Saturday, 17 November 2018

BlackBerry Storm 9500 (2008)

Launched November 2008

By late 2008 it was nearly two years after the launch of the original iPhone, but there was still everything to play for in the newly popular smartphone market. Nokia had launched the 5800 XpressMusic, Google had partnered with HTC to make the T-Mobile G1 and even Windows phones were showing some useful developments. But nothing could quite manage the polish and attention to detail that Apple had.

So when RIM started working on a touchscreen device there was much anticipation that their expertise would come up with something class leading. When the BlackBerry Storm 9500 was announced in a blaze of publicity and it was dubbed an “iPhone Killer”.

On paper it looked pretty good. The screen was a bit smaller than the iPhone but had a higher resolution, the camera looked promising, it had GPS support, a removable battery and expandable memory but for some baffling reason there was no WiFi. Expectations about the software were very high, RIM having gained a reputation for making an effective platform for both businesses and consumers.

In reality the BlackBerry Storm was a disaster. One of the main problems was the screen – instead of making a simple touchscreen, RIM had tried to reproduce the feel of a traditional keypad using a system called SurePress, which simulated having to press down on the screen to do something. It was awful, in particular when used with the virtual keyboard. But it didn’t stop there, the entire user interface was a badly-implemented rehash of traditional BlackBerries and it lacked the ease-of-use that Apple was offering. Despite the proven strengths of RIM’s software offerings, the user experience was pretty abysmal.

But there was more – the camera should have been better than the iPhone but really only produced fuzzy approximations of real life, the lack of WiFi turned out to be a big deal, it was slow and had limited memory, and it was much chunkier than the iPhone to carry about.

In short, it was a disaster. Famously, Stephen Fry gave it a withering review while at the same time praising the BlackBerry Bold 9000, concluding that “the Storm could teach an industrial vacuum pump how to suck”. While other reviewers were perhaps less eloquent, the feelings were very widespread. And although initial sales were not bad, word quickly got around and it was widely recognised for the lemon it was.

RIM took on board the criticisms and fixed at least some of the problems with the Storm2 launched a year later. The Storm2 added WiFi and improved the user interface and tricky SurePress display, but the Storm’s reputation preceded it, and because the Storm2 was basically a bugfix the specifications were looking rather out-of-date in late 2009.

In 2010, BlackBerry tried again with the Torch which combined both the touchscreen and a slide-out physical keyboard. It was a moderate success, and quite popular with existing BlackBerry customers but it didn’t win anyone else over. In 2013, RIM tried again with the all-touch BlackBerry Z10 which ended up as an even bigger disaster than the Bold. Overall, you could say that RIM didn’t have much luck with touchscreen devices.

If you like to collect high-profile failures, the BlackBerry Storm is easy to come by and inexpensive with prices starting at £30 or so for good ones, and up to £90 for “new old stock” with the marginally more useful Storm2 coming in at a little more.

Image credits: RIM / BlackBerry

Monday, 12 November 2018

Nokia 6810 and 6820 (2003)

"Ta-dah!" - the Nokia 6280 shows off its party trick
Launched November 2003

A pair of handsets from Nokia’s “weird phase” in 2003, the Nokia 6800 series of devices attempted to make messaging easier by adding a large keyboard, while at the same time keeping the size and weight down to that of a standard mobile phone.

Both phones were derived from the original Nokia 6800 launched the previous year and copied the novel unfolding keyboard that it had pioneered. Cleverly hidden underneath the numeric keypad was a QWERTY keyboard which opened up by a hinge halfway up the screen. This led to the unusual layout of having half the keyboard on each side of the display.

The Nokia 6810 was a straight upgrade of the previous year’s phone, but adding Bluetooth in addition to the FM radio the 6800 had. The Nokia 6820 came with a basic CIF camera and a more compact keyboard which meant that the phone was more compact than the 6810. The 6820 was sold more to consumers, the 6810 was marketed at businesses – especially for email.

The 6810 and 6820 were certainly a triumph of industrial design and they certainly had the “wow factor” when opened up. However, the keyboard arrangement forced you to use two hands (unlike a contemporary BlackBerry) and the whole thing definitely looked rather strange.

They were a niche success in the end, and although sales were quite low these funny little handsets did have their fans. Two years later, Nokia tried the same format again with the Nokia E70. This was a much better phone all around, but it still failed to break the mould in the way Nokia would have hoped.

These handsets are quite collectable today, with prices starting at around £40 or so and going to up a couple of hundred for ones in perfect condition. They’re an interesting glimpse into what might have been, and are certainly testament to Nokia’s efforts in coming up with new ideas… even if you really wouldn’t want to be seen using one in the street.

Image credit: Nokia

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Dial W for Weird: The Strange First Days of 3

Back in the early days of 3G handsets, it seemed that nobody really knew what the next-generation of mobile phones would look like. Companies such as Siemens came up with some wild-looking concepts which never made it to production. We take a look back to some of the early phones available on the fledgling 3 network in the UK, when handsets were scarce and phones were... weird.

Motorola A920 and A925

Motorola A920 and A925
Motorola was also a key player in early 3G handsets, with the A920 and A925 perhaps being somewhat recognisable precursors of today’s smartphones. In addition to 3G support, the A920 and A925 had a 2.8” touchscreen display, ran the Symbian operating system with the UIQ touch interface, and had GPS support and the single swivelling camera could be used for basic photography and video calling. Although the screen was relatively large for its day, the huge bulk of the handset dwarfed it and made it look relatively small.

The differences between the A920 and A925 are mostly cosmetic – the A920 launched first with all the design charm of 1960s East German tractor factory. After working frantically together, Motorola and 3 came up with the A925 which had the design charm of a 1980s East German tractor factory. This was progress of sorts.

NEC E808

Perhaps the most striking phone in 3’s early line-up was the NEC E808, which was one of those visionary devices that demonstrated that neither carriers nor manufacturers really knew what consumers wanted.

Rather beautifully engineered in black and chrome, the E808 had a full QWERTY keyboard and a relatively large 2.8” display along with both front and rear-facing cameras. It looked like a tiny laptop computer, but the reality was a bit disappointing. The large display only had a resolution of 162 x 132 pixels, and because 3 had a “walled garden” approach to the internet in most regions, you couldn’t actually browse the web. You could use the keyboard for text messages and emails, but the phone was too limited to do much else. You could make video calls on it though – this was a big thing for 3G networks – but in reality, hardly anybody did.

NEC E808 and E808Y
It didn’t take too long for NEC to come out with a more sober version of the E808 called the E808Y which transformed the elegant but enormous clamshell into something that looked rather more BlackBerryesque. Essentially though the hardware was unchanged other than its looks, and again it promised rather more than it could deliver.

Nokia 7600

But if you thought that the E808 misjudged the market... there was Nokia. Their mainstream 3G phone was the batshit-crazy Nokia 7600 which so fundamentally missed the needs of potential customers that it ended up being a high-profile disaster. The insane keyboard, tiny screen and lack of video calling just made it rather pointless.

Nokia 7600
Customers of that era would obviously want a Nokia, but they didn’t want THIS Nokia. There was another 3G Nokia handset available, the 6650. But you couldn’t have that. Oh no, that would be TOO easy. Even with heavy discounting, consumers stayed away from the 7600 in droves.

NEC E616 / E616V

NEC E616

Admittedly these weren’t the only phones, but the NEC E606 and Motorola A830 were like the last kids to be picked for the team, and they were never going to win 3 any medals. By late 2003 there was finally a less awful handset in 3’s line-up, the NEC E616.

The E616 looked rather nice, although like all 3G phones at the time it was a bit large. Two separate front and back facing cameras delivered on the promise of video calling without having to swivel a camera around, there was expandable memory and a decent media player and the 2.2” screen may not have been very good but the 176 x 240 pixel resolution was better than most. The E616 did have a pretty rubbish main camera though at just 352 x 240 pixels, but this was rapidly replaced with the E616V which boasted 640 x 480 pixels.

It took a long time for 3G phones to be the standard – a big problem for 3G-only networks such as 3. The market took about 5 years to fundamentally shift away from 2G with the rise of the Android platform helping to drive high-speed data use. Today most these curious relics of early 3G telephony are still fairly easy to find and not expensive.

Image credits: NEC, Motorola, Symbian, Nokia, TimSE via Wikimedia Commons, Conrad Longmore via Wikipedia, Retromobe

Friday, 26 October 2018

Motorola MPx200 (2003)

Motorola MPx200
Launched October 2003

Fifteen years ago we started to see the first widely-available smartphones. Built on Symbian or Windows technologies, these devices came in all shapes and sizes and although some are recognisable precursors of the phones we use today, many concepts anded up as dead ends.

Motorola added another alternative form factor to the market with the Motorola MPx200, a Windows-based clamshell phone which looked for all the world like a normal feature phone until you powered it on.

Although it seems odd to have a clamshell smartphone, it made a lot of sense. In particular, clamshell phones of the time had more space to play with inside. The MPx200 came with a relatively large 2.2” 176 x 220 pixel panel as a result, and the keypad was nicely spaced and not cramped.

The main selling point was Windows, and this was both a strength and weakness for the MPx200. Managing to squeeze much of the functionality of a PDA into a compact unit with wireless connectivity, Motorola came up with something that could potentially be very versatile… and perhaps it had the potential to be very popular.

But the MPx200 was deeply flawed. Firstly, the Windows Smartphone 2002 operating system was already out of date with most rivals using the improved 2003 version. It also lacked Bluetooth, something that was rapidly becoming an essential component of any business phone. Added to that, the device was slow and not very reliable. There was also no camera, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for a business phone but was off-putting for individual consumers.

Despite its flaws, it was quite a successful device in terms of sales. But as with many Motorola products of that era, the MPx200 promised more that it delivered. In mid-2004, Motorola replaced the MPx200 with the much improved MPx220 which wasn’t particularly successful. Perhaps if Motorola had waited until they got the formula right then they might have had more success. For collectors of esoteric smartphones, the MPx200 isn’t too hard to find and is fairly inexpensive but the MPx220 is rather more difficult to locate and tends to be a bit pricier.

Image credit: Motorola

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Apple Macintosh TV (1993)

Apple Macintosh TV
Launched October 1993

Some inventions seem obvious from a technical point of view, but often they fail to understand how real-world customers use products. Take the Apple Macintosh TV, a clever bit of technology which was launched 25 years ago this month as an example.

Apple had partnered with Sony to put Trinitron CRTs into their Macintosh line since the later 1980s, and their contemporary LC500 series of computers contained a 14” Trinitron display. So, somebody somewhere must have thought that it would be a good idea to allow the Trinitron display to be used as a normal TV as well as a computer monitor.

The Macintosh TV included an integrated TV tuner card and a both an antenna port and a composite video-in port, so it could be used with over-the-air and compatible cable and/or satellite systems. Technical limitations of the early 90s hardware meant that you couldn’t display the TV picture in a window, it would only work in full screen mode. However, you could capture video stills and save them to the computer.

But perhaps the best thing about the Macintosh TV was the colour. Standard Macs were a “Platinum” colour, but the Macintosh TV was all black, including a black keyboard and mouse. It looked much cooler than a standard Mac, but sadly it was just a little bit slower and less expandable.

It was also expensive ($2100) compared to other similar Macs which rather eroded any cost savings by not having a TV. But perhaps the biggest problem was the whole concept – just because a computer has a display, it does not mean that people want to watch TV on it. TVs and computers tend to be in very different parts of the house for different functions, and although it might fit well into a college dorm room or teenager’s bedroom, the price-tag would prove a major hurdle.

During the year-and-a-half it was on the market, the Macintosh TV shipped just 10,000 units, seemingly limited to North America. These days they are a pretty rare find, with typical prices being about $700 or so.

Image credit: Ben Boldt via Wikimedia Commons

Citroën 2CV (1948) and Smart ForTwo (1998)

Here are two cars, fifty years apart that oddly enough seem to have more in common than you would think.

Citroën 2CV

One of the all-time classics of automotive design, work on the 2CV started before the Second World War. The design criteria were a product of the age – a low cost and versatile car that could transports four people plus 50 kilos of goods at 50 kilometres per hour across bumpy roads, and also that the car should be tall enough for the occupants to travel to church while wearing their hats. Work on prototypes known as TPVs continued with various novel cost-saving designs involved. By August 1939, Citroën were ready to go into production with a pilot run of 250 cars which were to be called the Deux Chevaux (French for "two horsepower") or simply the "2CV".

2CV and 2CV-derived Citroën Acadiane van

War broke out on the 3rd September 1939 and the launch was cancelled as France geared for conflict. But by June 1940 France had fallen to the Nazis, and then the story takes a strange twist. Citroën were worried that the prototypes might fall into enemy hands, so most of the prototypes were destroyed with a few hidden away.

Despite the Nazis trying to steal Citroën’s tooling, work on the car carried on in secret (there is a parallel with the Morris Minor here) and the designs evolved to meet what they thought would be post-war requirements. The car looked in doubt again with the post-war French government wanting Citroën to concentrate on another market segment altogether.

But – eventually – in October 1948 the 2CV came to market. To say it was basic would be an understatement. There was no lock on the ignition or the door, no fuel gage, there was a speedometer you couldn’t see at night, no real boot, no heater, a single tail-light and it was only available in grey. The car needed to be started with a cranking handle. Despite this, the demand for the car was huge and a waiting list developed that was five years long.

Inside the original was a tiny 375 cc generating 9 horsepower, and to save money and weight the entire roof was made of fabric that could be rolled back to make it a convertible. The elegant yet simple design inside and out owed more than a passing nod to the Bauhaus school of design. And despite the apparently basic specification, the engineering behind it all was rather innovative.

Over the years the car was improved with better (although still tiny) engines and luxuries such as indicators, a starter motor plus all the other things that were missing from the 1948 model. A huge number of variants and derivatives followed, and the 2CV moved from being a basic car for farmers to being a slightly less basic car for people who wanted to make a lifestyle statement.

It was hardly a fast car. The most powerful production engine gave an output of just 33 horsepower. Idiosyncrasies in the air-cooled design meant that cars came with both a summer and winter front grille, the latter being more insulated and helping the engine to warm up. Until the end of production, the 2CV could still be started with the supplied cranking handle which could also be used to remove the wheels. The soft suspension made handling somewhat comedic.

The car rolled alarmingly going around a corner, and the minimalist seating didn’t offer much support to stop you sliding off. More worryingly, the lightweight 1940s design didn’t offer much in the way of crash protection.

Production of the 2CV came to an end in 1990, but over that that its uniqueness always gave the car a distinctive appeal. Excluding all the variants, over 3.8 million 2CVs were manufactured. Today a 2CV in good condition can set you back more than £10,000 in the UK.

Smart ForTwo (1998)

Where the 2CV can trace back its styling to the influences of the Bauhaus, the car that because the Smart FourTwo was originally proposed by funky Swiss watch company Swatch. Founder Nicolas Hayek wanted to make a fun, small car with an electric powertrain and after searching around for a partner he eventually reached an agreement with Mercedes-Benz.

Mercedes had prototyped a two-seater city car in 1981 called the NAFA, and although that never reached production it gave Mercedes an insight into what would be needed. A proposal was drawn up and the new car was called the “smart” (in lowercase) which stood for “Swatch Mercedes ART”.

Things soon fell apart though, and Swatch was disappointed that Mercedes wanted to put in a small petrol engine rather than something more forward-looking, and during development they dropped out leaving Mercedes to go it alone.

What was eventually produced was quite radical though – a tall but short two-seater car with a little rear-mounted two cylinder engine to drive it. Although the original Smart (originally called the City-Coupé) was aimed at city-dwellers rather than farmers, the cars had some similar concepts… not least of which was that the ForTwo was built in France.

A pair of customised Smart FourTwos
Like the 2CV, the Smart had plenty of headroom inside. People who expect the tiny car to be cramped are usually pleasantly surprised by the amount of space. The high driving position and good all-round visibility makes it feel more like an SUV or van, and it’s easy to think that you are driving something much bigger until you glance behind you and remember there is no back row of seats… in effect you are driving half a car.

The Smart could originally be had as a cabriolet or a coupé with a hard-top. The fabric top of the convertible version again had echoes of the 2CV, and it was the cheapest soft-top car on the market.

Both cars featured a very small petrol engine. In the case of the Smart it was a three cylinder 600 cc unit with a turbocharger 45 horsepower or upwards. Over the years, this two became more powerful and the BRABUS version has a 100 horsepower engine. Although the light weight and capable engines made the Smart fun to drive, its ability to go around corners at speed was not only comically bad but also rather frightening.

The poor handling was a black mark in what was otherwise a remarkably safe little car. The body was created around a reinforced safety cage (called the Tridion cell by Mercedes) which offered very good all-around protection for a little car. The Tridion cell is typically a different colour from the rest of the car. Airbags and electronic stability also improved the overall safety. The original version had a somewhat vague automatic gearbox which could be changed to a rather better sequential one at the push of a button.

In the original car, the brightly-coloured plastic panels were easy to remove and some owners engaged in “panel swaps” where they could change the look of their car by exchanging panels with someone else. Some owners went further with their alterations too, and a healthy modding community grew up.

Today the Smart ForTwo is in its third generation, but has never had the success that the 2CV did. Various companion models came along, including an interesting but problematic Roadster that was around for a few years, two completely different four-seat “ForFour” models along with some more esoteric versions of the ForTwo itself.

The little Smart car ended up being something of a design icon of its own, where the 2CV was originally meant to be utilitarian before it acquire a counter-cultural vibe about it, the ForTwo was more a symbol of young fun-seeking city-dwellers. Whether or not the Smart will still be thought of that way in another half century is to be seen…

Image credits: Conrad Longmore and Classic Fan via Flickr

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Nokia 3660 (2003)

Launched October 2003

Sometimes Nokia’s weird designs are too weird even for Nokia. The Nokia 3650 (launched in 2002) is a case in point. The 3650 was a very early Symbian smartphone and it ticked all the boxes for an early-noughties Nokia device. Smartphone OS. Tick. Candy bar format. Tick. Biggish screen. Tick. Camera. Tick. Expandable memory. Tick. Weird design. Tick.
Nokia 3650 (left) and 3660 (not on the left)

The Nokia 3650’s design is made up of sweeping lines and curves and at some point, somebody though it must have been a good idea to extend those curves to the keypad. Why make it square? Let’s make it round! A behold, the Nokia 3650 was launched with a rotary keypad.

Instead of being arranged in a grid, the number keys were set out in a circle. Nokia immediately polarised opinion on this, with many people thinking it was just plain stupid but also a significant number who liked it and thought it was easier to use.

Sure it was edgy and radical, and Nokia always did like to push the limits of design. But this was meant to be the launch of mainstream device that was going to carve out some market share for Symbian. But instead Nokia launched thousands of flame wars instead.

So, a year later Nokia reworked the 3650 and came up with the 3660 instead. Gone was the rotary-style keypad and in its place was something a bit more like a traditional grid, but still maintaining the circular shape of its predecessor. More mainstream, yes, but other than the keypad the only other improvement was a 65k colour screen over the 4096 colours in the old one.

Despite managing to annoy both factions in the keypad debate, both the Nokia 3650 and 3660 were successful enough to help cement Symbian as the market leader in smartphone platforms. It took a while for Nokia to stop messing around with keypads though, as the weird-looking Nokia 7610 proves.

Today the Nokia 3650 is very collectable, with typical prices for a good one being £100 or so. The 3660’s more sober design makes it a bit less interesting and these are very much cheaper.

Image credits: Nokia