Monday, 15 August 2016

Nokia 701 (2011)

Announced August 2011

Five years ago this month, Nokia announced a set of Symbian handsets which were to be among the very last of such devices they would produce. These were the low-end Nokia 500, mid-range Nokia 600 (later cancelled) and the higher-end Nokia 700 and Nokia 701.

The Nokia 701 was the most powerful of the bunch, and is certainly one of the best Symbian handsets ever made. Inside was a 1GHz CPU (a later software update would boost this to 1.3GHz) with 512MB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, which may not sound like a lot but the lightweight Symbian Belle OS ran very quickly indeed with those specs. On the back was an 8 megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, and on the front was a 3.5" 360 x 640 ClearBlack display. The display was a little small even five years ago, but it was exceptionally bright and clear.

Symbian Belle was the final version of the Symbian operating system and it really was as polished as it could possibly be. It was this final iteration of the OS that was the best, and it demonstrated how quite modest and relatively inexpensive hardware could be used for a very satisfying user experience. All of this was something of a shame as Symbian was essentially dead since Nokia had announced that it was moving to Windows.

The 701 was really only ever going to appeal to die-hard Symbian fans and it didn't really sell in very large numbers. Typical prices for a used unlocked version seem to be about €35 or so. The Nokia 701 wasn't actually the last Symbian device to be launched (that was the rather special Nokia 808 Pureview), but the release of mainstream Symbian handsets ended abruptly in September 2011.

It was a sad swansong for Symbian which had dominated the market during the decade that it was introduced with the Nokia 7650. Less than three years later, Nokia sold its mobile phone division to Microsoft.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 (1996)

Released August 1996

Twenty years ago this month if you were using a Windows PC then it was probably the new fangled Windows 95 (launched 1995) or clunky Windows 3.1 (launched 1992). But popular as these operating systems were, they were ultimately a dead-end as Microsoft continued to develop its new Windows NT platform which reached a significant milestone in August 1996 with the general release of Windows NT 4.0.

Although Windows 3.1 and 95 were popular, fundamentally they were a horrible kludge built on top of Microsoft's ancient MS-DOS operating system. Although Windows 95 looked good, underneath everything was creaking and the whole edifice had a tendency to fall over. Often. While this was perhaps acceptable for home users, it certainly didn't equate to the stable and reliable systems needed for business.

Windows NT had been developed in parallel with the consumer versions of Windows and despite sharing a similar interface to consumer versions, it was fundamentally a different operating system underneath. Designed to be a modern operating system, it was a full 32-bit affair with proper multitasking, multiuser capabilities, security, multiprocessor support and the ability to run on a range of different processors rather than just Intel. Inspired more by the operating systems on mainframes and minicomputers (especially VMS), Windows NT could potentially run anything at more-or-less any scale that you wanted.

The initial versions of Windows NT had a Windows 3.1-style interface and made very little impact on the corporate desktop world (although they started to make inroads into the server market). But Windows NT 4.0 was much improved and perhaps most importantly it came with a Windows 95-style interface that made it very usable and modern. Along with proper networking support and authentication handling, system policies and the potential for rock-steady reliability on the right hardware it rapidly became the standard operating system for larger businesses.

One major problem was that Windows NT 4.0 was essentially a server operating system shoehorned into a desktop. There was no plug-and-play support for peripherals, and NT 4.0 never supported USB either and hardware support overall was limited. Although these limitations were OK on the fleets of Compaq, HP and Dell machines corporates were using, it made for a pretty unsatisfying experience on a laptop.

Laptop users really struggled with unplugging or plugging in anything reliably with Windows NT 4.0, but users with Windows 95 and the much improved Windows 98 could do these things with ease.. they could also use new-fangled things such as USB peripherals and even WiFi. With laptop market share growing rapidly, it was clear that NT 4.0 didn't cut the mustard.

The next version of Windows NT was Windows 2000 (launched in 2000) which was still aimed at business customers, and this fixed many of the issues. Internally, 2000 was known as "version 5.0", retaining the NT versioning internally. But it was the next version that made all the difference, Windows XP ("version 5.1") which made a huge impact and finally united the consumer and business versions of Windows together (the final successor to Windows 95 was the awful Windows ME).

Today's Windows 10 operating system is still based on Windows NT, and although the interface has gone through radical changes over the years, it still retains the solid foundations that NT 4.0 introduced. And although perhaps not the best-loved Microsoft operating system, it is probably one of the most important.

Image credits [1] [2]

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

3.5-inch HD floppy disk (1986)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 3.5-inch high-density floppy disk. At first glance it was neither floppy nor disk-shaped, but this storage medium became the de-facto standard for file exchange throughout the 1990s.

Floppy disks had been around for about two decades before 1986, starting with the dinner mat-sized 8-inch floppy (which really was floppy), then the popular 5.25-inch floppy used by the original IBM PC and many other contemporary systems. Both those formats were essentially the same thing in different sizes, and both suffered the same problems of bendability and an exposed magnetic surface that could easily be damaged.

The 3.5" format was first introduced in 1983 and was a huge step forward. A hard plastic case with a sliding metal or plastic shield protecting the magnetic surface provided much more protection for the disk, dispensing with the need for a sleeve that older floppies used. The disk could be write-protected with a slider (the 5.25" disk used a stick-on label) and the floppy itself would easily fit in a shirt pocket which made it very transportable.

The original 1983 variant could only store 360KB on a PC (single sided, double density), doubled to 720KB in 1983 (double sided, double density) and then doubled again to 1.44MB in 1986 (double sided, high density). There was never a commercially available "single density" 3.5" disk, this name was carried over from the convention used on 5.25" floppies. In 1987 an attempt was made to double the capacity again with the 3.5-inch ED diskette, but this never took off.

The HD version could hold a decent amount of data, be it spreadsheets, games or smutty pictures and it became very popular with this drive becoming standard in just about everything. This type of disk drive remained standard in PCs until the early 2000s when the rise of USB thumb drives and the internet finally made floppies redundant.

Although obsolete for most uses today, they can still be found in industrial controllers and development systems. One irritation of Windows XP was that you sometimes had to load drivers in from floppy disk, in an era when floppy disk drives themselves were absent. And the disks themselves are not cheap these days, coming in at about €1 a pop or more.

But the floppy disk itself has left one lasting legacy, as the almost universal "save" icon in applications. Instantly recognisable by almost everyone, include those too young to actually remember floppy disks themselves..

Image credits [1] [2]

BenQ-Siemens AL26 Hello Kitty (2006)

BenQ-Siemens AL26 Hello Kitty
Launched August 2006

These days almost every phone is just a variation of what went before, but with a better camera, screen, faster processor or some other enhancement over whatever previous slabby version went before. Ten years ago things were very different, and it was quite OK for a mainstream manufacturer to launch something such as the BenQ-Siemens AL26 Hello Kitty.

A basic device even for its day, with a 130 x 130 pixel display, no camera, no music player and no Bluetooth. However, this compact slider phone was not only pink but it had Hello Kitty graphics front and back, and it came with a special Hello Kitty charm attached. The AL26 featured Hello Kitty wallpaper and themes too, all designed to make the phone irresistible if you like that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, BenQ-Siemens was collapsing as they launched this and parents BenQ announced that it would close the business in September 2006. It seems a few of these phones did make it out and a few have been available priced at €30 or so. However, if you are really keen on a Hello Kitty feature phone there are plenty of other (and better) models available starting from about €35 upwards.

Image source: BenQ