Saturday, 16 September 2017

Pot Noodle (1977)

Pot Noodles in the wild, 2017
Introduced 1977

A familiar snack food for students and bedsit dwellers, the Pot Noodle range was launched in the UK in 1977 and quickly became a popular and somewhat notorious product.

Instant noodles were invented in Japan in the 1950s with the Nissin Chikin Ramen. The same company then imported instant noodles in a cup in the the US in the early 1970s. This phenomenon had been spotted by Golden Wonder, who then introduced a version of it into the UK in 1977.

Preparation is simple enough. Boil a kettle, pour it in, wait a few minutes and stir. Sometimes there is a sauce packet to add. There's a tendency for the noodles to be high in fat and salt, and of course you shouldn't eat them all the time… nonetheless, the Pot Noodle did really open up new culinary adventures if all you had was a kettle.

Advertisements over the years ranged from the tame to the highly controversial, but they helped to make the Pot Noodle a rather laddish cult product. Although Golden Wonder sold the brand off years ago, they are still available today and retail for around £1 per pot. Although vintage Pot Noodles aren't really a thing, there's a lively trade in collectable spinning forks and matching mugs to go with your secret noodle obsession if you so desire.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Atari VCS / 2600 (1977)

Launched September 1977

1977 was the dawn of home computing, with the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80 Model I all being launched within months of each other. But another early computing pioneer also found success in the same year, and that was Atari.

Launched in September 1977, the Atari Video Computer System (“VCS”) was an early second generation console that came after the 1970s wave of single purpose games machines that could typically play Pong and nothing else. Based around a cut-down version of the 6502 CPU called the 6507, the Atari VCS was designed from the start to be a highly flexible system that could play a wide variety of games.

Atari VCS "Heavy Sixer" (1977)

One key thing that made the VCS easy to use was the cartridge system. Instead of struggling to load a game from tape or splashing out on a very expensive floppy disk drive, the VCS loaded in games from cartridges instead. Although it wasn’t the first cartridge console on the market, the VCS was the first one to be a real success.

Games included the ubiquitous Pong, Space Invaders, Breakout, Pitfall, Centipede, Defender and later on a poorly received version of Pac-Man and the infamous E.T. Despite the VCS’s fairly crude colour graphics and sound and the relatively high price of the cartridges themselves, the VCS and many of its games went on to sell in huge numbers.

Atari 2600 ad (1982)
Priced at just $199 at launch, including a game and two joysticks, the VCS represented impressive value for money. Cartridges were relatively expensive, typically coming in at $20 or more. However the cartridges were easy to use… and crucially for Atari, almost impossible to pirate.

The original VCS models were made in Sunnyvale, California and are known as “heavy sixers” because they have six switches on the top and a more solid construction than the later “light sixers” built in Hong Kong. Further revisions followed, with the fake wood panel surviving until 1982, but the VCS name was changed to 2600 in 1980. In one form or another, the VCS / 2600 remained in production until 1992, giving the console a staggering 15 year run with almost unchanged hardware, selling 30 million units in the US alone.

Despite ending production, the VCS / 2600 remained popular, and in 2004 a modern interpretation was made called the Atari Flashback which is currently in its eighth generation. A top-of-the-range Flashback with an HDMI connector and a huge number of games costs around €170, an original 2600 console can cost from next to nothing up to several hundred euro depending on exact model, condition and bundled games with consoles quite commonly available.

In 1983 a crash in the video games market led to Atari being sold by its then parent company, Warner Communications, and it split into two. On part of it was bought by Jack Tramiel (who founded rivals Commodore) and which later went on to make home computers including the Atari ST. The company’s name and assets have changed hands many times over the years, but “Atari” still exists as a gaming brand today.

Image credits:

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Nokia Lumia 920 (2012)

Nokia Lumia 920
Announced September 2012

By September 2012, Nokia had been in the Windows Phone business for just under a year, starting off with the Lumia 800 in October 2011 and then the bigger Lumia 900 in February 2012. Neither device was really successful, despite having their charms and the goodwill of an army of Nokia fans.

Although Windows Phone 7 and 8 had been well-received by critics, customers were not so keen and there was a general shortage of good applications. Well, Nokia was stuck with that problem whatever they did... but the other problem that the Lumia 800 and 900 had was that the technical specifications really weren’t up to much either.

The Nokia Lumia 920 addressed the hardware at least – here was a phone that made no compromises when it came to features and it could easily hold its own against the flagship devices of rivals.

Firstly there was the look of the thing – elegantly minimalist and housed in a variety of brightly-coloured thermoplastics, the physical design actually complemented the minimalist design of the operating system very well. A big, bright 4.5” 768 x 1280 pixel display dwarfed that of the iPhone and on the back was an optical image stabilised 8.7 megapixel PureView camera with Carl Zeiss optics, capable of full HD video capture. The camera itself caused quite a stir due to its advanced capabilities.

Mmmm... yellow.
Added to this was wireless charging, support for 4G LTE data, a 1.5GHz dual-core CPU with 1GB of RAM and 32 GB of flash storage and all the other features any high-end smartphone from the time would have. At 185 grams in weight the Lumia 920 was quite heavy, but it gave the whole thing a feeling of quality.

Windows Phone 8 was easy to use, integrated well with companies running on a Microsoft platform and Nokia threw in some useful apps of its own such as turn-by-turn navigation and a free music service. However, beyond that apps looked a bit scarce – not least because Windows 8 was built around a different core from Windows 7 meaning most apps had to be reworked.

In hardware terms Nokia had finally come up with a device that needed no excuses making for it, and which was just as good as, or better than the competition in most major respects. It was a relative success for Nokia and was the best-selling Lumia device to date. Even so, Nokia only managed to shift 4.4 million Lumia handsets in Q4 2012 while Apple shipped 47.8 million iPhones of all models in the same period. Despite giving it their best shot, the Lumia 920 was ultimately not the breakthrough device that Nokia desperately needed.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Apple iPhone 5 (2012)

Apple iPhone 5 (White/Silver)
Announced September 2012

Half a decade after the original iPhone, Apple announced the iPhone 5. The sixth version of this highly popular device, the 5 was an evolution of the second-generation iPhone 4 and 4S phones.

The launch of the 5 came when Apple’s competitors were beginning to pull ahead of Apple in terms of specifications, particularly when it came to screen size. For example, the rival Samsung Galaxy S III had a 4.8” display that completely dwarfed the 3.5” panel on the iPhone 4S. Indeed, even low-end rivals had bigger displays and it was becoming clear that a lot of customers wanted exactly that.

Of course the obvious solution was to make the phone bigger, but there was resistance from Apple management (reportedly Steve Jobs) in following Samsung’s lead with larger devices with each generation. Instead a design compromise was made, and the iPhone 5 fitted in a larger 4.0” screen by making the device taller. Adding 9mm to the height gave an extra half inch on the display (and yes, that IS a horrible mix of metric and imperial units).

The advantage was primarily that the iPhone 5 felt pretty similar in the hand, but because Apple also changed the connector on the bottom at the same time, you couldn’t easily dock the 5 in peripherals designed to hold the 4 and 4S.

A switch in materials from steel to aluminium made the iPhone 5 much lighter, and of course the 5 was faster than its predecessors and heralded a new version of the iOS operating system too. On the downside, the new Apple Maps application included with the phone was truly terrible and the paint on the devices was prone to scuffing and chipping.

Apple iPhone 5 (Black/Slate)
Perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the iPhone 5 was a massive success, although it only had a run of one year before being replaced with the popular iPhone 5S and the unpopular iPhone 5C. The 5S continued in production until 2016, and Apple recognised that many customers very much enjoyed the more compact design of the 5 over their newer and larger smartphones, launching the iPhone SE in 2016 with an almost identical form factor.

Software support for the iPhone 5 (and almost identical iPhone 5C) ended in July this year, so their usefulness is somewhat limited. Prices are currently around €100 for a unit in good condition, or alternatively the equally compact but much more capable iPhone SE starts at around €480.

Image credit: Apple

Monday, 21 August 2017

Stoned Virus (1987)

Stoned virus  hexcode
Created 1987

Computer viruses and other malware have been around for a long time, with early reports going back as far as 1982 with "Elk Cloner". However, one of the first really widespread viruses made an appearance thirty years ago - the Stoned virus.

Stoned first appeared in New Zealand in 1987 and spread on IBM PC compatibles via floppy disks. Now, it's quite possible that you have never used a PC with a floppy disk as they largely vanished from new PCs in the early 2000s, but on an early PC the floppy disk would be the A: drive (and if you had a second floppy, it would be the B: drive).

PCs would boot from the floppy first, even if they had a hard disk and because people would tend to leave floppy disks in the drive when they powered off the machine, this gave the virus an opportunity to spread. The PC would attempt to boot from the infected floppy and appear to fail - at which point most people just removed the floppy and pressed a key to boot from the hard disk. Unknown to them, the Stoned virus was then in memory and it would write itself to the hard disk when the machine booted up. One on the hard disk, Stoned would then try to infect all floppy disks put into the machine, and if an infected floppy was taken away and put in another PC then the process would begin again.
Ancient IBM PC of some description

The PC would sometimes display messages such as “Your PC is Now Stoned!” and “Legalize Marijuana” on boot up, and it would tend to corrupt anything other than basic 360Kb floppies. Other than that, it spread quietly.

And because the most common way to share files in those days was to swap floppy disks, spread it did. Not quickly at first, but like a zombie apocalypse eventually almost every PC in an organisation could become infected. And of course, any contemporary anti-virus product would stop it… but in those days many organisations didn’t take malware seriously or thought that security products were too expensive.

The virus continued to infect machines for years, but even though anti-virus software could stop the PC becoming infected then millions of floppy disks with it on meant that it would keep trying to come back. Eventually of course floppies fell out of fashion and then vanished altogether – and it’s quite likely that those decades-old disks have now degraded to the point of unreadability.

It wasn’t the last time that a virus used similar techniques to spread. The Conficker worm from 2008 could spread through USB devices and is still a problem nearly a decade later. Even more ancient malware such as the 2003 SQL Slammer worm still flares up from time to time. Of course, malware is not a gadget… but it seems to be an unwelcome companion to technological advances.

Image credits: Wikipedia and Luke Jones via Flickr

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Samsung Galaxy Camera (2012)

Samsung Galaxy Camera
Launched August 2012

Smartphone cameras can be fantastic, making it easy to fix images on the fly, edit or filter them and then share them with others. The one thing that they really can't do well is zoom. Sure, you can zoom in on something digitally but the results tend to be poor and grainy... and smartphones tend to have pretty poor flash capabilities too. On the other hand, digital cameras can do a lot of clever things with zoom lenses and usually have bigger sensors leading to better images, but the software tends to be limited and often rather difficult to use.

So instead of trying to choose… why not have both? The Samsung Galaxy Camera (announced in August 2012) tried to do just that. Essentially, one side was a Samsung Galaxy S III and the other side was a compact Samsung digital camera with a 16 megapixel camera with a 21X zoom lens with a big 23mm aperture on it, all designed to give superior pictures over a smartphone.

Surely Samsung would be on to a winner with this? Well, there were a couple of problems. Firstly, this was a bulky device at more than 300 grams in weight and about 35mm thick where the lens was. So, a bit big for a phone… but apparently it was a bit so-so as a camera as well.

Despite the unique charms of the device, it never really sold well. However, Samsung stuck with the idea and launched the smaller Galaxy S4 Zoom and the high-end Galaxy NX in 2013, and both the Galaxy Camera 2 (without any cellular connectivity) and the phone-based Galaxy K Zoom in 2014. Other manufacturers tried the same thing, for example the Panasonic Lumix Smart Camera CM1. All met with similarly cool responses from consumers.

If you don’t mind being stuck with Android 4 then you can pick one of these interesting devices up for a typical price of around €160. There’s not currently anything quite like it on the market, so if you are prepared to put up with its limitations then it could still be fun.

Image credit: Samsung

Friday, 11 August 2017

GPO Type 746 (1967)

GPO Type 746
Introduced 1967

Back in the stone ages... well, at least the 1960s... if you wanted to talk to someone a fair distance away there used to be a device called a telephone. And if you were living in the UK in the 60s, 70s or even 1980s then you probably had a GPO Type 746 in your house. Launched in 1967, the type 746 turned up absolutely everywhere.

Moulded in a variety of coloured plastics (grey! cream! black! two-tone green! and many - OK, a few - more) the Type 746 was introduced to a market apparently craving US-style telephones with... err... their curly cords. A simple enough design, the 746 was also nicely curved which gave it a friendly look. The loud mechanical bell could certainly give you a fright though.

Entirely electromechanical, telephone numbers were called using a rotary dial that basically made clicks down the line. One click for "1", two for "2" up to ten clicks for "0". Dialling a typical long-distance phone number would involve fifty to sixty clicks. If you got it wrong... you had to redial the whole thing. If the exchange connected you to the wrong number (a common occurrence)... you had to redial the whole thing. If the other number was engaged... you had to redial the whole thing. If you couldn't hear the person on the other end... I think you get the picture by now.

A telephone table was very sophisticated in those days
Telephone calls used to be expensive, so sometimes people would fit a lock into the rotary dial to stop unauthorised use. However, it was possible to bypass this by pressing the switch on the cradle down and up in rapid succession, for example clicking the switch ten times would dial the first "0" of a long-distance call, which you could then follow by the others.

As well as talking to people there were information services. Sort of. The speaking clock is still around today, but you could also listen to the latest records on Dial-a-Disc ("16") in case you didn't have a radio and wanted to PAY to listed to a cruddy tinny sounding song. If the cricket was on then Dial-a-Disc dropped off the air and you could listen to that instead. You could dial the operator on 100. If you dialled 192 you would get free directory enquiries, to help you find the number you needed. If you wanted to speak to someone local you would use a thing called a telephone directory, which was printed on processed wood pulp. Those were the days.

Most people didn't actually own their Type 746, but instead rented one from the GPO who provided the telephone service. Colours seemed to be a pot luck. The natural home for the telephone itself would be a small table in the hallway, as having one in the living room was often considered a bit gauche.

Mmm.. two-tone grey
Of course things got better with features such as push-button dialling, last number redial and even secrecy buttons. These days landlines remain an essential medium for elderly relatives, tech support scammers and telemarketers to get hold of you and in most cases not much else. Since almost all ADSL broadband connections also include a phone, which is probably the only reason a lot of people keep a landline.

There are lots of Type 746s available today, and a good one will cost you around £40 to £50 or so, but you’ll need to check that it has been converted for modern BT connections first. And you might not want to throw away your push-button model even if you do want to indulge in a bit of retro tech.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Nokia and the pursuit of elegance

2007 was a key year for the mobile phone industry, when big-screen smartphones really started to capture the public imagination. However, over at Nokia this point hadn't really struck home and they continued to do what they had always been good at - making phones look interesting instead.

A number of product were launched in August 2007, but headlining the releases were the first two handsets of Nokia's "Prism" range - the 7900 and 7500. Both these phones featured a repeated triangular pattern across the front and back, and the same theme was carried on in the user interface itself. In most respects these were pretty conventional feature phones, with the 7500 being a standard GSM affair. However, the Nokia 7900 Prism was also an early example of OLED display technologies, and this supported 3G as well.

Nokia 7500 Prism (left) and 7900 Prism (right)

Moving away from the polarising design of the Prisms, the Nokia 6555 was an extremely elegant clamshell phone with a smooth and glossy outer case which maybe owed a little bit in design to the RAZR. This too was a 3G device, although the small 2.0" screen and 1.3 megapixel camera were a bit disappointing.

Nokia 6555
Where the 7-series phones tended to be fashion phones and the 6-series were "classic" phones, the 5-series were designed to be more fun to use. The Nokia 5310 XpressMusic had a similar technical specification to the 7500, but it was designed as a music player and could take an 8GB memory card. The 5610 XpressMusic added a slightly bigger screen and 3G support in a sliding body that still looked very much like a Nokia. Both these devices are good examples of the understated elegance that was always a characteristic of Nokia design.
Nokia 5310 XpressMusic (left) and 5610 XpressMusic (right)
All five of these devices were pretty much perfect examples of feature phones of the time. Indeed, Nokia still make devices that are pretty similar to this today. Of course, it's much harder to experiment with handset design when a modern smartphone is basically all touchscreen on one side, but it does sometimes seem that modern smartphone manufacturers don't try very hard.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

TRS-80 Model I (1977)

TRS-80 Model I
Launched August 1977

1977 saw three key products launched that helped to bring microcomputers into homes and businesses. These were the Commodore PET, Apple II and the TRS-80 which was launched in August 1977.

The TRS-80 (later called the TRS-80 Model I) was sold worldwide through Tandy and Radio Shack stores, and used a Zilog Z80 processor - this gave the computer its "TRS-80" moniker. Designed relatively quickly, the TRS-80 was both versatile and troublesome which gave rise to a nickname of "Trash-80". Despite the problems, the TRS-80 was a significant commercial success and several other products were released under the "TRS-80" name over the years.

Back in 1977, Radio Shack owned over 3000 stores in the US with hundreds more worldwide either using the "Radio Shack" name or the "Tandy" name of its parent company. Inspired by the success of the Altair 8800 launched in 1974 and with a desire to sell higher-ticket items, Radio Shack engineers quickly designed an expandable fully-assembled computer with prices at launch as low as $500 (compared to $1300 for the Apple II).

TRS-80 with Expansion Interface
The original TRS-80 had its problems. Firstly, the ability to display lowercase characters was deleted in order to save a few dollars of the price, the supplied monitors were of questionable quality, the keyboards suffered from keybounce (where multiple characters get entered for one keypress), the cassette tape interface was unreliable, the floppy disk system was full of bugs, connectors ended up suffering from corrosion and the expansion interface would tend to make the whole computer reboot. The implementation of BASIC was also pretty crude and the operating system was somewhat primitive. The graphics were also crude, there was no support for colour and there was no sound.

Despite these the TRS-80 had the advantage that you could not only rock up to a Radio Shack store and buy one, but if it went wrong you could take it back to the same store and they would fix it. This was a huge advantage over Apple and Commodore who had to build up a distribution network through partners. The design was steadily improved and problems fixed by Tandy themselves, and a range of aftermarket accessories and replacements became available to fix some of the design defects.

Peripherals continued to become available, including hard disks and printers and joysticks and third party suppliers made a wide range of software available for the TRS-80 (even if Tandy didn't publicise the fact very well). Various operating systems were available too, some through Tandy and several more through third parties, giving the TRS-80 an appeal to tinkerers are well as the home and small business users it was aimed at.

TRS-80 Model III
The first major revision of the TRS-80 came in 1980 with the Model III (the Model II was something different) which moved everything into one box with better hardware and software overall. In 1983 the Model 4 was launched with further enhancements and the ability to run CP/M. There was also a transportable version launched the same year, the TRS-80 4P, and the final model released was the 4D in 1985 – this model remained available until 1991.

The Model I and its successors sold well in North America and Germany, but not so well in other markets such as the UK. Although the TRS-80 name found its way onto many other computers of varying success, these were all largely incompatible as they had very different architectures. Over the next few years Tandy’s microcomputer business continued to grow and they manufactured a variety of systems for other companies as well as their own. However, in 1993 Tandy quit making computers and sold its assets to AST.

Tandy and Radio Shack continued going, but a slow decline had set in. In 2015 Tandy/Radio Shack declared bankruptcy, followed by a buyout and another bankruptcy in 2017. At present a few stores are left trading, but the once great Tandy/Radio Shack empire is just a faint echo of what it once was.

These days if you are after any model of TRS-80 will will probably have to import one from the US (remember in Europe you'll need a transformer else you will blow the power supply). Prices go up to about $500 or so depending on model and specifications.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

OpenMoko Neo1973 (2007)

OpenMoko Neo1973
Launched July 2007

We’ve mentioned this many times before, but 10 years ago saw the launch of one of the most successful consumer products of all time, the Apple iPhone. An elegant device, the iPhone is really an appliance that locks customers in to the Apple ecosystem with strict limits on what they can do with the device. But what if there was another way? OpenMoko certainly seemed to think so with an approach where everything was “open” instead of “closed”.

Launched ten years ago this month, the OpenMoko Neo1973 was designed purely on open source software that users could theoretically do anything with. Even the hardware was designed to be hackable, and a knowledgeable user could do virtually anything with what was in effect a tiny open source computer. For people who wanted to tinker with the OpenMoko kernel or do other advanced tasks, a debug board would become available too.

The phone itself seems a bit primitive by today’s standards. A 2G-only device lacking even WiFi, it had a small (but very sharp) 2.8” VGA resolution screen, GPS, Bluetooth and a microSD slot which could take SDIO peripherals. The Neo1973 by default ran a version of Linux called OpenMoko Linux… but of course there was nothing to stop you adapting another OS for the platform and many people did.

A chunky design with a hole in the bottom for a lanyard, the design was unusual even for its time. The 1973 in the name referred back to the world’s first mobile phone, the 1973 Motorola Dynatac. The “Neo” indicated a hopeful new chapter in the world of mobile telephony.

It didn’t quite work out the way OpenMoko expected, and the Neo1973 was a bit of a niche item with a small but highly enthusiastic group of users getting involved. 2008 saw the launch of the OpenMoko FreeRunner which added WiFi and some other hardware enhancements. Development fizzled out in 2010, but a firm with the fruity name of Golden Delicious Computers went on to make the BeagleBoard based GTA04 after that. The ongoing Neo900 project also takes on board some of the OpenMoko ideas.

Although it only ever remained a device used by enthusiasts, in retrospect it can be seen as a precursor to devices such as the Raspberry Pi (launched in 2012). That device was more of a return to the bare-bones boards of the 1970s, and crucially it was cheaper and easier to work with than the OpenMoko designs.

OpenMoko handsets today are very rare but don’t seem to be expensive when they come up. Although the OpenMoko project is no longer active, there’s still a wealth of information about them on their Wiki.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Raytheon Radarange - the world's first microwave oven (1947)

Raytheon Radarange on board NS Savannah
Introduced 1947

During the second world war, a Raytheon engineer named Percy Spencer accidentally discovered the certain types of radar could heat food, by melting a candy bar in his pocket while standing in front of a radar set he was working on. A fortuitous accident perhaps, because it not only demonstrated the culinary potential of this type of electromagnetic radiation, but it possibly also taught Mr Spencer not to stand right next to this sort of equipment.

With the war being on, the exploitation of this particular discovery would  have to wait, but in 1947 Raytheon shipped thee world's first commercial microwave oven called the Radarange. At almost six feet tall and a third of a ton and a price tag equivalent to over $50,000 today it certainly wasn't for everyone but did find its way into some commercial operations.

It took twenty years for the microwave oven to start to make headway into to domestic market. Sold under the "Amana" name (a Raytheon subsidiary) the countertop Radarange was a similar size to ones today and sold for the equivalent of $4000.

Late 1960s domestic Amana Radarange
 Over the next decades the microwave oven became more efficient, added more features and most importantly it became much cheaper. Today a basic microwave oven will cost less than $100 in the US, and in most western households they are almost universal.

It took until the 1980s for the microwave-ready meal to start to appear, but when that happened the entire process of preparing a meal changed in many households. In most households the microwave oven is used for at least one thing a day. For better or for worse, this particular gadget - introduced seventy years ago - eventually ended up making a huge impact in the kitchen. You might even own one yourself.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Psion Series 5 (1997)

Psion Series 5 (1997)
Launched June 1997

Psion were an early pioneer in handheld computing, launching the Psion Organiser range in the mid-1980s and then following it up with more sophisticated devices. This lead to the Psion Series 5, launched in 1997. which was quite possibly the best device that Psion even made.

The technology of the late 1990s looks primitive compared to today, but the Series 5 certainly managed to squeeze a lot into a tiny form factor. Looking a bit like a pencil case from the outside, the Series 5 opened up to reveal a basic 5.6" 640 x 240 monochrome touchscreen (about the same size as a high-end smartphone of today), but the clever part was the keyboard. Opening the case made the keyboard slide forward, which counter-balanced the touchscreen and made it easier to type. These relatively large keys had a good amount of travel and it was feasible to touch-type on it.

The operating system was EPOC32, which in time became Symbian. Inside was an 18MHZ ARM processor with 4 or 8MB of RAM at launch, defending on configuration. Data could be stored on CompactFlash cards and the Series 5 could communicate via infra-red which was all the rage at the time. Power was provided by two AA batteries which could keep the Series 5 going for up to 35 hours and a button cell provided back-up for the memory.

Psion Series 5
The built-in applications were another strong point, with a competent suite that was compatible with industry standards of the time. A range of other applications were available too, making the Series 5 a very popular tool for gadget-savvy professionals and consumers alike. The high-end version was priced at £500 including tax (equivalent to about £860 today).

In 1999 the upgraded 5mx came out with slightly better hardware and software, including a web browser. A simplified version of the Series 5 called the Revo also came out in the same year. Despite some quirks and bugs, and the odd bit of fragile hardware it seemed that Psion was ready to conquer the world. But it didn't happen.

In 2001 with a very strong position in the handheld computing market and a number of promising devices in the pipeline, Psion suddenly killed off its consumer electronics division. Instead, Psion decided to concentrate on industrial and business handheld devices through its newly-acquired Teklogix division. In the turmoil that followed, many engineers and designers departed the company to new ventures, but perhaps most importantly the EPOC operating system was spun off to become Symbian, the operating system that dominated the smartphone market for years afterwards.
Psion Series 5 screenshot

Among the killed-off products were early smartphones, music players and satellite navigation devices. All of these were to boom a few years later, but they must have seen like a high-risk proposition at the time. A more complete picture of the turmoil at Psion at this time can be found in this long story published a decade ago by The Register.

Psion's move was maybe good business sense but it was also a huge loss to see this pioneering and successful British company suddenly deciding to play it safe. As it was, Psion continued as an independent entity until 2012 when it was bought out by Motorola Solutions, and in 2014 that division was in turn was bought by Zebra Technologies.

Even now the Psion Series 5 still has fans, and software and accessories are still available - there are even companies and people who will service them and fix common faults (typically the screen cable breaking). On the second-hand market the 5mx in good condition will typically cost more than £100 / €115 up to several hundred pounds for one in "as new" condition. The original Series 5 is a bit cheaper, the rarer 5mx Pro a little more expensive. It's still quite a usable device today, especially if you prefer a real keyboard to work from.

Image credits: Psion and Pinot Dita via Flickr

Friday, 16 June 2017

O2 Cocoon (2007)

Announced June 2007

What would have happened if there was never an iPhone, and smartphones remained an expensive niche? Perhaps the interesting design of the O2 Cocoon gives us a few clues as to how design might have evolved.

Designed by a company called Syntes Studio in Sweden, the Cocoon was basically just a 3G feature phone at its heart. But it was the physical design of the Cocoon that set it apart. The phone had a curved case that gave it the "Cocoon" name, and that case could be mounted sideways into a docking station turning it into a music player or clock. A hidden display on the outside of the phone gave some basic readouts. The musical abilities were enhanced by an FM radio and a microSD slot for storing music.

Although the Cocoon wasn't as radical as the radical B&O Serene launched a couple of years earlier, there seemed to be some similar ideas at play. But unlike the exclusive and expensive Serene, the Cocoon was an inexpensive device that anyone could get from their O2 Store. The phone went on to be a modest success, but the market was changing and the iPhone launched in Europe just a few months after the Cocoon did.

These days Cocoons are hard to come by, but not expensive. As an interesting piece of Swedish design it is perhaps worth adding to your collection of esoteric devices.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Microsoft Surface RT (2012)

Microsoft Surface RT (2012)
Announced June 2012

Sometimes product lines take a while to become a success. The Microsoft Surface range of hybrid tablets is one such example. Sitting in the gap between traditional tablets and laptops, the original Surface (later renamed as the Surface RT) was a very elegant and modern looking device running a version of Microsoft's then new Windows 8 operating system (called Windows RT).

Unlike most Windows systems, the original Surface ran on an ARM processor rather than an Intel compatible one. This put the Surface more on the tablet side of the fence - the slightly later Surface Pro had an Intel CPU and was just on the laptop side of the fence.

The Surface was originally pitched against the iPad, but one key difference was the detachable keyboard that the Surface could use. Another one was the kickstand to keep it upright. Of course, this was a Windows device.. And more to the point, it was a Windows RT device which meant that it could only use applications from the Windows Store. And it turned out that there weren't many of them to choose from..

The Surface came with both front and rear cameras, and you could plug USB devices into it which is impossible in most other tablets. It was also very stylishly designed, and the clip-on keyboard was another unique selling proposition. Windows RT was theoretically more capable that iOS or Android, but in the event it never got to shine.

Despite some promising features, the original Surface was not a success… and neither was the Windows RT operating system. Sales were sluggish and Microsoft ended up writing off nearly a billion dollars worth of unsold inventory. Windows RT was just too restrictive for many, and after about six months there were no new devices from any manufacturer launched.

However, Microsoft stuck with it. One key change in later versions was the switch to an Intel architecture, a move upmarket to something more laptop-like and a full version of Windows. After five years of trying, the current range of Surface devices are something of a success at the premium end of the market.

The Surface was not Microsoft's first foray into the hardware market - it has been producing mice, keyboard and consoles for years - but it was their first product of its type. It may well have been instrumental in persuading Microsoft that they could "do" hardware which the disastrous 2014 takeover of Nokia proved otherwise.