Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Nokia 5510 (2001)

Launched October 2001

At the same time that Apple launched their groundbreaking iPod digital music player, Nokia were going for the same market with their equally groundbreaking Nokia 5510. Of course, today people remember the original the original classic iPod… but the 5510 hides in obscurity filed under W for weird.

A weird looking Nokia 5510
A weird-looking Nokia 5510

The two devices were both trying to do the same thing, but both Apple and Nokia started from different origins. Where the iPod had a 5GB internal hard disk and was strictly a music-only device, the 5510 had 64MB of internal flash memory and also a full QWERTY keyboard, WAP browser, email client and of course it was a phone too.

This was Nokia’s first music capable phone, but it required a Windows PC to encode MP3s in a copy-protected format, and the 64MB of memory was about for about one album’s worth of songs (compared to the 1000 or so on the iPod). This was slow and cumbersome, and the 5510 didn’t support memory cards so you were stuck with this 64MB limit. However, the 5510 did include an FM radio which was quite a useful feature for its day.

Nokia wanted it to be more than just a music phone, so the inbuilt email client and the built-in QWERTY keyboard should have been a good match. Except of course that looking at it now, the keyboard takes up most of the device with a relatively tiny screen. But RIM hadn’t yet come up with their iconic 6230 design which was frankly a lot more usable, and which was much-copied in the years that followed its release.

Doubly weird, two Nokia 5510s
Doubly weird, two Nokia 5510s

Flawed as a music player, and flawed as a messaging device… the 5510 nonetheless foreshadowed technologies that were to come. You can’t attach any blame to Nokia for seeing what consumers wanted, giving it a go and getting it wrong. But Nokia got it wrong rather too often, whereas the iPod was right first time.

Weird Nokia phones are quite collectable, and the 5510 easily falls into this category with good examples going for about £70 or so. You might only get limited use out of it, but certainly on looks along it still has the wow factor…

Image credits:
Nokia


Saturday, 16 October 2021

Apple iPod (2001)

Introduced October 2001

Last time we looked at Apple’s offerings in October 1991 with the Mac Quadra and PowerBook machines. Although they were decent systems, Apple went into decline during the 1990s and by 1997 it was a hairs breadth away from bankruptcy. But a change in leadership, including the return of Steve Jobs and fresh engineering and design talent started to turn the company around. 1998’s iMac wowed consumers, but the company wasn’t going to rely just on the Mac this time around.

By 2001, Apple had an eye on the portable music player market – devices that were tricky to use and either very limited in what they could store or were huge. But Apple didn’t have enough engineers with the rights skills to make such a device, so Apple’s head of engineering – Jon Rubinstein – contracted the work out to a former Philips engineer named Tony Fadell who had made a couple of practical if commercially unsuccessful PDAs and then formed his own company. Fadell recruited other engineers from Philips and his own firm, and then added to this was Apple engineer Michael Dhuey and Apple design Jonathan Ive. Further work on the UI was outsourced to a company called Pixo (eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems), and a deal was struck with Toshiba to supply their compact 5GB hard drive which would form the heart of the whole thing.

This music player became the Apple iPod, developed in less than a year and quite unlike anything on the market. Capable of storing 1000 songs, it came with a prominent scroll wheel, a decently sized screen with easy-to-use options all in a compact and elegantly designed case. Although it wasn’t cheap, retailing at $399, it was easily better than almost anything else on the market and was a huge hit.

Apple iPods and a Mac G5
Apple iPods and a Mac G5

The original iPod had a 5GB drive, but a 10GB one followed. One major drawback was this it could only be used with a Mac. The second-generation iPod was launched less than a year later, had more space and a touch-sensitive scroll wheel… and it could be used with a PC. Less than a year after than, the inbuilt FireWire port was supplemented with a USB for greater compatibility and these incremental improvements kept on happening, with the original-style iPods forming the “Classic” range and more company “Mini”, tiny “Nano” and display-less “Shuffle” devices following. After the launch of the original iPhone, a “Touch” range became available which was essentially an iPhone minus the Phone.

In the end, dedicated music players started to become a bit redundant. Smartphones were just as capable and the last Classic iPod (the sixth generation) went off sale in 2014. The iPod Touch remains, with the 7th generation launched in 2019 which is closely related to the iPhone 7. Although it is a bit of a niche market now, along the way Apple sold hundreds of millions of iPods making it the best-selling device of its type in the world.

The iPod also demonstrated that Apple could succeed outside of the microcomputer market. The next logical target was phones, and Apple’s long-anticipated entry into the market… well, actually the first attempt was a disaster because they made too many compromises. But eventually we’d get the iPhone (and iPad) which redefined their respective marketplaces. Although the iPod is a much less important product today, it helped to make Apple almost ubiquitous.
 
Image credits:
Matthew Pearce via Flickr – CC BY 2.0



Sunday, 10 October 2021

Apple Macintosh Quadra and PowerBook (1991)

Introduced October 1991

We find ourselves in the early nineteen nineties. Apple is still riding the wave of the early Macintoshes, but their advantage over PCs and the new Windows 3.0 environment is waning. Apple is still innovating, but is struggling to compete in terms of cost and usability.

In October 1991, Apple launched the desktop Quadra and laptop PowerBook computers, which were either more powerful or more portable depending on which route you took.

The PowerBook was probably the most interesting device. Apple had tried to make a portable Mac years earlier with the Macintosh Portable which was a market failure despite some very promising engineering. Several years of technological advancements – especially in the PC-compatible arena – demonstrated that it was possible to come up with a compact and usable laptop computer. The PowerBook took many of these ideas and created a more elegant and usable solution, and critically one that was a Mac and not a PC.

Apple Macintosh PowerBook 100
Apple Macintosh PowerBook 100


The first generation of PowerBooks break down into two distinct models. The PowerBook 100 was actually designed and built by Sony, and took the bulky original Portable and shrunk it down to a fraction of the weight. Running the by-then elderly 68000 processor, the PowerBook was essentially a classic Mac in a laptop form. The more powerful PowerBook 140 and 170 models were Apple designs running the more powerful 68030 CPU. The 170 was faster than the 140 and had an active-matrix monochrome display compared with the passive-matrix on the cheaper model.

The PowerBook was a huge success at first, but Apple struggled to fit the more powerful 68040 processor in it due to heat dissipation problems. By the time they’d fixed that, PC manufacturers had looked at the PowerBook and improved their models too so Apple started to struggle to compete. However, the PowerBook line remained until 2006, transitioning to the much more powerful PowerPC co-developed by Apple, IBM and Motorola.

The Quadra didn’t have the same problem with heat as the PowerBook and was a more natural platform for the improved 68040. More powerful than the 68030, transition between the two was not always smooth as the code required some optimisation to run on the new platform. A more modest success than the PowerBook the Quadra spawned a variety of models into the mid-1990s when it too was replaced by the PowerPC-based Power Macintosh line.

Apple Macintosh Quadra 700
Apple Macintosh Quadra 700


Despite some initial success, these models mark the beginning of a long decline for Apple. The Motorola 68000 series was reaching the end of its life, Microsoft’s kludgy early versions of Windows became more polished and Apple’s prices remained out of reach of many.  Just a few years after the launch of the Quadra and PowerBook it seemed that Apple was doomed. But that is a different story.

Image credits:
Danamania via Wikimedia Commons - GFDL
Simon Claessen via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0



Tuesday, 17 August 2021

IBM Personal Computer Model 5150 (1981)

Introduced August 1981

Four years on from the launch of the holy trinity of the Apple II, Tandy TRS-80 and Commodore PET there was a rapidly growing (but fragmented) multi-million dollar market worldwide. Although rival micros tended to be incompatible, business systems showed a growing standardisation around the CP/M operating system and the S-100 expansion bus. Home machines had wildly different hardware and software, but tended to be based around either the MOS 6502 or Zilog Z80 CPUs.

IBM Model 5150 and 5152 printer
IBM Model 5150 and 5152 printer

But in August 1981 came a paradigm shift, thanks to IBM. IBM seemed an unlikely player in the microcomputer market, specialising in powerful but incredibly expensive mainframes and whose initial microcomputer systems were also blistering pricey. It took IBM at least five years to develop a product, which was much slower than the microcomputer market was moving. IBM seemed old-fashioned in a market that was mostly dominated by younger and more agile competitors.

IBM could sense the way the wind was blowing, however. Cheap but versatile micros were finding their way into IBM customer sites while at the same time the market for big iron computing was faltering. IBM wanted a slice of the micro market, while at the same time it was aware that its traditional business processes would not be able to compete.

In a moment of enlightenment, IBM took one look at its internal rulebook and tore it up. Their entrance into microcomputers would follow a completely different path. Dubbed “Project Chess” by IBM, the development work attracts many top-flight IBM engineers to work on this new computer in complete secrecy. The result was the IBM Model 5150 - best known as the IBM Personal Computer or simply the IBM PC.

Instead of basing the PC around an IBM CPU, an Intel 8088 was chosen – as seen in the IBM Datamaster which was being developed at the same time. The PC also took a variant of the Datamaster’s keyboard and expansion slots, but then developed features all of its own. Output was either crisp text via a Monochrome Display Adapter (MDA) card to an existing model of IBM monitor, or to an compatible colour monitor with a Colour Graphics Adapter (CGA) card.

Although the PC could run a version of CP/M, the primary operating system was PC-DOS which was sourced from Microsoft. Quite how this choice of OS was made is now the stuff of legends. Initially IBM approached Digital Research (DR), the makers of CP/M, to provide a software platform for the PC. Although CP/M was designed to run on the Z80, an Intel version had been developed as well. Legend says that the boss of DR – Gary Kildall – was out flying his private plane when IBM turned up at the office unannounced, although the truth probably that DR and IBM couldn’t agree on a licensing structure. IBM then approached Microsoft and asked them to provide an OS. Microsoft didn’t actually make operating systems – their main business was BASIC – but a nearby company called Seattle Computer Products had an OS called QDOS that would run on the 8088. Microsoft bought the rights to QDOS, renamed it MS-DOS and then licensed it to IBM as PC-DOS while retaining the rights to sell MS-DOS themselves.

IBM PC with neatly-labelled floppies
IBM PC with neatly-labelled floppies


Compared to PCs of even just a few years later, the model 5150 was pretty limited. The 8088 was a cheaper and more readily available version of the 16-bit 8086, but the 8088 only had an 8-bit external bus. RAM was theoretically expandable to 640Kb which was substantially more than the competition, but typical configurations topped out 256Kb. Although the 5150 supported twin floppies (up to 320Kb each) the only way to support a hard disk was to use the 5161 expansion box which wasn’t available at time of launch.

The 5150 did have a cassette interface, although almost all systems were bought with floppy drives. Typical configurations would include two serial ports and a parallel port, but eventually you could add a joystick, network card, more memory and other options. The 8-bit expansion card design was physically robust, and IBM published all the specification so that third-party vendors could make their own.

IBM had a rebadged Epson MX-80 printer available as the IBM model 5152, the most popular dot-matrix printer of the time. You could add any other parallel or serial-port printer as long as your software had the drivers for it.

The use of an open architecture (where IBM described in detail the workings of the machine) plus industry standard components made this a very flexible system. Because it was well-built and designed – albeit expensive – it became a popular business computer, although realistically it was priced too high for the home market. Third-party software and hardware followed, so within a year of launch the PC could do everything any other machine could do plus much more.

It was a huge sales success, outstripping IBM’s most optimistic projections several times over. High demand meant that most initial units were sold in the US only. Production of machines for Europe officially started in 1981 when IBM launched a plant in Scotland, but grey imports existed before that. This delay gave the opportunity for rivals such as the ACT Sirius 1 to gain a foothold.

The 5150 was the direct ancestor of almost all PCs in use today (apart from Apple’s Macintosh machines). The IBM PC XT added more expansion slots and hard disk support in 1983, the IBM PC AT came in 1984 and used a much more powerful Intel 80286 CPU. It did seem at the time that IBM was onto a winner, but it didn’t take long for other companies to build compatible machines using the same architecture.

The only proprietary part of the PC was the BIOS which had to be emulated, or in some cases just ripped off from IBM. The Columbia Data Products MPC 1600 was the first true clone of the PC, launched less than a year after the 5150. Better known was the Compaq Portable, launched in 1983, which was not only 100% compatible (and used a legal BIOS) but it was transportable too. Thousands of other companies followed suit, and within a few years IBM’s control of the market was slipping.

In 1987, IBM attempted to change the direction of the PC industry with the launch of the PS/2 range which was more tightly controlled by IBM. Clone makers needed a licence to make a PS/2-type machine which had a different hardware architecture, but few bothered and instead the bulk of the market remained with machines with a direct line back to the original 5150. IBM continued in the PC business until 2005 when it sold the unit to Lenovo.

Today the 5150 commands decent prices for collectors, commanding prices of several hundred pounds for a good one, although they are much rarer in Europe than the United States (and if importing one, you need to get a voltage regulator unless you want to blow up your power supply). Of course, you can buy a direct descendant of the original PC in any computer shop which might give you a less antique experience…

Image credits:
Science Museum Group - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Rama & Musée Bolo - CC BY-SA 2.0 FR



Thursday, 29 July 2021

IBM Selectric (1961) and IBM Datamaster (1981)

Introduced July 1961 and July 1981

Remember typewriters? You know, the obsolete technology that existed before the obsolete technology called word processors? Somewhere after people wrote stuff down by hand? No? Oh well, the IBM Selectric probably isn’t for you.

By 1961, typewriters were clunky, slow and inflexible… but businesses everywhere relied on them. IBM had a different vision of what a typewriter could be, and the Selectric was much more feature rich than most of the machines on the market at the time.

Early IBM Selectric Typewriter
Early IBM Selectric Typewriter

One obvious different was the print head – instead of having an individual arm with each letter laid out in a complex mechanical arrangement, the Selectric had a “golf ball” print head which would rotate to find the letter you wanted. On the Selectric, the head moved from left to right rather than the paper moving from right to left. Crucially, if the operator wanted to change the font they would just stop typing and swap in a different print head.

A quite complex electromechanical arrangement made all this work, and to get the best out of the Selectric required either experience or training. But it was faster, more reliable and more flexible than traditional devices and IBM took a large share of the business market.

New versions with more features followed, although the Selectric units were incompatible with each other. Some had correcting ribbons, wordprocessing features and even local storage. Variants of the Selectric could be used as computer printers. By the time the brand was retired in 1986, IBM had sold more than 13 million Selectric devices.

20 years further on, IBM found itself on the cusp of a larger revolution. Business computers had been getting smaller, more powerful and – crucially – cheaper, which was becoming a possible threat for IBM’s large computer business.

IBM wanted its own microcomputer and had started working on creating a unit based on an Intel processor, which was a major design break for IBM who had previously used their own PALM CPUs in their machines. The results of this unconventional effort by IBM is probably not the computer that first springs to mind – the IBM PC – but instead the IBM System/23 Datamaster.

IBM Datamaster
IBM Datamaster

The Datamaster used many of the same or similar elements that would be seen in the PC, including the Intel CPU, expansion bus and keyboard. Instead of the PC’s now-familiar modular design, the Datamaster was an all-in-one box (not dissimilar to the original Mac) designed to be set up by people with no technical experience. It was also IBM’s cheapest computer to date.

Unfortunately for the Datamaster, it had been stuck in development hell and took a very long time to come to market. As it was being readied for launch, the team behind it were also finalising the IBM PC which was launched the very next month. The PC had learned many lessons from the Datamaster, keeping what was good and throwing out what wasn’t. The PC changed the world, the Datamaster found modest sales in die-hard IBM shops.

The Selectric was arguably the ultimate electric typewriter, and while the Datamaster wasn’t the ultimate microcomputer it paved the way for what arguably evolved into one. Both devices are quite collectable, although the Datamaster is much rarer than the Selectric. Out of the two, the Selectric might still be of more practical use... and your children may well never have seen anything quite like a typewriter before.

Image credits:
Marcin Wichary via Flickr – CC BY 2.0
Steve Lodefink via Flickr - CC BY 2.0



Monday, 26 July 2021

Donkey Kong (1981)

Introduced July 1981

Donkey Kong was the arcade game that established Nintendo as a success in the North American market – introducing two of their most iconic characters in the process. But unlike many other games from the golden age of arcades, the development story for Donkey Kong begins in failure.

Donkey Kong detail
Donkey Kong detail

In 1980, Nintendo had attempted to break into the US with a game called Radar Scope which was a 3D space shoot-‘em-up with some advanced graphics for the time. 3000 machines were built and shipped to the States, but sales were poor and 2000 of the cabinets were unsold, prompting a financial crisis for Nintendo.

Donkey Kong was developed initially as a way to reuse the existing cabinets. Instead of a space-based game, this was a platform game where an Italian plumber attempts to climb to the top of the level while being bombarded by barrels thrown down by a primate.

The names of these characters? If you hadn’t guessed, they were Mario and Donkey Kong. Unusually for a game of the time, the characters came first and the game followed after. This process eventually meant that Nintendo had a cast of digital stars they could put into their own games which helped them grow in popularity even more.

Nintendo reworked the logic board from the original Radar Scope game, Donkey Kong had simpler hardware requirement than the shoot-‘em-up, it still possessed colourful graphics, sound effects and music all powered by a Z80 CPU. It wasn’t hard to port it to the booming microcomputer marketplace, and licensed and unlicensed clones were soon everywhere.

Donkey Kong arcade machine
Donkey Kong arcade machine

As well as direct sequels (many of which were based on the same hardware) a whole range of Nintendo games built on the characters and added many more. Mario in particular went on to star in what is probably the most successful video game franchise ever including Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart and many others. Donkey Kong starred in Donkey Kong Country and many other games, often crossing over with Mario.

It’s quite possible that if Nintendo hadn’t been sitting on a couple of thousand Radar Scope machines that such a novel concept might not have been risked. As it was, the descendants of the original Donkey Kong game gave Nintendo a unique edge in the future… which turned out to be not just shoot-‘em-ups after all.

Image credits:
Wordshore via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Microsiervos via Flickr – CC BY 2.0


Monday, 19 July 2021

Ericsson T68 (2001)

Introduced July 2001

By the middle of 2001 the golden age of mobile phone design was beginning. New features were added to phones rapidly, and every handset managed to look very different from rivals. The next few years would see a wave of innovation – but for Ericsson, 2001 was also its swansong as a mobile phone brand.

Ericsson had produced a range of successful (and mostly very compact) phones but was losing money on the operation in a big way. Despite this, Ericsson continued to launch great new products and the Ericsson T68m (usually referred to as just the “T68”) was one of them. A diminutive 84 gram device, it packed in more features than rivals to create a very desirable handset.

This Ericsson T68m has seen better days
This Ericsson T68m has seen better days

One of the main selling points was Bluetooth – one of the first phones to feature this technology. It also had a colour screen, tri-band GSM, GPRS packet data, a WAP browser, predictive text, a bitmap editor and a bunch of included games. A camera – the MCA-25 CommuniCam – was available as a clip-on extra, again making it one of the first phones to feature that particular technology.

Not long after the launch of the T68, Ericsson merged their mobile phone business with Sony to create Sony Ericsson. The T68 received a slight cosmetic makeover and had a software update to become the Sony Ericsson T68i, the first phone to carry that branding. Eventually the camera add-on became a standard accessory, helping to popularise the idea of cameraphones.

Sony Ericsson T68i with Communicam
Sony Ericsson T68i with Communicam

When it eventually arrived, the replacement for the T68 was the stylish T610 and there was a successful run of handsets after that. Today, used prices for the T68i and T68m are pretty healthy with really good ones selling for £100 or more, although sub-£50 is more common. The Communicam camera add-on is available as new old stock from £50 or more, all pretty healthy for a 20 year old feature phone..

Image credits:
The Norwegian Telecom Musuem via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Science Museum Group - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0