Friday, 31 July 2020

Rogue (1980)

Introduced 1980

Before the microcomputer boom of the late 1970s most computers were large, expensive but powerful multiuser machines (“minicomputers”) such as the DEC PDP-11 and VAX. These expensive machines were meant for serious work, but even so a few games had been written such as Colossal Cave and Star Trek.

These were often complex games, but they were severely hampered by the rudimentary output capabilities of the computers involved. Although minicomputer terminals had evolved through the 1970s leading to designs such as the versatile VT100, it wasn’t always easy to leverage the new features into programs.

Cursor addressability was the key feature first seen in the era of the VT52 – the ability to move the cursor to anywhere on the screen and display text. It seems simple today, but the earliest terminals were basically printers-with-a-keyboard (teletypes) and it took a long while for glass teletypes to evolve into the video terminals that could support recognisably modern applications.

By 1980 the newly-developed curses library was making it much easier to use the advanced features of these terminals, and around 1980 a pair of students – Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman – were intrigued by the possibility of writing a game on the UCSC computers systems where they were studying.

Rogue emulated running on a VT220

Rogue broke out of the mould of earlier minicomputer games which either tended to be quite simple or weren’t worth playing once you had beaten them. Rogue was a satisfyingly complex Dungeon-and-Dragons style game, set on several levels of mostly randomly-generated maps. The player roamed these ASCII maps as a wandering “@” sign, with 26 different types of monster represented by letters of the alphabet - V = vampire, O = orc for example. The player could accumulate a variety of weapons, armour, scrolls, potions and rods (wands) to help them on their task.

26 levels down in the game you would find the ultimate prize – the Amulet of Yendor, which you could then take back to the surface? The turn-based gameplay did give the player plenty of time to consider their next move in tricky situations, but on the other hand death was permanent – if slain by a monster or your own stupidity you would have to start over.

Michael Toy then moved to Berkeley from UCSC and met with Ken Arnold who had developed the curses library, the game evolved further and by the mid-1980s commercial interests were involved, porting the game to a variety of 1980s micros including the Macintosh, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum and many more.

It was a hard game to master, and you could easily spend hours and hours trying to tackle deeper and deeper part of the dungeon. The fact that it was simply made up as ASCII characters didn’t really matter because of the rich gameplay – and most micro versions used some simple graphics to enhance the game further.

Nethack running on a modern laptop

Rogue was always a closed source game though, so many open source variants followed. Nethack is probably the most popular of these, with richer gameplay that Rogue but still mostly stubbornly sticking to ASCII.

Of course modern computer games can offer something of the rich gameplay of Rogue-like games along with impressive graphics and sound effects, but Rogue and its derivatives linger on and continue to be developed.

Image credits:
Artoftransformation via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Mad Ball via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

The Rise and Decline of Sharp Mobile (2002 to 2008)

Fifteen years ago this month, Sharp released the Sharp 903 – a high-end 3G phone that was the high watermark of Sharp’s efforts to break into the European market. Distinctly different from the Nokias and Motorolas that dominated the market, the 903 should established Sharp as a contender in the market. But it faded from sight instead.

In the early noughties Asian firms were having a hard time making an impact outside their home markets, with the notable exception of Sony… but even they had to join forces with Ericsson in 2001. But the result of this was that there were some weird and wonderful ecosystems developing – especially in Japan.

Sharp were dipping their toe in the market, initially with some fairly standard devices but then starting to leverage their expertise in other technologies. In 2000 they made the world’s first camera phone – the J-SH04 – but in particular devices started to appear that used some of Sharp’s world-leading display technology.

Sharp J-SH04
In Europe Sharp started cautiously with the O2-only GX1 which sold in limited quantities. Then came the almost identical Sharp GX10 and GX10i (the latter exclusive to Vodafone) in 2002 and 2003 which were attractive but pretty undistinguished clamshells.

The next handset to be launched (in late 2003) was a ground-breaker. Exclusive to Vodafone in most regions, the Sharp GX20 featured a high-resolution 240 x 320 pixel continuous grain silicon (CGS) display which easily beat everything else on the market at the time. Added to that was a competitive VGA resolution camera with a multi-coloured LED, along with a relatively large colour external screen – all in a package smaller and lighter than the more basic GX10. The GX20 created a real buzz around Sharp’s products and consumers were eager to see what would come next.

Sharp GX10i and GX20

The Sharp GX30 built on the superb display in the GX20 and added the world’s first megapixel camera. The GX30 also had a full-sized SD slot, added video recording, Bluetooth and an MP3 player. And in early 2004 all of those things together were a big deal. Even if the software wasn’t as easy to use as a Nokia, the hardware was class leading in almost every respect, again this was a Vodafone exclusive in many regions – although some other carriers had the functionally identical GX32.

Sharp GX30

You might guess that the next phone from Sharp would be the GX40… but you would be wrong. The Sharp TM100 was exclusive to T-Mobile rather than Vodafone, but was basically a slider version of the GX20 with minimalist looks at the same CGS display that Sharp were becoming famous for.

Sharp TM100

Vodafone again had the exclusive for the next handset – the very popular Sharp GX25. Still a 2004 product, this had a similar specification to the older GX20, but it had a sleeker design and notable it tucked the antenna inside the case. Bluetooth was added into the mix but the external screen shrank considerably. The result was a smaller, lighter, more capable and cheaper phone that was cheaper than the GX20 while retaining the excellent display. One highly sought-after version of the GX25 was the attractive Ferrari edition in bright red, but some markets had other eye-popping colours available too.

Sharp GX25
Sharp returned to their clamshell-with-antenna design for the Sharp TM200 in late 2004. This was exclusive to T-Mobile and was broadly similar to the GX30 except it had a smaller external display and crucially a two megapixel camera, making it the first such device in Europe. The oversized camera assembly on the TM200 was rather pointless, but it did draw attention to its class-leading camera capabilities.

Sharp TM200
Although most of these handset had been designed with European and Worldwide markets in mind, the next product releases had a more distinctive Japanese origin. One of the stars of Vodafone’s fledgling 3G network was the Sharp 902 which was essentially almost a straight import of the 902SH handset Vodafone Japan used.

Sharp 902

The 902 was like (almost) nothing else on the market. A large 3G-capable swivelling clamshell phone, it featured a 2.4” QVGA TFT display, a 2 megapixel camera with 2X optical zoom and a flash,  video calling, expandable memory on a full-size SD/MMC card, an MP3 player, web browser and email client. The 902 looked like a compact digital camera from one side, and you could swivel the display around to act as a huge viewfinder. The 902 had plenty of “wow factor” but flaws in the camera design meant that the pictures were disappointing, and Vodafone was having a hard job persuading customer that 3G was worth having. Launched alongside it was the cut-down Sharp 802 with a more conventional 1.3 megapixel camera, although this didn’t have the same market appeal. A special bright red Ferrari edition was the most desirable version, that that still commands a premium today for collectors.

Sharp 803
Most customers were sticking with their 2/2.5G devices and the GX range was still popular despite 3G competition. Rumours of a Japanese-style GX40 clamshell with a 2 megapixel camera were doing the rounds, Sharp having impressed potential consumers with the radical design of the 902. But this crucial market seemed to be overlooked.  It meant that customers with a GX30 who wanted an upgrade but didn’t want a bulky 3G phone would have to look elsewhere.

Sharp’s next launch was the Sharp 903 and Sharp 703 – another pair of G devices. The 903 was quite similar to the 902 in design, but sported a 3.2 megapixel camera with a 2X optical zoom that fixed the flaws of the 902. The full-sized SD card slot had gone to be replaced by a miniSD slot, but strangely the phone was actually bigger than the 902 despite that. Better looking than the 902, it came in a variety of colours as well. Launched at the same time was the more conventional 703 with a swivel-less design and a 1.3 megapixel camera.

Sharp 903 and 703

We didn’t know it at the time, but the Sharp 903 was as good as it was ever going to get for Sharp fans in Europe. When the Sharp GX40 finally came out later in 2005 it was a huge disappointment. It sported good multimedia features but a very disappointing 1.3 megapixel camera and even the screen was a slight downgrade on previous versions.

Sharp GX40
Three elegant but fairly low-end phones followed in 2006 – the Sharp GX29, 550SH and 770SH. The 770SH was the most elegant with a QVGA display and expandable memory, but it was still only a 2G phone with a 1.3 megapixel camera. The 550SH was essentially a candy-bar version of the 770SH. The GX29 was a simpler phone with only a VGA camera and limited features. This time the most desirable of the bunch was the 770SH McLaren Mercedes edition which certainly looked the part even if it didn’t deliver much.

Sharp GX29, 550SH and 770SH McLaren Mercedes Edition
After this Sharp pretty much faded out of markets outside of Japan, although years later they did return with some decent Aquos branded Android handsets which developed a following but have never really sold in large numbers.

Sharp certainly seemed to be poised on the verge of a breakthrough, but what went wrong? Sharp were certainly leading in display and camera technology. Very much at the leading edge Sharp and Vodafone also bet strongly on 3G, coming up with the class-leading 902… the problem was that consumers really didn’t want 3G and sales of that, the follow-up 903 and the 802 and 703 were weak. Sharp were also very much stuck with carrier exclusive deals, mostly with Vodafone but also to some extent T-Mobile. This was good news for the carriers, not such good news for Sharp. A failure to update their 2G line also left fans with nowhere to go - and when Vodafone left the Japanese market in 2006 the ties with Japanese manufacturers became much weaker. And of course the market was dominated by Nokia, and despite their handsets lagging behind in hardware terms they were usually the best-looking devices and very easy to use.

Sharp 902 and GX25 Ferrari Editions

Today the Ferrari editions are sought-after and a humble GX25 in Ferrari livery in very good condition can sell for hundreds of pounds. The 902 can cost around £150 in good condition, but most other Sharp phones are worth much less. However many of them - especially the GX30 and 902 - would make an ideal addition to a collection.

Image credits: Sharp, Vodafone, T-Mobile
Morio via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Monday, 6 July 2020

Missile Command (1980)

Missile Command screenshot
Introduced July 1980

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation is always just around the corner. Everything you know and everyone you love could be swept away in an instant and there would be very little you could do about it.

So, for some escapism what about a game where everybody dies in a nuclear conflagration? Welcome to 1980 and Atari’s Missile Command.

The golden age of arcade machines featured many escapist games, usually of the shoot-‘em-up variety. As with microcomputers of the time, arcade machines were being propelled by improvements in microprocessors and other silicon chips leading to a rapid improvement of hardware. Missile Command used a 1.25 MHz 6502 CPU with an Atari POKEY chip handling sound. Graphics were 256 x 231 pixels in 8 colours, and unlike Lunar Lander and Asteroids, Missile Command used a raster scan monitor.
Missile Command arcade machine

The gameplay was this: the player had to defend six cities at the bottom of the screen from waves of nuclear weapons (represented with a line with a blob on the end). The player would launch their own missiles from three bases into the sky to destroy the nukes, and those bases themselves can be destroyed. As the game progresses the player is attacked by missiles with multiple warheads, bombers and satellites. The game ends when all six cities are destroyed, and invariably they ARE destroyed.

Unusually, the primary control for the game was a large trackball which emulated the sort of thing that real military bases would use for controlling systems. Combined with the (then) advanced graphics and sound, it made Missile Command a distinctive and popular gaming experience.

Although the game was distributed by Atari in North America, Atari chose to partner with Sega to distribute it in Europe. This gave Sega a useful foothold in the arcade game market. In Asia-Pacific markets a smaller number of Taito cabinets were made. But as a classic video game, it was ported to many platforms from the 1980s onwards and there are still licenced version and clones available today. Or if you still have Flash installed on your computer, you can play it for free here.

Image credits:
John Cooper via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
James Brooks via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Nokia 6111 vs Samsung E530 (2005)

Nokia 6111
Introduced June 2005

A long time ago we weren’t so bothered about the technical specifications of our phones… how they were designed – the look and feel of the things – was often more important. One common design feature was to make phones small and curvy, and the rival Nokia 6111 and Samsung E530 phones were certainly that.

The Nokia 6111 was the best known of the pair, one of a small number of slider phones from Nokia. With a diminutive size and heavily curved corners there was no doubt that the 6111 was a looker. When closed it measures 84 x 47 x 23mm and at 92 grams it was lightweight as well. On the back was a competitive 1 megapixel camera with an LED flash and rudimentary video capabilities. The 1.8” 128 x 160 pixel screen wasn’t all that great but as with all Nokias of this type it was incredibly easy to use. The was an FM radio built in plus a few games (more could be downloaded) and it supported Bluetooth too.

Although this was a GPRS-only phone, it did include a version of the capable Opera web browser.
The most popular silver and white version looked a bit “girlie” but there were darker colour combinations too which looked less so. Launched at the height of the slider phone craze in the mid-noughties, the Nokia 6111 was quite a success.

Although Samsung were the king of the slider market in 2005, for the Samsung SGH-E530 they returned to their rather more traditional clamshell market. The E530 was all about curves, from the gentle curve of the clamshell case to the gentle contours of the keypad inside.

Available in a much wider variety of colours than the 6111 – including pink, orange, white, purple, blue and silver – the E530 did lean more definitely to the “girlie” end of the market. The built-in apps reinforced this with a calorie counter, fragrance chooser, biorhythm calculator and shopping list.

Samsung E530
In hardware terms the E530 beat the 6111 in a lot of respects. Although it still had a 1.8” display the Samsung was a much sharper 176 x 220 pixels, plus there was a smaller external display too next to the camera which could be used for selfies. The 6111 had a crude LED flash where the E530 didn’t, but the E530 had better battery life.

In software terms, the Samsung wasn’t quite as polished as the Nokia but it was certainly very usable.  You could use the Samsung as an MP3 player, even though like the Nokia, the Samsung lacked expandable memory but the E530’s internal 80Mb was much more useful than the paltry 23Mb in the 6111. Both came with four games included with other Java games available for download.

If you quite fancied the technical specs of the E530 but wanted something a bit less feminine then the Samsung E720 offered almost identical features but in a different package. Offering many variations on fundamentally similar handsets is something that Samsung still do today (with more than 500 “Galaxy” devices launched to date).

The Samsung E530 had better technical specifications and a more detailed design, but it was the Nokia 6111 that sold. Today the 6111 is commonly available for about £10 to £30 but with the rarer Cath Kidston versions coming in at rather more. The Samsung E530 is much rare and tends to range in price from £50 to £100. Either phone is a refreshing change from today’s identical-looking slabby smartphones however, and whatever you might think of the gender stereotyping they are both good looking devices.

Image credits: Nokia and Samsung

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Range Rover (1970)

1973 Range Rover
Introduced June 1970

The development of the Range Rover is a very long and quite interesting story which you can read about if you want. But the very short version is that the Rover Company wanted something to follow-on from their successful Land Rover utility vehicle. This search started in the 1950s and surprisingly it took nearly two decades to come up with something that they thought was good enough to bear the “Land Rover” name… and more crucially something that might sell.

The original Land Rover was strictly an off-roader. On road it was awful to drive, slow and Spartan on the inside. Attempts to convert it into a Station Wagon over the years had not met with sales success. But in the US, cars like the International Harvester Scout and the Ford Bronco showed that there was indeed a market for utility vehicles that could be used as an everyday car.

Development of the Range Rover (codenamed “Velar”) started in the mid-1960s, and it combined lessons from the Land Rover’s impressive off-road manners with Rover’s ability to make a quite luxurious and usable car, but perhaps the key added ingredient was the legendary Rover V8 engine. The Rover V8 a powerful and lightweight engine that had originally been developed and abandoned by Buick. Buick’s loss was definitely Rover’s gain and the V8 engine spent 46 year in production (ending only when Rover collapsed).

In the Range Rover, the V8 gave the car the power it needed to shift its substantial weight in a fairly speedy manner. Inside were things like (gasp) comfy seats and carpets. Peculiarly it was designed as a two-door car, although coachbuilders such as Monteverdi would sell you a four-door conversion. It took until 1981 for a factory-built four-door Range Rover to become available and in 1992 a long wheelbase version cemented the idea of it being a luxury car and was probably the best-looking of all the original Range Rover models.

Late model four-door long wheelbase Range Rover LSE
It had idiosyncrasies. The split tailgate wasn’t to everyone’s taste and it had the turning circle of a bus. But it stayed in production (as the Range Rover Classic) until 1996, two years after the launch of the P38 which replaced it and an astonishing 26 years on the market during which it was continually developed as a product.

Today the Range Rover is very much a luxury car, but one that has lost none of it’s off-road capabilities. A 1970 Range Rover could cost you a shade under £2000 (about £32,000 today) where today a base model will cost around £81,000 with typical prices being £100,000 or more. An original Range Rover Classic in fair condition can cost between £15,000 to £25,000 with really good ones nudging the price of a new one. Even though the timeless design doesn’t really look 50 years old, buying and maintaining one of these might well be a labour of love.

As a car, the Range Rover really launched the idea of a luxury SUV in Europe and fifty years later the things are all over the place, love them or loathe them. Today more than a third of new car sales in Europe are of SUVs like the Range Rover, and in the US the figure is about than half the market. The rise of car leasing also means that people don’t have to spend so much at once to get one of these huge beasts. Far from being a niche, the SUV is now becoming the mainstream choice.

Image credits:
Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0
nakhon100 via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Hollerith Tabulating Machine (1890)

1890 Hollerith Tabulating Machine
Introduced June 1890

The United States has a census every ten years, an essential act of counting all the population of the country and working out their demographics. But as the population grew in the 19th century, so it took longer and longer to take the census and process all the information. By 1880 the whole process took eight years, nearly long enough to clash with the 1890 census. Something had to be done.

The key part to processing the census more quickly (and cheaply) was the punched card. First introduced in 1804 (more than two centuries ago!) with the semi-automated Jacquard Loom, punched cards allowed binary data to be stored and read by simple mechanical and later electro-mechanical devices. It seemed to American inventor Herman Hollerith that this could be a key part of the solution to the census problem.

For the new census, data was still collected on paper but it was then transcribed to a punched card with 12 rows and 12 columns of binary data, marked by the presence or absence of a hole. The key element was Hollerith's Tabulating Machine. An electromechanical sensor combined with a simple counting dial could then add up the data in a variety of ways, which allowed for all sorts of data analysis.

100 million cards were made, and each was processed just four times to come up with the variety of statistics that the census office wanted. It took two years off the time it took to process the data, but the lasting legacy of the tabulating machine was much deeper. For the first time it showed that automation could be used to process data on a large scale. And remember… this was 1890.

Hollerith’s business grew and in 1896 he create the Tabulating Machine Company, which then in 1911 merged with some other businesses to become the awkwardly named Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. In 1924 this company renamed itself to International Business Machines (IBM). And a century after the Tabulating Machine’s success in the 1890 Census IBM gave us... errr… the PS/1.

Punched card from a Hollerith Machine
As it happens, the Hollerith Machine could be used for evil as well as good. The Nazi regime used demographic data collected on punched cards extensively with horrifying consequences.

Hollerith’s tabulating machine popularised the punched card, something still seen today sometimes in voting machines but which generally fell out of use in the 1980s. Today punched cards can be quite collectable, especially for more obscure systems or ones with some historical interest. However, most people who actually did use them don’t miss them at all... especially if you’ve ever dropped a big pile on the floor and have then had to sort them back into order by hand.

Image credits:
Diane Maine via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0
Marcin Wichary via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 7 June 2020

IBM PS/1 (1990)

IBM PS/1 Model 2011
Introduced June 1990

By 1990 the PC-compatible marketplace had changed a lot since the launch of the original IBM PC (model 5150) in 1981. No longer just the choice of businesses, PCs had largely replaced an eclectic range of incompatible home microcomputers that had dominated the earlier 1980s. It was increasingly common to see PCs in the home, but they weren’t generally IBM PCs despite IBM inventing the platform.

IBM had tried to break into the home computing market in 1984 with the IBM PCjr, a short-lived crippled version of the PC that was a sales catastrophe. Apparently unperturbed by this, in 1990 IBM tried to break into the same market again… and they repeated many of the same mistakes they had done years earlier.

Worse still, IBM’s attempt to redefine the business PC market with the IBM PS/2 launched a few years earlier was floundering. Instead of moving the market from DOS and the old ISA hardware architecture to OS/2 and Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) it seemed that IBM just split the market between themselves and competitors such as Compaq who were improving the old platforms instead.

In 1990 IBM tried a shift in direction with the new IBM PS/1. Rather more based on traditional PC architecture than the PS/2, it was designed for home users who wanted to be able to unpack something from the box and get working in minutes Models such as the 2011 made this really easy, and when assembled they booted into a friendly screen allowing easy access to DOS, Microsoft Works on online services if they had been included.

IBM PS/1 Model 2133
A Mac-like simplicity to the hardware had some drawbacks – it wasn’t really expandable and the non-standard power arrangement where the computer was powered by the monitor (like the Amstrad PC1512) meant that you were stuck with using the IBM PS/1 monitor for ever.

The hardware was excellent though, and it wasn’t stupidly expensive (competing with Compaq on the likes of price), but consumers were not that interested. It didn’t help that IBM had to create a completely new sales channel for the things as traditional IBM dealers didn’t sell to consumers, but in the US large-deal with Sears who bundled access to Prodigy with the computers. On early models DOS was included in ROM, which made the machines very quick to boot up.

Consumers were cool about the PS/1 though, preferring other brands where they were available. IBM was still seen as a business PC, and the incompatibilities of the PS/2 range rubbed off on the PS/1 even though it was a different hardware platform. IBM stuck with the range though, making the machines more expandable and more standard in terms of hardware and software.

The range lasted until 1994 when IBM replaced the PS/1 range with the architecturally similar but more appealing IBM Aptiva range which continued until IBM’s exit from the home PC market in 2001. Today the PS/1 is an uncommon beast but it commands decent prices of about £500 to £700 or depending on model.

Image credits:
Kungfoocow369 via Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain
Science Museum, London – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0