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.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Acorn Archimedes (1987)

Acorn Archimedes A310 (1987)
Released June 1987

We've covered a few of the landmark devices in early personal computing such as the PET, Apple II from the 1970s, and the Atari ST and Amiga from the 1980s. But one of the most important computers to be launched in the mid 1980s is one that you may not even have heard of.

Released in June 1987, the Acorn Archimedes was a revolutionary computer in many ways… but the true revolution was what powered it. Thirty years ago, the Archimedes was the first consumer product to feature the ARM processor.

Today the ARM processor core is found in almost all smartphones, devices such as the Raspberry Pi and embedded systems in domestic appliances, cars and many more applications. Billions of devices with ARM processors have shipped worldwide in the past few decades, making it arguably the most popular processor platform in the world.

The ARM's debut was in a funny little computer made by Acorn Computer in the UK.  Acorn had some success selling their range of 8-bit BBC Microcomputers in Europe, especially to schools. Based on the popular 6502 processor from the 1970s, the BBC Micro had pushed the boundaries of what could be done with this technology and it was time to move on.

BBC A3000 (1989)
Acorn engineers Roger (now Sophie) Wilson and Steve Furber had been impressed by the speed and simplicity of the 6502, but they were also influenced strongly by research coming out of California into Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture which sought to make processors faster by making them simpler, which went against the trend of adding complexity.

To use an analogy - if you want to make a car faster you could either create a bigger engine with turbochargers and all sorts of electronic and mechanical trickery, or you could simplify the car and make it smaller and lighter. RISC architecture took the latter approach, and by making the design simpler they could make the processor very fast indeed. Colin Chapman of Lotus Cars famously said "simplify, then add lightness" which is exactly what the RISC processor did.

When the Archimedes hit the market, it wasn't the first RISC-based computer. But it was the first one aimed at consumers and schools, and it came at a time when most rivals such as the Amiga, ST and Apple Mac were running some sort of version of the older Motorola 68000 CPU. Where computers such as the Amiga were powerful because of the addition of coprocessors and other speed-enhancing technologies, the Archimedes was fast in its own right.

The 1987-era ARM was a 32 bit CPU running at 8MHz, in the Archimedes it would typically be paired with 1MB of RAM. Graphics and sound were pretty good for the time, and it could theoretically do everything that any other microcomputer of the era could do. One major problem was that the OS wasn't really ready at launch, with a simple GUI called "Arthur" giving way to the more capable RiscOS in 1989. Some models of the Archimedes were official "BBC Microcomputers" and had red function keys, the others were grey.
Acorn RiscPC (1994)

The Archimedes sold well into markets where Acorn already had a foothold with the 8-bit BBC. Educational markets in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand were a mainstay but the platform also appealed to hobbyists, computer scientists and others who wanted fast, cheap computing. Or those who wanted to play Zarch.

Over the next few years upgrades and variants came out, typically with faster CPUs but also with other performance additions. In 1994 the Archimedes was replaced by the RiscPC, but by then Acorn was coming to the end of its life.

In the end, two things killed Acorn. By the mid-1990s, IBM PC compatibles ruled the roost (unless you used a Macintosh). Sales were dwindling, but development costs were still high. It's quite possible that Acorn could have found its niche as a workstation manufacturer, but there was another problem..

..that problem was the company now called ARM Holdings. ARM Holdings (then ARM Ltd) was a venture between Acorn, VLSI Technology (who made the silicon, now part of NXP Semiconductors) and - perhaps surprisingly - Apple. Apple were interested in the ARM processor to power its MessagePad line, and although that device is considered a failure it did demonstrate the usefulness of the ARM CPU in mobile devices. On top of that, the small size of the ARM CPU core meant that it was ideal for embedded systems too.

RiscOS 4 OS (2001)
ARM Holdings didn't make the processors itself, but licenced the technology to others. During the 1990s the company had grown very quickly and was becoming quite valuable. As it happens, Acorn still owned a very large stake in ARM.. and the problem was that the stake was actually worth more than Acorn itself. So, anyone who bought out Acorn would instantly own an even more valuable set of stocks in ARM. And that is exactly what happened.

In the end, Acorn was broken up and the technologies were sold on to other companies where they either faded from view or ended up in odd places such as set-top boxes. However, the ARM processor was a huge success.

These days there is still a lively community around these devices, and Archimedes and RiscPC machines (and their variants) are pretty commonly available. You can even run a version of RiscOS on the ARM-based Raspberry Pi which kind of completes the circle. RiscOS Virtual Machines are available too.

In the end, the Archimedes is often an overlooked device. But the ARM processor it used was massively influential, and it's quite possible that RISC architecture would never have been so widespread without it. Today ARM Holdings is owned by Softbank of Japan and turns over around a billion pounds every year. Not a bad legacy for a little computer company.

Image credits:

Monday, 5 June 2017

Apple II (1977)

Apple II (1977)
Released June 1977

Think of great Apple products. There’s the iPod, iPad and the iPhone which were all launched between 2001 and 2010, the original Apple Mac which was launched in 1984... and before that was the Apple II, launched in 1977.

Like all those other devices, the Apple II really represented a paradigm shift. It was one of the very first professionally designed, pre-built and fully-features microcomputers that just anybody with enough money could go out to buy.

Just one year previously, Apple had launched the Apple I. Technologically similar to the Apple II, Apple’s original computer didn’t even come with basic things such as a keyboard or case. The Apple II took those underpinnings, including the 6502 CPU, and created a computer “appliance” rather than a hobbyist kit.

As with the Apple I, Steve Wozniak designed the internals which Steve Jobs took on marketing and responsibility for industrial design. Jobs gave the task of designing the look of the Apple II to Jerry Manock, a fairly unsung hero of Apple design who was responsible for many of their early products.

Manock’s design of the system and many of its peripherals gave the Apple II a coherent and professional look. But inside, Wozniak had used several clever tricks to develop a machine that outclassed its early 8-bit opposition in many ways, in particular with rudimentary colour and sound. Added to that, the Apple II had impressive expansion capabilities including a variety of add-on cards that could eventually give SCSI, parallel and serial interfaces, and there were games paddles, disk drives and more. Peculiarly the Apple II was hindered by only being able to display uppercase characters.

VisiCalc (1979)
The introductory price in the US was just shy of $1300, which over $5000 in today’s prices. That seems like a lot, but you can easily spend that much money on a high-end Mac even today. The Apple II was a huge success, even at those prices, and in one form or another it continued on sale until 1993. It also helped to create the microcomputer software industry, including VisiCalc – the first electronic spreadsheet for personal computers.

The Apple II went through several fairly minor revisions during its 16 year lifespan. One reason for this unusual longevity was the II’s success in schools in the United States, where a wide range of software took advantage of the II’s colour capabilities.

For collectors, there are usually quite a range of Apple IIs available second-hand. Prices range from few hundred dollars for a basic system up to several thousand for rarer versions, including the original “Revision 0” units. Alternatively, software emulators are available for most platforms and are much cheaper.

Along with the Commodore PET and the Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80, the Apple II helped to introduce many households and businesses to computing and in doing so they changed the world forever.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Motorola RAZR2 (2007)

Motorola RAZR2 V9
Launched May 2007

We've mentioned many times before that 2007 was a landmark year in the mobile phone industry. A little product from an outfit in Cupertino changed the direction of the industry forever. It would eventually become apparent to most companies in the sector that they had to follow suit.. or if they didn't, they would head into oblivion.

So, apparently boarding a bus on the highway to hell, Motorola decided to tackle the smartphone phenomenon by launching.. errr.. a new version of the RAZR feature phone.

Back in 2004, Motorola had scored a massive hit with the original Motorola RAZR. That phone combined stunning design with clever marketing, and it created one of the most influential mobile phones ever. The RAZR turned around Motorola's fortunes, and every other company had to go off and have a good think about industrial design.

The original RAZR promised great things, but failed to deliver. It was an awful handset to use, and the feature set really was actually pretty old-fashioned for the time. Variations followed - the RAZR V3i added some crucially missing features, the KRZR was even more stunning to look at, the RAZR V3x added 3G - but customers really didn't take to them.

Despite the law of diminishing returns, Motorola came out with the RAZR2 in 2007, coming in a 3G variant (the V9) and a GSM-only one (the V8). Surely enough, everything was better.. but compared to the iPhone it was still a heap of shit.

The sales figures should really have shown Motorola that the strategy wasn't working, but eventually they pushed out two dozen handsets based on the RAZR concept, with the last model being the GLEAM+ in 2012. By and large.. nobody cared that much about any of them.

At the time, we said that Motorola's obsession with the RAZR was killing the company. Motorola's PR people responded furiously, but it was plainly obvious that the company had their strategy completely wrong. In the end, Motorola's survival plan was to ditch their mobile phone business completely.. and now it is owned by Lenovo.

Despite everything, the RAZR2 is a decent flip phone and there seems to be a lively trade in them online, with good ones being about €60 or so. Yes, probably any mobile phone collector should  have some sort of RAZR in their collection.. but probably not this one.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Samsung Galaxy S III (2012)

Samsung Galaxy S III
Launched May 2012

By 2012, the Samsung Galaxy S range had been around for two years and each new generation seemed to help it grow in popularity. The third generation device, imaginatively named the "Samsung Galaxy S III" firmly established this range as the one that other Android manufacturers had to beat..

Breaking from the slabby design of the previous two generations, the S III was more curved around the edges, and it was eventually available in seven colours. The screen size had continued to grow over previous generations and was now a 4.8" 720 x 1280 pixel panel. Inside was a multicore 1.4GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM and a dedicated GPU. On the back was an 8 megapixel camera. Being a Galaxy S device it also came with every other feature you could think of including an FM radio, NFC and optionally LTE support.

Out of the box the Galaxy S III range Android 4.0.4, upgradable to 4.3. Android was beginning to get rather good, and overall this was a very powerful and usable device. It
was a massive sales success, shipping a staggering 50 millions units in less than a year. Announcing a new device every year has made the new generations of the Galaxy S the most anticipated smartphone in the world after the iPhone.

Today the Galaxy S III is commonly available with prices ranging from about 50 euro or so up to several hundred euro depending on condition. There's probably very little point buying one for everyday use as although the hardware is still pretty decent, the version of Android available is badly out of date. However, due to its popularity the Galaxy S III is a good device to experiment with custom ROMs, such as the Lineage OS.

Image credit: Samsung Mobile

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Sony Ericsson P1 (2007)

Sony Ericsson P1
Launched May 2007

In the early noughties Sony Ericsson had pioneered touchscreen smartphones, starting with the P800 announced in 2002, which was followed up by other high-end "P-Series" smartphones, the P900, P910 and P990. All of these featured a distinctive flip-down keypad that covered part of the display, and these devices ran Sony Ericsson's own flavour of Symbian running the UIQ interface.

Although initial models had been well-received, the P990i (launched in 2005) ended up being a bit of a disaster. It was later, buggy and Sony Ericsson dropped support for it leaving owners in the lurch. So, the P1 was a bit of a reboot of the P-Series and it came at a time where they were renewed interest in smartphones.

It wasn't an entirely new design. Based heavily on the lightweight M600 and its Walkman variant the W950, the P1 (called the P1i in most markets) ditched the keypad and instead had a more conventional QWERTY/numeric hybrid keypad instead. In order to fit this in, the screen shrank slightly to 2.6" but with the same resolution, and the whole thing was significantly less bulky than its predecessor.

The removal of the flip pad simplified the software experience quite a lot. With the earlier P-Series phones, applications needed to adjust for the different screen sizes when the flip was open and closed. In some cases, the software behaved very differently. It's still a common problem today with landscape and portrait orientations, but it was a really annoying one with those P-Series devices. Other specifications were also improved and the P1 came with a capable 3.2 megapixel camera on the back, an FM radio, expandable memory, 3G support, WiFi and handwriting recognition.

However, the world had moved on and the new Apple iPhone which was about to hit the market after being announced at the beginning of the year had a more polished user experience, a bigger screen and crucially that screen was a capacitive one which was easier to use.

The P1 was not a huge success. P-Series users had been alienated over the P990i debacle, and the change in keypad on the P1 put off some customers even further. Without the loyalty of their user base and up against tough competition from other smartphones, the P1 struggled in the market. Successors to the P1 were planned but eventually cancelled, leaving the P1 as the very last P-Series phone. Sony Ericsson stuck with Symbian for a few more devices, notably the rather interesting Satio in 2009 and the awful Vivaz in 2010.

Sony Ericsson's P-Series devices are quite collectible today, and although the P1 is uncommon it typically ranges in price between €30 to €120 depending on condition.

Image credit: Sony Ericsson

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Going nowhere: The BlackBerry Curve (2007 to 2012)

BlackBerry Curve 8300 (2007) and 9320 (2012)
Launched ten years ago this month, the original BlackBerry Curve was RIM's attempt to make their classic BlackBerry messaging smartphone more appealing to consumers. The Curve 8300 had the classic physical keyboard of all BlackBerry devices up to that point, and it added a camera (which was a rare feature on BlackBerry devices at that point) and had a media player with a standard 3.5mm jack plug.

BlackBerry's push email service for both businesses and consumers was second to none, and if you wanted to do messaging on the move then this was definitely the device to have. The 2.5" 320 x 230 pixel display was incredibly bright and clear compared to the competition, and although it wasn't a touchscreen it did have a little trackball underneath to navigate with. Crucially the Curve 8300 lacked 3G, WiFi or GPS at a time these features were becoming common. However, despite some limitations the Curve 8300 was a big success for RIM and it sold in large numbers.

Following on from the Curve 8300 were a variety of other models, adding WiFi, GPS and eventually 3G data. Although early versions sold well, increasingly it became difficult for BlackBerry to compete with all-touch devices such as the iPhone and Android smartphones.

Almost exactly five years after launching the original Curve, RIM announced the final device in the Curve line, the 9320. Shockingly, despite five years of development, the Curve 9320 had hardly evolved at all from the 8300. The physical keyboard remained, the screen was the same size, the camera a little better, the trackball had been replaced by a more reliable trackpad, it was faster and had more memory and could finally support WiFi, 3.5G and GPS.. but it certainly wasn't an iPhone-killer.

Worse still, the BlackBerry 7.1 OS included in the 9320 was fundamentally the same as the 4.5 OS included in the 8300 with some cosmetic changes. And although the Curve 9320 retained the excellent email capabilities of all BlackBerry handhelds, consumers had moved on and were more interested in things like web browsing.. and web browsing on the Curve 9320 was a very unpleasant experience. By 2012 both the iOS and Android platforms were destroying BlackBerry when it came to quality apps too.

In five years, RIM had essentially gone nowhere. It wasn't just the Curve either, but the entire BlackBerry product range was out of date. But conversely, a hard core of businesses and fans still went out and bought these devices, but it couldn't stem the collapse in sales. Even today, the BlackBerry 9320 still sells to people who are wedded to the platform.

To be fair, RIM realised that they were in a predicament but the next-gen BlackBerry devices that they needed were subject of boardroom battles that had crippled the company. The disastrous launch of the Z10 in 2013 is a story for another time though.

Image credits: Research in Motion / BlackBerry

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Palm Foleo (2007)

Announced May 2007

Ten years ago we were seeing the start of widespread smartphone use, but although these devices were getting increasingly powerful and allowed people to work and communicate everywhere, their small size was a limiting factor in what they could do. Sure - you could get yourself a laptop computer, but these were designed to be used in the office or at home and taking one out on the road could be difficult.

Palm Foleo

Having helped popularise handheld computing in the 1990s and early 2000s, Palm had missed the boat when it came to smartphones and was struggling to keep up. But instead of just looking at what was happening in the market now, Palm were looking forward to the next problem - specifically trying to overcome the limitations of smartphones when it came to serious work.

Launched in May 2007, the Palm Foleo looked like a small laptop but it was really something different. The idea was that the Foleo would integrate with a smartphone via Bluetooth or USB and act as an extension of that device. This wasn't just limited to PalmOS devices, but also Windows, Symbian and there were plans for the new-fangled iPhone too.

The Foleo itself ran a modified version of Linux, relied entirely on flash memory for storage and it was fan-less due to the low-power CPU, making it very quiet in use and extending the battery life. It weighed just 1.3 kg and had a 10.2" 1024 x 600 pixel screen and a physical keyboard. Email access and cellular connectivity would go through the phone, but as a standalone computer it was pretty capable by itself.

Everything looked rather promising, with developers coming on board and pledging support for the device into the summer of 2007. And then - rather abruptly - Palm cancelled the entire project, presumably very close to the anticipated launch date.

At the time, Palm was facing considerable financial problems. The PDA that it dominated has collapsed, and it was only a very small player in the smartphone market, so given limited resources Palm had decided to step back from the rather innovative Foleo and instead developed the ill-fated Palm Pre launched at the beginning of 2009.

Although the launch of the Foleo would have had its risks, 2007 was the year that Netbooks really started to take off with devices such as the ASUS Eee becoming very popular. Had Palm done the Foleo well, it could have turned around the company's fortunes. Netbooks took a hit the the launch of the iPad in 2010 but then newer devices such as Chromebooks followed in the same vein.

Despite never hitting the market, a small number of Foleos were built, some in full retail packaging. These are very rare and prices of $1500 have been seen for units still sealed in the box.


At the time, Palm provided various bits of B-roll. We've added some cheesy music. Enoy

Image credits: Palm Inc

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Hewlett-Packard HP-01 (1977)

HP HP-01
Launched 1977

Wearable technology is nothing new. Forty years ago we saw the first digital watches, but even then some companies thought that the little computer on your wrist could do so much more. One such company was Hewlett-Packard, who decided to combine the functions of one of their famous line of calculators with a digital watch to come up with something quite unique.

The HP-01 was what Hewlett-Packard called a "wrist instrument". Along the top were nine seven-segment LED displays, underneath were 28 keys. Four keys were raised (Date, Alarm, Memory and Time) so they could be pressed with a finger, two semi-recessed keys (Read/Recall/Reset and Stopwatch) plus 22 recessed keys that you pressed with the supplied stylus which was either a mini one hidden in the wristband or the end of a specially-designed pen.

Inside were three batteries, two to power the display and one to power the tiny logic board. These batteries could be changed by a jeweller, or HP sold a special kit so that the user could change them. The watch itself was either housed in a steel or gold casing.

It was much more than a digital watch with a calculator added on, because the HP-01 treated the time and date as just another data type. Rather like a modern spreadsheet application, you can take the time and perform mathematical functions on it.. but the HP-01 does it in real time. As an example, if you are making an expensive long-distance phone call then the HP-01 can be programmed to tell you how much it is costing in real time. The HP-01 was also cleverly future-proofed with a "21" button allowing dates to be programmed for the 21st century.

HP-01 ad, 1978. Click to enlarge.
The HP-01 was certainly clever, but it was also a product desperately seeking a market. One pitch was aimed at lawyers:
Truly, with HP-01, you have a professional instrument capable of meeting a broad spectrum of your professional needs. It can handle everthing from remembering dates on the court calendar to calculating your time costs.

It can remind you of an important call up to four days in the future. And then tell you the number to call.

It can compute how much interest your money will earn or convert the time spent with clients into accurate calculations of fees.

In short, the professional applications are virtually unlimited.
With prices starting at $650 for the base model (more than $2500 today) the HP-01 was quite expensive. It was also bulky and rather tricky to use and despite its unique qualities, it was not a success. HP did experiment with an upgraded version, but in 1979 they threw in the towel and production of the HP-01 ceased. The HP-01 was Hewlett-Packard's first and last digital watch.

Today the HP-01 is a fairly rare device, with prices starting just shy of €1000 for one in a reasonable condition up to several thousand euro for really good models. Of course, any type of contemporary smartwatch is several orders of magnitude more powerful... but even those devices are still solutions looking for a problem.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Nokia 8800 Sirocco Gold (2007)

Nokia 8800 Sirocco Gold
Launched April 2007

A decade ago there were two approaches to making a high-end phone. You could either make a high-end smartphone with all the features that you could squeeze in, or you could take an existing phone and bling it up a bit. Nokia took the latter approach with the Nokia 8800 Siricco Gold.

The Nokia 8800 was always a high-end handset. The original 2005 version was launched at a price of around €800, and the 2006 "Sirocco" update was even more expensive. In 2007, a gold edition of the Sirocco was announced costing an eye-watering €1000 plus tax.

The most obvious feature was the 18 carat gold plating on top of the sliding metal case. The 8800 had always been a good looking handset, but not necessarily a very practical one. It wasn't a smartphone, instead this was a Series 40 feature phone lacking even 3G support. The scratch-resistant 1.7" 208 x 208 pixel display was pretty good for a feature phone, it had a two megapixel camera, Bluetooth and an FM radio. Although it could play MP3s, the storage capacity was just 128MB and there was no memory slot. On top of that it had some special ringtones, a charging stand and it came in a nice box.

Gold-plated phones polarise opinion. Some people think that they are elegant and attractive, others think they are tacky and rather gauche. Regardless, the 8800 was a carefully engineered product which would turn heads even in the plain stainless steel form.

OK, so it had a shiny yellow coating, the screen had sapphire glass and it was very carefully engineered... but underneath it was just a cheap and cheerful Series 40 feature phone with a very high price tag. So, almost inevitably there were forgeries..

There were three main ways to faking the 8800 Sirocco Gold. One was to start with the normal 8800 Sirocco and plate it in yellow metal. The second was to take another cheaper model of Nokia phone and to install the internal components and screen into a fake 8800 housing. Some even just fabricated a clone of the whole phone with a rip-off version of the OS. The last two techniques had been used for make fake 8800s ever since they came out.

Even today, the 8800 Sirocco Gold is a minefield for collectors with many fakes still in circulation. Prices on eBay vary wildly from less than €50 to over €1500 depending on condition, and it isn't easy on an auction site to tell a real one from a fake.

The 8800 wasn't the only massively expensive Nokia feature phone, as pretty much the entire Nokia-owned Vertu range pulled off the same trick but were even more exquisitely engineered and expensive. The 8800 Arte and 8800 Carbon Arte followed in late 2007 and 2008, and the similar 8600 Luna followed in May 2007. Even though there remains a market for low-tech high-end phones, most people these days would probably sooner have a good smartphone for the money instead.

Image source: Nokia

Monday, 10 April 2017

IBM PS/2 (1987)

Launched April 1987

In 1981 IBM launched its first mass-market microcomputer, the IBM PC. The upgraded XT followed in 1983 and in 1984 the significantly more advanced 286-based AT hit the market. Based mostly on off-the-shelf components, the IBM PC became a huge success.. but it didn't take long for upstart competitors to make computer that were either faster or cheaper than IBM's (often both).

With the PC, IBM had created a monster but they began to realize that they no longer controlled the monster. IBM's response was to try to create a new monster that it could control more easily. As a result they developed the IBM PS/2 and the OS/2 operating system. Neither succeeded.

IBM PS/2 range

There were technical limitations with the IBM PC. Essentially based on software and hardware rooted in the 1970s, IBM was looking forward to the 1990s. The idea with the PS/2 was to introduce multitasking, plug-and-play expansion cards, better memory management and of course more powerful processors. Obviously, these were things that customers wanted too - but IBM decided that customers didn't need much in the way of backwards compatibility, and customers decided that... well, they did actually... and they stayed away in droves.

It's easy to criticise IBM for wanting to push things forward even if customers were resistant, but the place IBM was in during the late 1980s was not the same place as Apple in the late 2010s. Companies such as Compaq could offer something better than the IBM PC while still being compatible, where the PS/2 wasn't. In changing direction, IBM lost what little control it still had over the PC marketplace.

The OS/2 operating system was late as well. Originally developed by both IBM and Microsoft the idea was to create a next-generation version of Windows based on the OS/2 core. However, the first really usable version of OS/2 appeared a year after the PS/2 leaving early versions of the hardware running IBM's version of MS-DOS (called PC-DOS). It took until the mid-1990s for OS/2 to become rather good with the launch of OS/2 Warp, but by that time it was competing against both Windows 95 and Windows NT.

The PS/2 soldiered on into the 1990s and it was accompanied by some desperate efforts by IBM to regain market share, such at the PC compatible PS/1, Aptiva, NetVista and ThinkCentre ranges. It took IBM nearly two decades to throw in the towel, divesting the PC business to Lenovo in 2005.

Oddly enough though, the PS/2 was hugely influential in other ways. The PS/2 introduced VGA graphics and the 15 pin D-type cable still seen today (just about), it helped popularise the 3.5" floppy drive and memory on 72-pin SIMM modules, and it created the mini-DIN connection for mice and keyboards commonly known as a PS/2 connector. All of these features ended up in the products of rivals. Not least the PS/2 range was nice to look at, giving a welcome boost to standards of industrial design.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Xerox 9700 (1977)

Launched 1977

Forty years ago we were seeing the start of a boom in personal computing.. but at the other end of the scale we were also seeing the dawn of digital imaging, in this case with laser printers.

The Xerox 9700 was launched in 1977, and although it lagged behind the IBM 3800, the Xerox was much closer to today's office laser printers than the IBM which was basically a very fast line printer. Capable of a maximum throughput of 120 pages per minute on cut sheet paper at up to 300 dpi, the Xerox 9700 could combine text and graphics in ways that hadn't previously been possible.

It was a big beast, which was understandable when you realise that it was basically three things joined together. Xerox took the guts of one of their own photocopiers and added a unit containing the laser and imaging system to it. Then they bolted a DEC PDP 11/34 to the whole thing to act as a controller. Sharp eyed readers may notice that in the picture the PDP 11 is being controlled by a Lear-Siegler ADM-3A.

Xerox 9700
It was huge and hardly cheap. Even in 1980 after it had been around for a while, the Xerox 9700 still started at $35,240 (worth about $100,000 today). It took about another decade for laser printers to hit the mass market with devices such as the Apple LaserWriter or HP LaserJet range.
Forty years later, Xerox still make printers including huge devices such as the Xerox Nuvera range which cost almost as much the 9700 did back in the day.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Apple iPad 3 (2012)

Apple iPad 3
Launched March 2012

It took a few attempts for Apple to get the iPad really right. As with the iPhone, it was the third generation of the device that really started to include all the features that customers wanted. It also introduced Apple's baffling way of naming the iPad that continues to this day.

Outwardly it was a black or white slabby thing that looked similar to previous generations, but this iPad was the first one to introduce the "retina display" seen in the iPhone 4. This meant that the resolution jumped to 1536 x 2048 pixels compared to just 768 x 1024 on previous generations. Apple had also realised that people actually took photos and videos with the iPad and fitted a decent 5 megapixel camera on the back rather than the pretty miserable 0.7 megapixel sensor on the iPad 2.

It was faster than the iPad 2 and the cellular version could support 4G LTE data. It was also thicker and heavier, but the price was the same as the iPad 2 when it launched. This improved version was a sales success - but it had the shortest lifespan of any iOS device, lasting just seven months until replaced by the iPad 4. As with most Apple products it received software updates over the years with the latest coming in August 2016.

Five years later and the current iPad is much the same, only lighter and faster than the iPad 3. But Apple actually dropped the generation of the iPad after the iPad 2 (the iPad 3 was never officially called that), and the 2017 iPad is also just called the "iPad" even though the previous models were the iPad Air and iPad Air 2. This is a bit confusing, as Apple insist on a generational name for each iPhone.

Because the iPad 3 is still very usable, prices for used models are quite strong with prices for a high-spec on being about €150 or so, compared to €400 for a base model of the current generation. It's not really a collectible device though nor can it run the latest version of iOS, however there are still probably millions of these in everyday use.

Image source: Apple

Monday, 20 March 2017

HTC Advantage X7500 and Shift X9500 (2007)

HTC Advantage X7500
Announced March 2007

Even before the launch of the iPhone a decade ago, one company was pioneering smartphones with a vision years ahead of everyone else. That company was HTC. In March 2007, just a few months after the launch of Apple's iconic device, HTC came up with a rather different vision of what it thought the future should be.

The HTC Advantage X7500 (sold under many names including the T-Mobile Ameo) pushed the boundaries of what a smartphone could be. The 5" VGA resolution display was enormous for the time, there was a QWERTY keyboard that was detachable and a then very impressive 8GB of internal storage and an internal hard disk (yes, made of spinning metal). This was a Windows Mobile 5.0 device, and it also supported HSDPA and WiFi data, had GPS, a TV output, came with a 3 megapixel primary camera and VGA camera for video calling and had a microSD slot. Inside was a 624 MHz Intel Xscale processor with 128MB of RAM. In hardware terms it completely stomped over the iPhone, but it was two-and-a-half times the weight. It was quite an expensive device at about €850 SIM-free (€200 more than an unlocked iPhone) but it was pretty obviously a premium product.

It wasn't a huge sales success, but it is credited by some as helping to popularise big-screen smartphones. In 2008 HTC followed it up with the X7510 with more storage and Windows Mobile 6.0. Today you can pick up either model for around €50 to €70 for an unlocked version.

HTC Shift X9500
Launched the same month was the HTC Shift X9500. Sporting a 7" WVGA touchscreen, the Shift was actually an ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) with some clever tricks up it's sleeve but an eye-watering price-tag to match. The Shift could boot into either Windows Vista (which probably really, really counted against it in the long run) or an application called SnapVUE which was basically a specially-written mobile operating system. In order to accommodate these two OSes, the Shift required both an Intel x86 processor for Windows and an ARM11 CPU for SnapVUE. It came with a 40 or 60GB hard disk, a microSD slot, HSDPA and 3G data plus WiFi, a fingerprint reader and 1GB of RAM. Priced in the US at about $1500, when it finally did get to market in 2008 it was four times the price of a 7" Asus EEE PC.

It took a long time to come to market. It was not a sale success, but the 7" format ended up being a popular size for the tablets that were to come a few years later. But neither Windows Vista nor Windows Mobile 5.0 were ever really popular platforms, but eventually HTC switched its emphasis from Windows and produced the first Android smartphone. But that it another story.

Image source: HTC

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Apple eMate 300 (1997)

Apple eMate 300
The history of Apple stretches back four decades. Sandwiched between the early successes of the 1970s to early 1980s and later dominance of the company in the twenty-first century, there was a long period during which Apple lost direction and at various points it seemed the company had no future.

One product from these years of doldrums was the MessagePad line, often simply known as the "Apple Newton" after the unique operating system. A tablet-sized device originally launched in 1993, the original MessagePad was an interesting idea, but it was too far ahead of the available technology to really be a success.

In March 1997 the most unusual addition to this range was launched - the eMate 300. Where previous MessagePads used a stylus and handwriting recognition, the eMate 300 was a different beast with a physical QWERTY keyboard housed in a colourful, oversized clamshell case. The eMate 300 was designed for use in schools, and the simple-to-use operating system and relatively inexpensive price tag (compared to other Apple products) along with the tough and rather funky green case reflected this. In many ways, the eMate 300 was a reflection of the original Mac when it came to being an all-in-one computing appliance.

The screen was a 6.8" 480 x 320 greyscale panel, a bit smaller than the display in an iPad mini but in a much bigger case. Users could store data on special flash memory cards, and there were various expansion capabilities including a PCMCIA slot. The CPU was a 25 MHz ARM 710 unit, perhaps foreshadowing the huge popularity of ARM processors in mobile devices today.

Although the eMate 300 was available for sale through educational channels only, some found their way into other applications. It was an interesting device, but it never reached its full potential and in February 1998 the recently-returned Steve Jobs killed the entire MessagePad / Newton product line.

The legacy of the MessagePad line is fairly obvious - the iPad and iPhone. The translucent case idea found critical acclaim with the original iMac, which helped to reverse Apple's declining fortunes. These days the eMate 300 is pretty much forgotten, due in part that it only really sold in educational circles and even those seemed to be in the United States only. These days there are quite a few eMate 300s available, with prices topping out at $150 or so for a good one.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Ten years of "Google Phone" rumours

Just over ten years ago, Apple announced the first iPhone. But shortly after that rumours started to swirl that Google was working on a platform of its own. The then managing director of Google Iberia laid out plans to Spanish news site Noticias which presumably were meant to be a secret.

The general manager of Google Spain confirms that the company is working on the development of a mobile phone

14/03/07 - Estefanía Pérez
Isabel Aguilera, General Manager of Google in Spain and Portugal, has confirmed to that the company is working, "among others", in the development of a mobile phone. "A part of the time of our engineers we have dedicated to the investigation of a mobile phone to access information," Aguilera said.

Speculation about Google's possible entry into the area of ​​mobile phone design and sales came after the company recently posted a job advertisement seeking engineers and analysts in the telecommunications industry. In that same claim, Google specified that it is undergoing experimentation with various wireless communications systems.

In a conference on the integration of the Internet into business strategy, organized by the Association for the Progress of Mediterranean Area Management, Isabel Aguilera explained to that while 70% of engineers' time is spent "To develop our core business, that is, search and advertising," and 20% to develop "products that have enough to do with this core," it is true that 10% of that time is focused on development Of products "that at some point could have to do with our business."

Within this last area, Aguilera has indicated that "it has been investigated" in a mobile phone through which you can "access information", as well as "how to extend the information society in less developed economies ". In this sense, the Director General of Google in Spain and Portugal has pointed out that although "there may be products that may seem strange, they are all part of our innovation process."

At the moment, the search engine has 36 products and "18 others that are in the laboratory" and, therefore, undergoing experimentation, among which would be the mobile phone.

At the time we speculated over the possible features of a Google phone, and concluded that it would probably be a Linux-based phone with applications tightly integrated into Google services such as Gmail, Maps and Calendar once the user had logged in with their Google account. This seamless connectivity seemed pretty advanced for the time, but it is essentially what Google delivered.

We also speculated about possible partners, and in the end we thought the Nokia was the most likely.. but in the end they were one of the few major manufacturers not on board. It took another eight months for an official announcements to come out, naming the operating system as Android and the first handset (the T-Mobile G1) appeared in September 2008, a year and a half after the first rumours.

Almost immediately after Android came to market, it began to fragment with manufacturers doing their own thing. Google responded to this problem in 2010 with the first of a series of "Nexus" devices made with various partners, and in 2016 it went the whole way and launched a phone in it's own right, the Google Pixel.

T-Mobile G1 (2008)
In 2017 around nine out of ten new smartphones run Android, and almost all the rest are iPhones. Windows, BlackBerry and other platforms have been squeezed out almost completely, and profit margins have been squeezed too. Apple seems to be the only company consistently making any money, but as far as consumers are concerned Android has brought a huge variety of choice for people on all sorts of budgets and has helped to transform mobile computing completely.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Nokia 6310i (2002)

Nokia 6310i (Silver)
Announced March 2002

There was some excitement last month over the supposed relaunch of the Nokia 3310. Although the 3310 was a popular consumer handset of the early noughties, business users had a similar love for the Nokia 6310i, launched in March 2002.

Quite a bit taller than most competing phones, most of the front of the device was taken up by an ergonomically-designed keypad with a 96 x 60 pixel monochrome display on the top with tasteful blue backlighting. The 6310i supported tri-band GSM, GPRS data, Java, infra-red connectivity and crucially it came with Bluetooth which made it ideal for business users.. in fact, Mercedes even supplied built-in cradles for this exact model of phone. The two most common colours where an attractive two-tone silver and a fairly foul black-and-gold.

Nokia 6310i (Black)

Like the 3310 it was robust and had an excellent battery life with over two weeks standby time and a maximum of six hours talktime. Snake and a couple of other games gave a nod towards non-work use, but it certainly couldn't play music and it didn't even come with a camera. Much more flexible than the 3310, it had some fairly useful personal information management tools built-in, and the inclusion of Java meant that new applications could be downloaded.

It was a hugely popular phone.. and this wasn't an accident. Nokia spent a great deal of time and effort researching what business customers wanted and they delivered exactly that. Even after the phone was discontinued in 2005 it was still in demand, and indeed today a "new old stock" or refurbished can range in price from between €150 to €400 or even more. Not bad for a fifteen year old phone that was not exactly rare.

Nokia could never quite repeat the success of the 6310i, although devices such as as the E50 came close in concept. And eventually the market moved on, within a few short years business users wanted email which led to the rapid growth of BlackBerry.

Image credit: Nokia

Apple Macintosh II and Macintosh SE (1987)

Apple Macintosh SE
Announced March 1987

Announced thirty years ago this month and three years after the original Mac, the Macintosh II and Macintosh SE both improved Apple's lineup, but in different ways.

The most obviously "Mac-like" one of the pair was the SE, which was actually the fifth classic Mac in the range (after the 128K, 512K and 512Ke and the Plus) and the first one to have an internal expansion slot ("SE" stood for "System Expansion"). As with the Mac Plus, the SE included an external SCSI port which was primarily used for mass storage devices. Inside was the familiar 68000 CPU clocked at 7.8MHz with 1MB of RAM as standard (upgradeable to 4MB) and there was an optional 20MB hard drive as well.

The Macintosh II was a very different proposition from the Classic Mac. The first colour Mac, the Mac II was also the first in the line to have the monitor and computer in separate boxes. Inside this was a 68020 CPU running at 16MHz with 1MB of RAM supplied as standard (expandable to 8MB). Monitors came in either 12" or 13" versions and could display up to 640 x 480 pixels in 256 colours, which was impressive for the time. The Mac II also had several internal expansion slots and could support a 40MB or 80MB hard disk in standard configurations.

Apple Macintosh II

Both devices were expensive, the SE starting at $2900 for a basic version with no hard drive, and the II coming in at a whopping $5500 or so. For the equivalent 2017 price you can basically double that.

The Mac II in particular was very much against the "computing appliance" idea that Steve Jobs championed with the original Mac, but he had been forced out of the company in 1985. At the time though, the Mac II didn't really have much competition apart from high-end workstations and probably the closest competition was the Commodore Amiga.  These two products heralded a period of strong revenue growth that came to an abrupt end in the mid 1990s, but despite that Apple became increasingly sidelined against IBM PC compatibles.

Today you can pick up Mac SEs of varying quality and specification for about €150 and upwards, the Macintosh II is a much rarer beast and is hard to put a price on.