Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Exidy Sorcerer (1978)

Launched April 1978

By 1978 the nascent microcomputer market was dominated by a combination of Apple, Commodore and Radio Shack. And although the Apple II, PET and TRS-80 were hugely more usable than previous generations, there was still room for improvement.

Exidy was a US-based video game manufacturer that looked at what was on the market, and decided they could do better. This led to the Exidy Sorcerer computer which was launched in April 1978 – a machine that was indeed better in many ways than the competition, but it turned out that this wasn’t enough to make it a success.

The Sorcerer was a Z80-based computer, and this meant that it could potentially run the industry standard CP/M operating system and Microsoft Basic. As well as using cassette tape, the Sorcerer could also load programs in from a cartridge (housed in an 8-track tape box) called a ROM-PAC. An optional S-100 expansion box gave the Sorcerer the ability to use industry-standard peripherals.

Out of the box, the Sorcerer was an all-on-one unit integrated into the keyboard with a composite video output, parallel and serial ports, cassette interface and expansion bus. The keyboard was a higher quality unit than most, and it came with a numeric keypad.

Exidy tried to make graphics a strong point, and the Sorcerer had a 512x240 screen resolution, but with some quirks. Firstly it was monochrome only (which was odd for a videogame company), but furthermore utilising the capabilities of the display had to be done through user-definable characters rather than the pixels being individually addressable directly. One other odd missing feature was sound, although many users managed to rig up something rudimentary using the parallel port.

The character set was a strong point – in addition to the standard ASCII characters, there were a set of characters that could be redefined by the user. This allowed a great deal of flexibility for games, and it also meant that the Sorcerer could support foreign languages.

Exidy understood the value of export markets for their video games, and they applied the same principles to the Sorcerer, shipping it worldwide. It turned out not to be a huge hit in the United States in the end, but was very popular in Australia and some parts of Europe – in part due the programmable character sets.

The Sorcerer had a relatively short life span, being produced from 1978 to 1980… except for the Netherlands where a firm called Compudata continued to build the Sorcerer under licence for years afterwards. By a twist of history, Compudata became Tulip in 1987 and it acquired the pioneering Commodore brand in 1997.

The Sorcerer is an interesting example of something that was good enough to become a major player, but didn’t quite succeed.  Today, the Exidy Sorcerer is a pretty rare find, with prices for a really good example being $1000 or more. Perhaps it won’t wow your geek friends as much as an Apple II, TRS-80 or PET… but you’ll know that you have something just a little bit more special.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Fiat Multipla (1998)

Introduced April 1998

The Fiat Multipla polarised opinions when it was first seen in 1998… and 20 years later it STILL polarises opinions. This weird-looking compact MPV didn’t look like anything else, both on the outside and the inside. When it first came out, people would stare at it… the strangely bulbous design looked rather fish-like and actually distracted from a rather brilliantly practical design.

Inside the Multipla featured six seats – three in the front and three in the back. This unusual layout meant that the Multipla was both wider and shorter than the saloon car it was based on… and a lot taller. Oh and a lot more weird looking, obviously.

It wasn’t the first car to bear the “Multipla” name, in the 1950s Fiat also produced a six-seat version of the diminutive Fiat 600. That was also a clever use of space, and like its 1990s descendant the original was also a very odd looking vehicle, with the 1950s version looking a bit like a mollusc. And it also looked like it was designed back-to-front.

The Multipla was incredibly practical, good to drive and had bags of space in the well-designed and rather funky interior. When launched in 1999 it got plenty of attention, but it sold only moderately well. The rival Opel / Vauxhall Zafira with rather more traditional styling consistently outsold the Multipla in Europe by a ratio of about five to one.

A redesign in 2004 gave the Multipla a more conservative front end, but the rest of the car kept its characteristic design. This lead to something that looked rather unbalanced, however it did result in a slight uptick in sales. Production ceased in 2010.

In the UK the Multipla was never a particularly common car, with a peak of 16,000 being on the road in 2007. By late 2017 nearly three-quarters of those cars were no longer on the road, but this relative rarity (especially of the original models) does mean that the remarkable design of twenty years ago does still seem fresh and very radical when you actually see one.

Electrical gremlins and a flimsy interior seem to be the main issues to look out for. And the door and window seals. And indeed a whole bunch of other mechanical issues, but the chances are if you love the car you won’t care. Prices for the original more funky model start at little over £1000. The Mutlipla adapts well to taking a wheelchair as well, so these are usually available.

Although the Multipla was a remarkable car which created a buzz, it was not the sales success that Fiat desperately needed. In 2007 though Fiat again resurrected an old nameplate, but this time the Fiat 500 was an enormous success which really did turn around the company’s fortunes.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Nescafé (1938)

Nescafé advertisement, circa 1938
Introduced April 1938

Coffee is a complicated thing, both in terms of the effort of making a cup and how different societies treat coffee as a drink. For example, there’s a sharp dividing line between countries that prefer instant coffee (which are mostly tea-drinking countries) and those that don’t. In the UK and Australia about three quarters of coffee consumed is instant, in the USA it is less than 10% and in Italy just 1%.

For drinkers of instant coffee, a landmark product was released in April 1938 – Nescafé. Instant coffee had been around for a few decades in various forms, with the most popular being G. Washington’s Instant Coffee, but early instant coffees were not very good.

In the 1930s, Brazilian coffee growers were having a hard time finding markets for all the coffee they were growing. They approach Swiss food manufacturers Nestlé who researched the problem over several year, but they weren’t able to create the product they wanted and gave up development in 1935. However, one of their scientists – Max Morgenthaler – continued to research the problem as a side project. In 1936 he cracked the problem, but it took two more years for the product to come to market.

To make Nescafé, Nestlé used a new process which involved drying liquid coffee mixed with soluble carbohydrates to gives a product that made a reasonable cup of coffee when hot water was added. Although it’s not the process that most instant coffees uses today, the original Nescafé was a significant step forward.

Nescafé advertisement circa 1956
Success came from a slightly unexpected direction. The US Army had recognised coffee as being important to the troops for years, and this new easy-to-use instant coffee was just the thing they were looking for. Nestlé set up factories in the United States to make the stuff, and it was shipped out to US troops worldwide in huge quantities. Where the British would still stop for a tea break in the middle of battle, the Americans were powered by large quantities of instant coffee.

Although it was the American Army who popularised the product, it was the British who took to it at home with them. And then the Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Turks and Russians… all countries where tea is popular.

In the 1960s, freeze dried instant coffee was developed which was a much better product, and other advances in quality and formulation followed. Despite the sharp split in popularity between different countries, sales of instant coffee are still growing strongly worldwide. And of course, Nescafé still has a very significant share of the market, which isn’t bad for a project they gave up on.

Image credits: [1] [2]
© Nestlé S.A.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

HTC First (2013)

HTC Worst.. err, First
Launched April 2013

In 2013 HTC was firmly established as a leading maker of Android smartphones. At the same time, Facebook was experience a huge surge in popularity, signing up its billionth user a few months previously. Creating a product that combined a good quality Android handset with an unrivalled social networking experience should have been a huge success, but instead it ended up as a huge disaster.

The device in question was the HTC First, a decent and inexpensive midrange handset with an excellent 4.3” display and a rather pleasing minimalist design (or you might just call it “boring”). The software that made it different from other Androids was Facebook Home which replaced pretty much the entire Android experience with Facebook instead.

Facebook Home’s lock screen displayed notifications from the owner’s Facebook feed, and opening the phone would lead to an advanced Facebook app rather than Android. More immersive than the standard Facebook app, Home included features such as “Chat Heads” which meant that you could talk to a friend while using another app.

There were a few disadvantages – one of which was that Home relegated the usual Android interface and apps to a back burner. The HTC First also suffered from a poor camera and limited non-expandable internal memory. But overall the package looked like it would appeal to those consumers who were glued to Facebook all the time. More to the point, HTC had previously had a minor success with a couple of other Facebook-y phones, so it wasn’t a complete shot in the dark.

The HTC First and Facebook Home launched amid much publicity in April 2013. The plan was that AT&T in the US would get the device first, followed by selected other carriers worldwide. AT&T offered the first at $99.99 with a two-year contract, which was pretty decent value. Everybody seemed to be expecting the First to sell well. It didn’t.

AT&T found that the handset wasn’t shifting, so they dropped the price to 99 cents after a few weeks. But then it still didn’t shift, and after selling reportedly less than 15,000 units despite the price drop it was dropped by AT&T. Despite Facebook and HTC claiming that the worldwide rollout was “delayed”, the device was cancelled amid much blood-letting and both HTC and Facebook.

In short, the HTC First and Facebook Home were a disaster. What seemed like a good idea at the time just didn’t appeal to consumers, who even five years ago were worried about the privacy implications of a device running Facebook all the time. Even for die-hard Facebook fans the interface was just too much Facebook, too much of the time.

The First lasted for about a month, Facebook Home limped on until January 2014 when Facebook stopped updating it. In the long run the fiasco didn’t do Facebook a lot of harm, but it didn’t provide the turnaround in fortunes that HTC needed and in 2018 HTC divested part of its smartphone business to Google – but ask Motorola how Google’s previous adventure in that field turned out.

Product tour

You might guess that we're not monster fans of Facebook by the following product tour we made at the HTC First's launch.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Samsung Galaxy S4 (2013)

Samsung Galaxy S4
Announced March 2013

After three years and four versions, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S range had become firmly established as the Android device that all other manufacturers had to beat. Launched in March 2013, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is perhaps as close as you can get to an archetypical Samsung smartphone.

Launched in March 2013, the hardware was first class and was easily better than the rival iPhone 5 in every respect. The Galaxy S4 a 5” full HD display, 13 megapixel primary camera, quad or octa-core CPU with 2GB of RAM, expandable memory, 4G LTE support, wireless charging and a whole raft of sensors including a barometer and humidity sensor. Nothing else came close, and the iPhone 5 looked like it was a couple of generations behind.

The operating system was Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) out of the box, but Samsung did their usual thing of adding a whole bunch of their own software on top, not all of which was terribly useful. This “bloatware” was annoying to many customers at the time, and it is still annoying for Samsung customers five years later.

So the hardware was good, the software bloat was bad… but there was an ugly side to the Galaxy S4 too. No, not its conservative slab-like design (also a feature of Samsung smartphones) but its apparent propensity for catching fire, made worse by apparent attempts to cover the problem up. These problems didn’t go away either, eventually leading to the catastrophic launch of the Galaxy Note 7 in 2016.

In terms of industrial design the Galaxy S4 has all the charm of a microwave oven, but even five years on the hardware is still pretty powerful. Smartphone tinkerers can pick up a decent used one for about €100 and then upgrade it to the more modern LineageOS 14.1 (based on Android 7.1.2)


We made a video when the Galaxy S4 launched exploring some more of its features and comparing it to the previous models, if you want a further trip down memory lane.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Toyota Hilux (1968)

Toyota Hilux N10 circa 1968
Introduced March 1968

The idea of creating a car-like light truck with a flatbed loading area been around for more than 100 years. Eventually termed “pickup trucks”, these vehicles were at first popular workhorses but eventually they also became “lifestyle vehicles” as well.

Although the Ford F-Series is probably the most famous range of pickups in the US (and sales are protected through the curiously named “Chicken Tax”), the Toyota Hilux – introduced in March 1968 – is probably the most famous worldwide. Now in its eighth generation, the Hilux can be found all over the world performing a huge variety of tasks. And somewhere along the way, the Hilux became a bit of a legend.

Back in 1968 Toyota’s main pickup offering had the rather unexciting name of the “Stout”. As the name implies the Stout was rather utilitarian inside, so making a more luxurious sibling wasn’t hard. Even so, calling it “Hi-Lux” was a bit cheeky.

The Hilux was a huge success and became Toyota’s main pickup offering (the Stout ceased production in 1989). Fifty years later and the Hilux is in its eighth generation and has a reputation for reliability and versatility which sees it everywhere from being a dependable workhorse for all sorts of enterprises to a popular choice for armed insurgents in the guise of the “Technical”.

Prices for classic Toyotas are strong, but finding a vintage Hilux is hard. A modern one will cost you upwards of £20,000 new – if you can find an original 1968 Hilux N10 then expect to pay much more.


Saturday, 3 March 2018

Orac (1978)

Introduced March 1978

Forty years ago this month the British public got their first glimpse of a computer system so advanced that it put everything else to shame. Invented by a brilliant computer scientist called Ensor, Orac was a sophisticated artificial intelligence system which was adept at both speech synthesis and speech recognition, could control any other computer, and it all came in handily transportable transparent box.

You might think that this sounded a bit more complex than (say) a contemporary RM 380Z, and you would be right. Orac was in fact a fictional computer from the cult BBC TV Show Blake’s 7, and was clearly just a Perspex box with some flashing lights and odds and ends inside it.

Debuting in the final episode of the first series, Orac became a key member of the cast. Short tempered, irascible and often unpleasant to deal with, Orac was probably marginally nicer to use that Windows 8. But not much.

Blake’s 7 itself was a low budget but thoughtful space opera, featuring a dysfunctional group of resistance fighters battling against a powerful and corrupt Federation, using a salvaged alien spaceship with a grumpy computer of its very own – by the name of Zen.

Inspired by the show and the advanced but oddly uncooperative technology, the names “Orac” and “Zen” were adopted by a generation of computer scientists who would apply these liberally to computer systems of the time.

These days of course voice-controlled and somewhat unhelpful computer systems are commonplace, but in 1978 they seemed to be very futuristic. Just not a future many of us would like to be living in. The closest modern equivalent to Orac might be the Amazon Echo, however for a bit more you could buy yourself a Baby Orac replica instead… and although it might not do as much, it is probably much cooler.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Apple Macintosh Colour Classic (1993)

Mac Colour Classic (1993)
Launched February 1993

Nine years after the launch of the original Macintosh, Apple launched the Macintosh Colour Classic (or “Color” for colonials) which was the final generation of compact Mac. Well, sort of.

The Colour Classic was perhaps the machine the original Mac should have been. The obvious technical difference here being that the Colour Classic was a colour Mac, unlike all the previous monochrome Classic models. The display was a little larger at 10”, and the all-in-one case had been redesigned to give it a more contemporary look.

Inside the Colour Classic was an expansion slot which could take an Apple IIe card, allowing the Colour Classic to run Apple II programs. This feature was primarily designed to get the Colour Classic into schools where (especially in the US) the Apple II was still very popular. Despite being launched more than a decade and a half earlier, the Apple II was still in production (in the IIe form) mostly for the education market.

The card had an odd trick of allowing the Colour Classic to run at 560 x 384 pixel resolution (better than the 512 x 384 standard Mac capabilities) to help with emulating the Apple IIe’s 280 x 192 pixel resolution by providing exactly four times the pixel count. However, the Colour Classic could not run many native colour Mac games which required a higher resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, making the Colour Classic somewhat flawed in this respect.

Despite running a 68030 CPU, the performance of the Colour Classic was not as good at the SE/30 introduced four years earlier. The performance problems were caused in part because the Colour Classic was essentially a Macintosh LC II shoehorned into the all-in-one case, and the LC II was a lemon of an Apple, basically.

Despite these limitations the Colour Classic succeeded in selling well into education markets and was also a hit in Japan. Later in 1993 an upgraded version – the Colour Classic II – was introduced in non-US markets which fixed many of the performance problems.

It’s quite a collectable device today, with prices for standard systems starting at around €400 or so with “Mystic” upgrades (essentially the innards of an LC 575) being about €100 more.  “Takky” upgrades with even later motherboards in can cost much more. Today

Image credit: Mystère Martin via Wikimedia Commons

Nokia 8110 (1996) vs Nokia 8110 (2018)

Nokia 8110 (1996)
Nokia is of course a familiar name to our readers, but the phones branded “Nokia” today are actually the product of HMD Global who work with Nokia to design and produce phones. The bulk of their output is a series of rather well-regarded and inexpensive Android smartphones along with a range of cheap feature phones. A year ago they caused a stir by launching a reimagined version of the classic Nokia 3310, and this year they are doing it again with a remake of the Nokia 8110.

We’ve covered the Nokia 8110 on Retromobe before, launched in 1996 it gained the somewhat cruel nickname “Banana Phone”, but it was made famous and rather cool when it appeared in The Matrix.

The key feature was the slide-down cover which contained a microphone. This protected the keypad when not in use, and it was meant to make the user’s voice carry better. Nobody had made a phone like this, and it was certainly different from the brick-like handsets of the time. There wasn’t much else going on – it had a small monochrome graphical display, supported GSM voice calls and apart from a neat little desk mount that really was about it.

Fast forward 22 years and the Banana Phone is back, and this time it is actually available in bright yellow as well as a more sober black colour. The new 8110 isn’t a smartphone, but can be considered as an advanced feature phone that is rather interesting under the hood.

The new 8110 looks quite contemporary, taking Nokia’s current styling cues from the rest of the range. On the top is a 2.4” QVGA TFT display which is a pretty familiar feature for this type of device. There’s a 2 megapixel camera with geotagging and a flash on the back and a secondary one for video calling. Inside Is 4GB of storage plus a microSD slot, and there’s a media player and FM radio.

Nokia 8110 (2018)

So far, so much like any other feature phone. But here is where it is unexpected – the 8110 is a 4G LTE device as well as having 3.5G HSPA and 2G support. On top of that the 8110 has WiFi and GPS, and you can use it as a mobile hotspot. The processor is no slouch either, with a dual core 1.1GHz CPU couple with 512MB of RAM which is plenty. The 8110 takes a microSD card and is available in single SIM and dual SIM configurations.

The surprises go on. Unlike most of the current crop of Nokia feature phones, the 8110 ditches the Series 30+ OS and instead uses on operating system called KaiOS. KaiOS is derived from the defunct Firefox OS, and it represents a lightweight and somewhat extensible operating system that makes this feature phone just a little bit smarter. An application store allows access to apps for Google Maps, Facebook and Twitter and the 8110 also syncs with major email systems.

It may not be as sophisticated as a smartphone, but at €79 before tax and subsidy it is a lot cheaper than almost all of those (except the Nokia 1 perhaps). The quoted standby time of 600 hours with 11 hours talktime from the 1500 mAh battery is another attractive feature. This is a device that you can easily carry around alongside your power-hungry smartphone while travelling, for example

Due to hit the shops in April, the 8110 may end up a hit in the same way that the 3310 did, showing that there is some appetite for these practical and rather knowingly retro devices. If you are after an ORIGINAL 8110, then prices are quite healthy at around €150 for unlocked versions in good condition, about twice that of the “new” one. Why not treat yourself to both?

Image credits: Nokia and HMD Global

Saturday, 24 February 2018

HP DeskJet (1988)

HP DeskJet 500 circa 1990
Introduced February 1988

Thirty years ago if you wanted to print something from a computer, your main choices were a high-quality but expensive and quite large laser printer, or a cheap but slow, clunky and incredibly noisy dot matrix printer. If these didn’t work for you and you still needed high-quality printing you might still have to resort to an old-fashioned daisy wheel printer instead.

But there was another option, and in February 1988 Hewlett-Packard introduced the HP DeskJet – a desktop printer with quality almost as good as a laser printer but for a fraction of the price. It wasn’t the first inkjet printer, and indeed HP themselves had been marketing the ThinkJet range for several years, but that was little more than a dot matrix printer with an inkjet head in it.

Like laser printers, but unlike most dot matrix printers and even the ThinkJet range, the DeskJet was built only to handle cut sheet paper. Compact enough and quiet enough to be sat on a desk next to a computer, the DeskJet was ideally suited to small offices or home environments. It was an immediate hit with customers.

Early DeskJets were not without their problems. A lot of office paper was designed for typing or photocopiers, and some coped poorly with the ink from inkjet printers. Complex graphics could be a problem on early units due to hardware and software limitations, and although rated at the same 300 dpi as HP’s laser printers, even in the best cases the quality did not stand up to a close comparison. The water-based ink tended to take a long time to drive and would run if the paper got wet. But at around a third of the cost of a LaserJet II, the DeskJet seemed a good value proposition.

But then (as know) one of the drawbacks of inkjet printing was the price of cartridges. Inkjet printing was much more expensive than laser printing, and those slow and noisy dot matrix printers cost next to nothing in ribbons. However, thirty years later these ink cartridges are still available with prices at around £30 to £50.

Subsequent generations of DeskJet added colour, network printing, full duplex capability and more. These days you can buy an HP DeskJet 2130 multifunction printer for around £40, although a replacement set of ink cartridges for than will cost more than £20. The lasting commercial success of the DeskJet range is remarkable and it certainly introduced a significant step forward in affordable printing for many people.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Samsung G810 vs Sony Ericsson G900 (2008)

Samsung G810
Launched February 2008

Today we are used to the idea of smartphones being a big slab of metal, glass and plastic with the capability to do just about anything. A decade ago, most smartphones were rather more modest and traditional affairs, looking like everyday feature phones on the surface but with a cleverer operating system underneath.

Almost all these simple smartphones ran some version of Symbian, and of course the undisputed king of Symbian devices was Nokia. But they weren’t they only players in the Symbian game, and in February 2008 both Samsung and Sony Ericsson launched new smartphones using that platform.

Samsung isn’t a name you’d readily associate with Symbian, but they actually made eleven handsets between 2007 and 2009 (excluding the cancelled D710 from 2004). The Samsung G810 was quite a high-end slider phone, seemingly aimed at the market the Nokia N95 appealed to.

The G810 was a 3.5G capable device with WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, an FM radio, 2.6” QVGA display, a microSD slot and it came with a 5 megapixel camera which unusually featured an optical zoom. The operating system was Samsung’s take on Symbian S60, meaning that it functioned very much in the same way as rivals from Nokia.

The elegant metal case and sliding mechanism was quite unlike anything Nokia had, but overall it wasn’t that different from the N95 and the newer N95 8GB came with a bigger screen and lots of built-in memory. The G810 wasn’t good enough to compete, and it was not a success.

Sony Ericsson G900
If you wanted Symbian with a touchscreen then this was a different proposition, and here it was Sony Ericsson’s UIQ platform that dominated. One of a pair of similar devices launched the same month, the Sony Ericsson G900 also competed against the N95.

Also featuring WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, an FM radio and memory slot the G900 lacked GPS. The display was smaller than the N95 8GB or Samsung G810 at just 2.4” – but this was a touchscreen affair with a stylus, or alternatively you could just use the buttons.

Although Sony Ericsson had made many UIQ phones before, the software on the G900 wasn’t quite the same. This meant that you couldn’t just port applications over from other UIQ phones. Another weakness was the proprietary nature of the Sony Memory Stick Micro slot. But perhaps the biggest problem of all was the 2.4” display which was small for a smartphone even by 2008 standards.

As you might guess, a tiny touchscreen phone didn’t really have much shelf appeal and the G900 and its companion G700 were not very popular.

The Sony Ericsson G900 is a pretty uncommon device these days with prices coming in between €100 to €200, the Samsung G810 seems to be pretty much extinct.

Image credits: Sony Ericsson and Samsung Mobile

Monday, 19 February 2018

Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 vs Toshiba Portégé G910/G920 (2008)

Launched February 2008

Back in February 2008 there were two key competitors in the touchscreen smartphone market: Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 6 and Sony Ericsson’s Symbian-based UIQ. Windows was the more popular of the two, even though its user interface was a pretty horrible attempt to emulate the desktop environment on a pocket device.

Sure, Apple had launched the iPhone the previous year with a slick new interface, but it hadn’t really made much of a market impact at this point. Android was in the pipeline, but still a long way off. So at this point in time, it was really Microsoft who had the dominant position in this market.

Launched at roughly the same time, the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 and Toshiba Portégé G910 and G920 were both quite similar devices from well-known names in the industry. But what was a typical high-end Windows smartphone like in 2008?
Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1

Let’s start with the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1  - this was the very first “Xperia” smartphone, but where all modern ones run Android, this one ran Windows Mobile 6.1 instead. Featuring a 3” WVGA display (which was large for the time), the X1 also had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, 3.5G data, WiFi, GPS and pretty much everything that you would find in a smartphone today. Unusually, the X1 also had a microSD slot rather than using Sony’s Memory Sticks… and this was a clue that the X1 wasn’t really a Sony Ericsson at all.

In fact, the XPERIA X1 had been designed and built by rival firm HTC who were experts in making Windows Devices. HTC had been making quite a name for themselves, so the decision to compete with themselves with the X1 was a strange one.

Some work had gone into making the Windows user-experience a better one, with a tile-based application launcher. It was quite a stylish device too, although the slide-out keyboard did add substantially to its bulk.

At the time of launch, the X1’s overall package was better than almost anything else on the market, but by the time it actually went on sale in October 2008 it was beginning to look a little dated. It was something of a success though, and in 2009 it was followed up by XPERIA X2 which was less of a success. Sony Ericsson moved away from Windows to concentrate on Android devices, but it did produce the BlackBerry-like Aspen in 2010 which rather sank without trace.

Toshiba G9-something-or-other
Toshiba made a huge effort in February 2008, launching the esoteric G450 along with the compact Windows-based G710 and G810. However, at the top end was the Portégé G910/G920 which had a pretty similar configuration to the XPERIA X1, but perhaps more aimed as being a laptop replacement than a high-end smartphone.

A clamshell device rather than a slide, the G910 and G920 also had a 3” WVGA display, 3.5G support and WiFi. The G920 had enhanced GPS functionality over the G910, but overall both featured almost everything you’d expect to see in a modern smartphone.

The Toshiba was even more bulky than the Sony Ericsson but it was much smaller than even Toshiba’s smallest laptops. The OS was plain old Windows Mobile 6 with no custom interface on top, although Toshiba did include the useful Opera web browser as standard

Toshiba had been trying to break into the mobile phone market for years, but except for Japan they had not had much success. Toshiba would give up trying to compete a few years after this, before attempting and failing to break into the tablet market. In the years past that, Toshiba continued to slide – even pulling out of consumer laptops, a market that it had once been a major player in.

In the end, neither device changed the world, although the XPERIA X1 did give Sony Ericsson (and later Sony by themselves) the impetus needed to concentrate on touch-screen smartphones. The  Portégé range couldn’t help stop Toshiba’s decline though. And today Windows Phone is an endangered species, for all its charms.

For collectors, the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1 is commonly available for around €40 or so unlocked. The Toshiba Portégé G910 and G920 is much rarer with prices at around €100 for collectors of esoteric Windows devices.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Onyx Liscio vs Toshiba G450 (2008)

Toshiba G450
Launched February 2008

These days we are used to phones getting bigger and bigger, a trend started by the iPhone and its successors. But ten years ago there was still a trend to make phones smaller with each generation, and the Toshiba G450 and Onyx Liscio are examples of that.

The Toshiba G450 remains one of the weirdest phones ever. This tiny 57 gram phone featured two circular keypads and a tiny 0.8” display. Although the MP3 capabilities and 160MB of memory gave it some basic capabilities as a media player, the G450 was actually designed for something else.

In the days before ubiquitous WiFi and smartphone tethering, if you wanted to get your laptop online on the move you would often use a 3G dongle that you would plug into a USB port. Basically, the G450 was exactly that… but a dongle that you could make phone calls on. 3.5G data support meant that it was practical to use for mobile data, but you could also use it for basic phone functions if you needed to.

A similar size but with a different emphasis, the Onyx Liscio was designed to be a fully-featured 2G phone that you would use as a second handset when you didn’t want to take your main one – for example, on a night out.

Onyx Liscio

The screen was only a little larger than the Toshiba, but the 1.1” screen was an OLED display which was still quite rare. Unlike the G450, the Liscio also supported Bluetooth and had a microSD slot, but it didn’t support 3G data.

Priced at about €135 when new, the Liscio was about have the cost of a typical midrange phone of the time, so it would be a bit less financially painful if it got run over by a taxi. But not much. And since you could just by an ultra-basic Nokia for a lot less, it didn’t really make much financial sense. And it turned out that the Liscio was actually an 18-month old Haier handset which could be bought cheaper elsewhere.

It might not come as a surprise to discover that neither device was much of a success. The Toshiba G450 was just far too weird, and people who wanted a 3G dongle for their laptops probably just bought a 3G dongle. The Liscio was overpriced and under-powered, even though the basic idea seemed sound.

Both handsets are very rare these days, but from time-to-time the Toshiba G450 does crop up for about €70 or so. If you like collecting weird-looking devices then the G450 might well be something worth seeking out for your collection.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Nokia N96 (2008)

Announced February 2008

Back in 2006 Nokia produced the iconic Nokia N95 smartphone, followed up by the improved N95 8GB a year later. Both these devices were hugely successful products by a company at its peak. Although upstarts Apple had release the original iPhone in early 2007, it hadn’t had much material impact on Nokia’s sales figures and they were still confident of their dominance of the mobile phone industry.

Expectations were high for the new Nokia N96, launched at Mobile World Congress in 2008. And on paper, the N96 looked pretty good. Retaining a similar 2.8” QVGA display to the N96 8GB, the N96 doubled the amount of storage to 16GB and came with a microSD slot (which the N95 8GB did not), it had a similar 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, 3.5G data and WiFi, aGPS, a comprehensive media player, an FM radio and a TV output as well.

The biggest surprise was the inclusion of a DVB-H receiver, which meant that you could watch free-to-air transmissions where there was coverage. A clever little kick-stand around the camera lens meant that viewing TV or downloaded videos was a bit more convenient.

Because this was a Symbian smartphone you could add applications, although by modern standards this used a clunky approach. What we would consider a modern app store would be introduced by Apple for their second-generation iPhone just a few months later.

It was a good-looking device, where the original N95 had been rather utilitarian. But there was no getting away from the fact that it didn’t have a touchscreen like the iPhone did, and at 3.5” the Apple device had more display real estate too.

It took a long time to come to market, shipping in September 2008 with a fairly hefty price tag. Critical reception was poor: it was not easy to use, was slow and unreliable. Nokia also undermined the position of the N96 by announcing the N97 and 5800 XpressMusic shortly after launch.

Given the achievements of the N95, it initially seemed that the N96 would be a guaranteed success. Instead it turned out to be a flop. It didn’t help either that DVB-H – one of the key features of the N96 – was also never rolled out to any great extent. Today the N96 is largely forgotten, sandwiched between the better-known N95 and N97. Today N96s are somewhat uncommon, prices can be less than €100 for good unlocked ones with accessories but a median price seems to be around €150.

You could argue that the N96 marked the beginning of a long and slow decline for Nokia. The market that Nokia had utterly dominated was changing rapidly, but Nokia were not changing quickly enough to go with it. Nokia handsets remained popular (the N96 apart) but within a few years the Symbian platform that the N-series was based on became a dead end.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Mum Deodorant (1888)

Mum Cream Deodorant Ad, 1956
Created 1888

According to the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:
The Jatravartids [..] are small blue creatures with more than fifty arms each, who are therefore unique in being the only race in history to have invented the aerosol deodorant before the wheel.
A funny line, and while it is certainly true that humans invented the wheel a long time before deodorant, it might surprise you just how old commercially-available deodorants are.

130 years ago in 1888, an unknown inventor came up with a waxy cream containing zinc oxide which had antibacterial properties which could help to suppress body odour. The product was named “MUM” after the nickname of the unknown inventor’s nurse.

Development of the product continued, and by the 1920s it came in small tins promoted by advertising. The first big technological breakthrough came in 1952 when the roll-on deodorant was invented, inspired in part by the ball-point pen, and in many markets worldwide this became the product that “Mum” was most identified with.

Although pedantic Jatravartids may point out that aerosol deodorants were not invented on Earth until the early 1960s, the deodorant has been around for as long as the motor car and significantly longer than the aeroplane.

So here’s to that unknown inventor, whoever he or she may be… and thank you for making the world a somewhat more fragrant place.

Image credit: Classic Film via Flickr

Saturday, 20 January 2018

BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 (2013)

BlackBerry Q10 and Z10 (2013)
Announced January 2013

It’s one of the stand-out phone in the history of handset disasters – announced five years ago this month the BlackBerry Z10 was a catastrophic failure that very nearly killed its maker. Sitting squarely on the downward slope of BlackBerry’s status of a darling of the technology industry to a company that people are surprised is still in business, the Z10 and companion Q10 deserve to be looked at once more.

A brief history lesson – BlackBerry was called Research in Motion (RIM) when it was founded in 1984. During the 1980s and early 1990s, RIM explored markets in communications and point-of-sale devices. In the later 1990s, RIM diversified into two-way pagers which led to the BlackBerry 850 in 1999, followed by email-enabled smartphones such as the BlackBerry 6230 in the early 2000s.

What started out life as a product appealing to large corporations ended up – somewhat by chance – as being an enormous consumer hit, fuelled in part by devices such as the BlackBerry Pearl smartphone. Even the launch of the iPhone in 2007 couldn’t stop RIM’s growth, and in 2011 it had sales of an astonishing $19.9 billion, compared to just $595 million in 2004.

BlackBerry 850, 6230, Pearl 8100
But although BlackBerry devices were always superlative when it came to email, they were pretty terrible when it came to other things – especially web browsing. As the impact of iOS and Android smartphones began to change the way people used the web, the clunky interface of BlackBerry devices was off-putting.

Sure, BlackBerry had tried to improve things but by 2011 had pushed their old platform as far as it could go with the BlackBerry Bold Touch 9900. But too many elements of the operating system were unchanged from the 6230 nearly a decade earlier. RIM had tried an all-touch device as early as 2008 with the BlackBerry Storm 9500 which turned out to be catastrophically awful and very buggy. Despite RIM’s best efforts to put lipstick on a pig, consumers could still tell that it was a pig.
BlackBerry Storm 9500, Bold Touch 9900

RIM had been aware that their products were becoming increasingly uncompetitive and by 2010 they embarked on a project to adapt the Unix-like QNX operating system into a mobile OS good enough to fight back against Apple and Google. QNX was designed to be a real-time operating system, and had (and indeed still has) a reputation for stability and reliability – and best of all as far as RIM were concerned, they already owned QNX.

The first QNX-based product to be announced was the BlackBerry Playbook. Despite initial promise, the Playbook was deeply flawed and full of bugs. Customers stayed away in their droves, but it did at least show that QNX had the right potential.

BlackBerry continued to work in turning QNX into the BlackBerry 10 operating system that their next-generation phones would need, but it took over two years after the launch of the Playbook to finally announce their new BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 smartphones, which they did in January 2013.

To put this in context – the original Apple iPhone had been launched six years previously in January 2007 (a line that had progressed all the way to the iPhone 5) and Android devices had been selling in increasingly large numbers for four years. RIM (who changed their name at this point to BlackBerry) were very, very late entrants into this market, and the Z10 and Q10 would need to be something special.

Black BlackBerry Z10
Although both products were announced at the same time, the Z10 and Q10 would not ship at the same time. The Z10 was a conventional-looking touchscreen smartphone with a decent hardware specification. The Q10 on the other hand was much more BlackBerry-like with a QWERTY keyboard, but it still featured a touchscreen and the new BlackBerry 10 operating system.

BlackBerry 10 was a radical departure from most smartphone operating systems when it came to the user interface. Lacking any button the whole things was based on a series of different swipes (rather like the modern iPhone X). It was a steep learning curve for BlackBerry users, and it wasn’t a surprise to find out that it had some serious bugs at launch. There were also only a small number of native applications for it, which was hardly going to tempt people away from other platforms.

The fact that the Z10 was released months before the Q10 was the result of huge infighting at RIM, with management divided over whether to launch the all-screen one first, or the one with a more traditional design. This process reportedly pushed back the launch of either device by a full year. And history pretty much proved that the Z10 was the wrong decision, because BlackBerry customers who wanted something like that had long ago defected to rivals, and the Z10 failed to appeal to traditionalists who wanted a physical QWERTY keyboard.

The Z10 bombed. It didn’t appeal to either existing or new customers, and it turns out that BlackBerry had built a lot of them in order to meet demand that never materialised, leading to a billion-dollar write off of inventory. Sales continued to collapse, losses began to mount and the stock price cratered. Senior management were thrown out, to be replaced by managers who would also eventually be thrown out. Most industry observers agreed that BlackBerry was doomed.

It didn't help when BlackBerry "brand ambassador" Alicia Keys was caught Tweeting from her Apple device either.
BlackBerry? Alcatel? TCL?

Lost among this was the Q10 which now had become toxic because of the failure of the Z10. Customers were buying phones from BlackBerry, but they were just the Curves and Bolds that they had been buying for years.

BlackBerry seemed doomed, but its enormous cash pile and a stubbornness to die means that it is still is business today, but with a very different business model. Handset production is licensed to TCL who base current BlackBerry devices on designs they sell under the Alcatel brand (oddly enough, licensed from Nokia) and who also bought the Palm brand from HP. Current BlackBerry devices run Android with a BlackBerry software stack on top… which is probably what BlackBerry should have done all along.

Had either the Z10 or Q10 hit the market three or four years earlier then they might have made the impact that BlackBerry needed. In the end, they were so late to the party that there was really no point in turning up at all.

Z10s are currently widely available for less than €100, and BlackBerry are committed to supporting the handset until 2020 and the software these days is *much* better (and you can load Android apps). The Q10 is a bit cheaper. If you like collecting heroic failures, then perhaps either (or both) devices are for you.

Image credits: RIM / BlackBerry


If you really want more of the Z10 and Q10, here are a pair of videos we prepared much earlier..