry 8700 in November 2005 (as the 8700c) demonstrated that RIM had a truly mature product on their hands that had a lot of appeal to both consumers and businesses.

Although it featured the familiar BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard and controls, the 8700 ditched the weird but effective transflective screen used in earlier versions, and completely reworked the user interface to make it much more exciting and polished.

But the improved hardware and software was only part of the story, what made everything really work well was the excellent email services that RIM offered both businesses and consumers. And a decade ago, email was far more important than things like applications or even web browsing.

Variants of the 8700 appeared for many major carriers worldwide, and this smartphone helped to propel RIM to phenomenal sales growth throughout the late noughties. The problem was that five years later, RIM were still doing essentially the same thing.. despite changing trends in the industry, a mistake that nearly killed BlackBerry for good.

BlackBerry 8700v, 8700f, 8700g and 8700r

Monday, 2 November 2015

Nokia N71, N80 and N92 (2005)

Announced November 2005

Nokia’s N-Series range of smartphones had been launched in April 2005 with a trio of interesting high-end devices. A little over six months later, Nokia launched a second trio of phones.. all of which pushed back Nokia’s design boundaries a little more. Announced in November 2005, these handsets didn't actually ship to market until the following year.

The Nokia N71 was a relatively conventional clamshell smartphone (especially when compared with the big but esoteric N90). Although it sat near the bottom of the N-Series range, it still had 3G support, an FM radio, a 2 megapixel primary camera plus a low-res secondary one, a multimedia player, expandable memory and Bluetooth. At the time we remarked that it was an ugly device, but really it is quite a chunky and industrial looking device rather than being elegant exactly. It wasn’t exactly a success, perhaps in part because Nokia rarely made clamshell devices.

Nokia N71
One step up was the Nokia N80 which had a better screen, a 3 megapixel camera, WiFi and all the usual N-Series functions in a slider design that was instantly recognisable as being a Nokia, despite the somewhat novel form factor. The N80 was probably the most usable N-Series phone to date and it was something of a success. A very similar but higher-spec handset was announced about a year later.. the hugely popular Nokia N95.

Nokia N80
The oddest phone of the bunch was the Nokia N92 clamshell. Like the other N-Series phones, this was a Symbian smartphone with 3G support, and this also had WiFi and an FM radio. But one novel feature was a built-in DVB-H (digital TV) tuner, combined with a two-way hinge that meant you could use it either as a standard clamshell or it could open up like a laptop. Even the keypad was labelled in both directions. Another odd feature was the camera integrated into the hinge (like the Nokia N90). In the end, DVB-H was a flop and the N92 ended up being a very rare and rather desirable with prices going up to £500 / €700 today.. although the last place to broadcast DVB-H was Finland in 2012.

Nokia N92

Monday, 26 October 2015

Windows Phone 7 (2010)

HTC HD7 (2010)
Launched October 2010

Half a decade ago the two up-and-coming platforms in the smartphone market with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. More mature rivals such as Symbian and BlackBerry were beginning to struggle, but the biggest loser was Microsoft’s Windows Mobile.

Just a few years previously, Microsoft was battling it out to be the biggest selling non-Symbian smartphone OS on the market, but the iPhone in particular made Windows look clunky and old-fashioned.. and then Android followed suit and Windows sales collapsed.

Microsoft could see that the dominance of the PC was being challenged by increasingly capable smartphones, and this represented a threat to their long-term business. Microsoft's response to this was to go away and completely rethink their mobile platform.

Not only did Windows Phone 7 look completely different from previous versions of Microsoft's mobile platform, but it looked utterly different from absolutely every other operating system too.

The home screen was the most obvious change. Featuring a matrix of active tiles rather than a row of icons, Windows offered much more information "up front" than rivals. The stark, minimalist and abstract design was both shocking and very logical at the same time. Windows used the idea of swiping left and right very heavily, which tooks a little getting used to. Digging deeper, and the same design philosophy was used throughout the Windows Phone experience, making it very consistent.

There was several drawbacks - firstly, Windows Phone could only run a single application at any one time. The iPhone had the same problem, but Apple were putting full multitasking into their OS while Microsoft had just taken it out. The other major problem was a lack of software availability.. applications for older versions of Windows Mobile did not run on Windows Phone 7, and many developers weren't keen on developing yet another version of their apps to run on Windows.

Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone 7 was a bit of leap in the dark, but Microsoft persuaded HTC (with a bunch of phones), Samsung and LG to produce several Windows devices at launch. And also there was a lot of buzz around these new phones and the radical new OS at the time, consumers were much cooler on the idea and sales remained very low.

Despite Microsoft's efforts, they found it very difficult to get any market traction. But in February 2011, Nokia announced that they were going to move to Windows Phone for their high-end devices.. but it was October 2011 before we saw the Windows-based Nokia Lumia 800. And even with the "Nokia" name on it, sales were still very small.
LG Optimus 7Q (2010)

But Microsoft were not standing still. In 2012 the Windows 7 user interface was applied to Windows 8.. on mobile, tablets and PCs. Windows Phone 8 looked very much like Windows 7, but underneath it was based on Windows NT (like the desktop version) rather than Windows CE (as all the previous mobile versions had been). But Windows 8 is another story altogether..

Despite being a disappointment in the market, the design of Windows Phone 7 has been hugely influential. Rivals started to declutter and simplify their mobile OSes, following the cue from Windows, and as a result all modern mobile OSes are somewhat simpler, flatter and less fuss than before. Who knows, perhaps one day Microsoft will actually see a real sales success with today's Windows Phone 10?

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Nokia 7360, 7370, 7380 - the L’Amour Range (2005)

Announced October 2005

A decade ago, Nokia had a reputation for making practical if slightly dull mobile phones. But occasionally the Finns liked to let their hair down and produce something different... and the Nokia L’Amour range from 2005 was certainly different from the norm.

The range initially comprised of three phones: the Nokia 7360 monoblock, the 7370 rotator and the 7380 “lipstick” phone. All of these phones featured a patterned case, and had a little fabric label sticking out of the side to mark it out as a fashion item.

Out of these, the 7360 was the most straightforward being a fairly basic but quite attractive device in four colours (brown, amber, pink plus a black/chrome combination for the boys). It only had a 128 x 160 pixel display and a VGA resolution camera, but it did come with an FM radio.

Nokia 7360

The next model up was the 7370 phone with a rotating screen, featuring a much better QVGA display and camera. You could operate most of the functions of the phone with the keypad hidden, and this was a much more “girlie” device than the somewhat gender-neutral 7360. Rotating phones were always quite rare compared with sliding phones of the same era.

Nokia 7370

Topping out the range was the Nokia 7380, in an even more unusual format “lipstick” or “pen phone” format. Nokia had made a similar device the previous year, the art deco style 7280 but the 7380 had a better specification and a more feminine design than its predecessor.

The 7380 didn’t have a keypad, but instead the main way of using the phone was an iPod-style rotator. The small 104 x 208 pixel screen had a mirrored finish, so you could do a quick lipstick check with it if you wanted. There was a 2 megapixel camera and it had an FM radio like the rest of the range.
Nokia 7380

It looked brilliant. Admittedly, it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to use. But it looked brilliant.

Despite the minimalist feature set, the 7380 was longer than the 7360 (although much narrower) and almost as heavy. But the 7380 (like the 7280 before it) is a device with a phenomenal amount of “wow factor”.

Priced at €500 before tax and subsidy at 2005 prices (the equivalent retail price today would be about €750 or £550) the Nokia 7380 was quite an expensive device for something with such limited functionality. It's worth noting that Siemens had tried and failed with a similar approach with the Xelibri series launched in 2003 and dropped in 2004, and those were half the price of the Nokia.

Both the 7380 and the 7280 that preceded are both rare and desirable handsets today with current prices upwards of about €130 up to €400 depending on condition. The other two devices are more commonly available with prices starting at less than €50.

These radical designs certainly make an antidote to the slabby smartphones of today.. perhaps some daring manufacturer would like to revisit the concept?

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Sony Ericsson P990 / P990i (2005)

Announced October 2005

Back in the early noughties, if you owned a smartphone with a touchscreen, then there is a good chance that it would have been a Sony Ericsson P-Series device.

Starting off with the P800 in 2002, followed by the P900 in 2003 and P910 in 2004, the P990 (announced in October 2005) looked on paper to be an impressive device that was far ahead of the competition in terms of features. But instead, the P990 turned into something of a disaster for Sony Ericsson instead.

The P990 generated a lot a excitement ten years ago. Running the UIQ 3 flavour of Symbian, it features a 2.7" 240 x 320 pixel touchscreen display with a physical QWERTY keyboard that was hidden behind a flip. The P990 (sold as the P990i in Europe) had WiFi, 3G support, expandable memory and a two megapixel primary camera with a secondary one for video calling. It even had a FM radio.

Announced in October 2005, it was slated to ship during Q1 2006.. but in fact it didn't start to ship until the second half of the year. Worse still, the software was extremely buggy at launch, so users needed to update the software after they received it.. and even so the user interface had a reputation for being difficult to use. And then to cap it all, Sony Ericsson stopped providing updates for the phone less than a year after it started shipping.

Overall, the P990 was something of a disaster.. and it managed to alienate a lot of people who had been loyal fans of the P-series up to that date. At a 2005 price of around £585 / €850 (equivalent to £780 / €1060 today) it was an expensive device too. Sony Ericsson followed up the P990 with the P1 launched in 2007, but that found itself competing against the new Apple iPhone and the P1 was the last in the line of P-series smartphones.

P990s are commonly available today, starting at around £30 or €40 in working condition. You could buy all five P-Series smartphones for about £150 or so.. if you wanted!

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Bang & Olufsen Serene / Samsung E910 (2005)

Announced October 2005

Imagine you that were designing a mobile phone but you had never seen one before.  You knew what components you had to include, but otherwise you had a blank sheet of paper.

The Bang & Olufsen Serene (also known as the Samsung E910) is such a phone. It’s a flip phone.. but the screen is at the bottom, so it doesn’t get greasy when you make a phone call.

The keypad is integrated into the loudspeaker, so it has a retro rotary layout. The aluminium hinge makes the Serene look more like a folding wallet than a folding phone, and even the charging station is a work of art.

Designed by B&O and built by Samsung, the Serene was a very simple phone at heart which was designed to make phone calls, send text messages and take pictures with the basic digital camera. It had Bluetooth, but surprisingly it couldn’t play MP3s (given B&O’s reputation for advanced audio systems).

It was an expensive and exclusive device, costing €1000 and with retail availability through B&O’s own stores only. It was never meant to be a big seller, and it is quite a rare device to find today, with prices ranging between about €140 to €550 depending on condition.

The Serene was probably more of a design success than a sales success, it was far more style over substance. However, this Samsung/B&O joint design was certainly more memorable than the awful Motorola/Apple ROKR announced the previous month.

Two years later B&O and Samsung announced the Serenata, a similarly upside-down phone with a better specification. But that found itself competing directly against the first-generation iPhone.. and the iPhone won.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Sinclair ZX Spectrum 128 (1985)

Launched September 1985

Let's be honest here.. the ZX Spectrum 128 is not the most memorable computer launched by Sinclair Research, but it is significant as it is the last ever computer produced under the "Sinclair" name as an independent company, announced 30 years ago this month.

The original Spectrum had been launched in 1982 to huge success, but by 1985 the market had moved on significantly with 32-bit rivals such as the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST taking the high end, and arch-rivals Amstrad competing head-on with Sinclair with the likes of the CPC 6128.

Sinclair's attempt at a next-generation computer with the QL had failed (and had cost the company a lot of money on the way), so the only thing that was really selling was a warmed-over version of the original Spectrum, the ZX Spectrum+.. but this was still limited to just 48KB of RAM and was looking increasingly dated underneath.

Created in partnership with Investrónica of Spain, the ZX Spectrum 128 was an attempt to bring some evolutionary upgrades to the Spectrum platform. More RAM theoretically meant more powerful applications could run, but it was tricky to access all the memory. The Spectrum 128 had better audio than the miserable tinny speaker in the original Spectrums, had a much better keyboard and a cleaner, more modern design.

It was a modest success, but Sinclair were still wedded to the idea of selling the computer by itself and having the user supply the cassette recorder (for loading programs) and TV by themselves, where Amstrad would sell you the whole lot in a bundle.

But Sinclair was in deep trouble financially and there had been a string of failure, including the infamous Sinclair C5 electric car. After some abortive attempts to rescue the company, the Spectrum brand and its computers were sold off to Amstrad who licensed the "Sinclair" name.

Amstrad produced a CPC-style version of the Spectrum 128 the following year, followed by a version with a 3" floppy disk in 1987 with production continuing until 1992. But the story doesn't end there as you can now buy a "Recreated ZX Spectrum" with more modern interfaces or even a ZX Spectrum-based games console called the Vega. There are also Spectrum emulators for a variety of platforms including Android.

Although the ZX Spectrum 128 is the last "true" Sinclair Spectrum, Sinclair Research went on to fund the development of the Cambridge Z88, a 900 gram A4-size computer for note-taking and other applications which proved to be a niche success.

Image credits, ccwoodcock [1] [2]

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Nintendo Game Boy (1990)

Launched September 1990 (Europe)

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Nintendo Game Boy in Europe. This relatively simple 8-bit device proved to be hugely popular and the Game Boy turned out to be a game changer.

The Game Boy wasn't the first hand-held gaming console, but it hit the sweet spot when it came to technical features, design, prices and software. By today's standards the Game Boy seems primitive - it had a 8-bit CPU with a 2.6" monochrome display and loaded games in with a cartridge - and even in 1990 it wasn't exactly high-tech. But the Game Boy retailed for just $90 in the US, which made it very affordable.

The hardware comprised of a Sharp LR35902 processor clocked at 4.2 MHz (a sort-of-cross between an Intel 8080 and Zilog Z80), a pitiful 8Kb of RAM (plus 8Kb of video memory), a 160 x 144 pixel display that could display four shades of.. errr.. green and a slot that could take a cartridge of up to 8MB.

The Game Boy had simple but elegant controls ("START", "SELECT", "A" and "B") housed in an unfussy and cleanly designed box. Power was provided by four AA batteries which could give between 15 to 30 hours play time.

Perhaps the killer application that the Game Boy had was the bundled Tetris game, but there were quite a wide range of other games available too (helped by the fact that Europe had to wait a year for the Game Boy after Japan and the US). Although cartridges were relatively expensive, it was at least a simple solution. A very popular later series of games were based around Pokémon characters.

The Game Boy series continued until 2008, selling a massive 200 million units overall. Although mobile gaming would have probably happened even without the Game Boy, it is likely that this little device raised people's expectations and helped to create demand for the vibrant market that we have today.

Today, an original Game Boy in working order will set you back between €35 to €70 or more depending on condition and the number of games it comes with. Thankfully, rechargeable batteries are a lot better than they were 25 years ago!

Image source

Monday, 21 September 2015

Amstrad PCW 8256 (1985)

Launched September 1985

Thirty years ago we were seeing the dawn of 32-bit home computing with the state-of-the-art Commodore Amiga and Atari ST coming to market. The Amstrad PCW 8256 was also the exact opposite to these, and yet it turned out to be an enormous success in the countries it was launched in.

Back in the 1980s, wordprocessing was one of the most common things you’d do on a computer. Email and other online services were rudimentary and only used by a tiny handful of people, so things such as business correspondence were sent on bits of paper.

If you wanted to use something better than a typewriter, then you’d need a word processor. These tended to be expensive, or very difficult to set up. Or usually both. But the Amstrad PCW tackled both of those problems head on.

As with the Amstrad CPC range, the PCW was a combination of very cheap components cleverly packaged together. Based on a Zilog Z80 processor with 256Kb of RAM, and running the CP/M operating system (both designed in the mid 1970s), you could hardly call the PCW a high-tech device.

The package included a monochrome monitor, keyboard, one or two 3” floppy disks and crucially it came with a basic dot matrix printer in the package. With the possible exception of the floppy disks you had to buy, none of these components was very expensive, and this enabled the PCW to sell for a little over £450 (equivalent to about £1240 or €1700 today). This was a fraction of the price of (say) an IBM PC with similar capabilities.

The other advantage of including everything you needed in the box was that everything worked when it came out of the box. You didn’t need to worry about compatibility, or drivers.. or really anything else, because everything was designed to work together. The PCW can be regarded as an “appliance” in the same way that contemporary Macs could.

The LocoScript word processor was basic but straightforward to use, but because the PCW ran the CP/M operating system, it could also run a variety of other business applications such as spreadsheets and databases. And although the PCW wasn’t designed for games, inevitably there were those too.

Most of the circuitry to drive the printer was actually in the computer case, and the printer itself was very simple and the 9-pin head could only really produce rather chunky text. The printer itself was highly proprietary, so you couldn’t simply upgrade it to anything except an Amstrad daisywheel printer or Amstrad plotter. However, you could produce simple graphics with the standard printer which did lead to some basic desktop publishing (DTP) packages being developed.

A few months later the Amstrad PCW 8512 was launched with twice the RAM. In 1987 the PCW9512 and 9256 were announced, replacing the crude dot matrix printer with a daisywheel printer. In one form or another, this series of computers soldiered on into the 1990s by which time they had sold 8 million units. Not bad for something based on 1970s technology.

If you are looking at starting your own computing museum, then the Amstrad PCW is a very cheap thing to acquire, commonly available for about £10 to £15. An original 1984 Apple Macintosh will cost about fifty times as much!

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

MOS Technology 6502 (1975)

Launched September 1975

Microprocessors were expensive forty years ago. Popular processors such as the Intel 8080 and Motorola 6800 would sell for hundreds of dollars, and these high prices were a significant barrier to the development of low-cost personal computers.

A group of engineers from Motorola, including the pioneering Chuck Peddle had tried to develop a simple low-cost device while at Motorola, but had been rebuffed. Instead, they left the company to join a small firm called MOS Technology, and they set upon developing the MOS Technology 6502 processor instead.

The design philosophy of the 6502 could be summed up in about three words: “keep it simple”. Instead of loading the processor down with extra features, Peddle and his team created a processor that was much less complex than rivals. This meant that it was much cheaper than rivals. And it also meant that it was much faster.

A simpler design was cheaper, because the actual silicon part of the chip was smaller, and this led to fewer flaws during manufacturing and also increased the number of chips that could be produced on one wafer. The result of this was that MOS Technology could sell the 6502 for just $25, a fraction of what rivals were charging.

At this price point, the 6502 became an obvious choice for the many of the microcomputers that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the Apple II, Commodore PET and VIC-20, Acorn Atom, BBC Micro and Electron, Atari 400 and 800 plus a variety of lesser-known or now-forgotten computers plus a wide range of embedded systems.

MOS Technology was eventually taken over by Commodore in 1976 and spun out into a separate company again in 1995, although that company was eventually liquidated in 2001.

You might think that an 8-bit processor from the 1970s has very little influence today, but there is a surprising twist to the tale. When the engineers at Acorn in the UK were designing their range of 6502-based computers, they were impressed by the simplicity and speed of the 6502 design. This directly influenced the development of the Acorn ARM processor that was used in their Archimedes computer in the 1980s. So successful was the ARM design, that variants of that processor are now used in millions of devices today. The smartphone or tablet you own today is probably based on an ARM core, which is directly influenced by this 40 year old device.

Image credits [1] [2]

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Motorola ROKR E1 - the Apple phone before the iPhone (2005)

Motorola ROKR E1
Announced September 2005

The Motorola ROKR E1 has the dubious distinction of being one of the most disastrous mobile phone releases ever. But what is it with this innocuous looking device that is so horribly wrong?

To a large extent the ROKR story starts not with Motorola, but with Apple. Ten years ago, Apple was experiencing a resurgence after a difficult time in the 1990s. Sales of desktop and laptop Macs were growing, and the iPod had been launched in late 2001 and was selling in huge numbers. Apple had played around in the PDA market with the Apple Newton in the 90s, but one market that Apple had not broken into was mobile phones.

Motorola seemed to be a good match for Apple. Both were US companies, and Motorola had wowed the market with the elegant Motorola RAZR V3. Motorola had also designed some 3G compatible smartphones such as the Symbian-based A1000. Apple had come up with a revolutionary but simple interface for the iPod, and of course they had a background in creating user-friendly software.

This combination looked like a dream team. What could go wrong?

Rumours of an "iTunes phone" started circulating in 2004, but by May 2005 it was becoming clear that the device might be disappointing, when we revealed most of the specs of what was then called the Motorola E790. Industry watchers were hoping for something better, but when the final design leaked out it was clear that this was not the state-of-the-art device people had been hoping for.

Instead of designing something new, Motorola and Apple had simply taken an existing handset - the Motorola E398 - and had changed the software, painted it white and had added an "iTunes" button. This warmed-over phone was christened the Motorola ROKR E1 and it was supported by a massive advertising campaign.
But the ROKR was an old-fashioned device. It had only 512MB of storage as standard (upgradable to 1GB), a poor camera, was stuck to 2.5G data speeds only and the slow USB 1.1 connection meant that it took ages to transfer files. Although music playback was actually pretty good, the handset had been deliberately crippled so that it could only store 100 tracks. This move was taken to make sure that the ROKR wouldn't eat into the iPod market share.

For some reason, consumers didn't fancy a warmed-over and crippled device and sales of the ROKR E1 were extremely disappointing. It didn't stay on the market for long, and it was replaced quickly with the iTunes-less ROKR E2. The ROKR turned up to be more of a FLOPR.

For Apple, the whole thing was an embarrassment and a horrible compromise. For their next phone, Apple went off and designed everything in-house to the specifications that they wanted, without compromise. That handset was rather more successful.

Today, the Motorola ROKR E1 is the phone that Apple would like you to forget. Because it sold so poorly, it it seldom on sale today.. but when it is, prices seem to be about €30 or so. If you are looking for a quirky-but-flawed piece of Apple ephemera, then perhaps the ROKR E1 is something you would like to add to your collection.