Thursday, 29 April 2021

Fiat 127 vs Morris Marina (1971)

Introduced April 1971

Two cars, two different design philosophies – the Fiat 127 and Morris Marina were both introduced in April 1971. One ended up being celebrated, the other derided. But which is which?

Fiat 127

Ah yes – the Fiat 127, the cute and inexpensive Italian hatchback of the 1970s. But it wasn’t a hatchback… well, not at launch, in 1971 you had a two-door saloon that had a boot at the back. Remember than even in the 1970s, the idea of the hatchback was a radical one… even though today it is an obviously versatile way to build a small car. The little 900cc engine gave a respectable 46 horsepower for such a car weighing about 700kg. The design was innovative enough, with crumple zones and excellent road holding – helped by the car’s front-wheel drive - with decent interior space as well.


Fiat 127
Fiat 127


A year later the hatchback version arrived – this is the version that really sold well – a major facelift in 1977 gave a more modern look and better engines. A further revision in 1982 sneaked in just before the launch of the Fiat Uno in 1983, and licenced versions built overseas lasted even longer.

This radical car was designed by Pio Manzù, who was tragically killed in a car accident before the 127 came into production. Manzù was an exceptionally talented young designer of lamps, clocks and furniture before turning his hand to automotive design. Just 30 years old when he died, it is likely that Manzù would have become one of the great car designers given the chance.

The Fiat 127 was massively influential – arguable the first modern hatchback design (well, eventually) – it set a pattern for small cars that it still in use today. Despite selling in huge numbers, only about 100 are still on British roads.

Morris Marina

Where the Fiat 127 predicted the future, the Morris Marina was instead a quick fix to British Leyland’s problems in the late 1960s with competing with the Ford Cortina. Available as a traditional four-door saloon or a rather rakish coupé, the Marina used tried-and-tested components to come up with something that wasn’t all that exciting, but for a while was certainly successful.


Morris Marina
Morris Marina


A reputation for unreliability and variable build quality, the Marina fell out of favour by the late 1970s and quickly became something of a joke, but this was probably unfair. It had been designed in a hurry and with a minimal budget, and yet it did everything that an early 1970s fleet buyer would want. It was certainly competitive with the Cortina.

The Marina’s Cortina-like capabilities were perhaps no coincidence. Designer Roy Haynes who created the Marina was also largely responsible for the Mark II Cortina. Haynes went on to other things before the Marina was launched however, and again here was another designer who had a chance to be one of the all-time greats but things didn’t quite pan out.

The Marina continued on until 1980 when it was replaced by the Ital – essentially a heavy facelift of the Marina – which continued until 1984. The Ital was the end of the line for Morris though, in the end the Marina was a dead end. Fewer than 400 Marinas are still on British roads.

Well, almost – the Ital briefly emerged again as the Huandu CAC6430 in China in the late 1990s. But it was the utterly magnificent door handles that had a life of their own, turning up in all sorts of exotic designs such as Lotuses and Ginettas.

Image credits:
Robert Capper via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0
Qropatwa via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0





Monday, 26 April 2021

Hayes Smartmodem (1981)

Introduced April 1981

The sound of modems belongs to a certain era before ubiquitous broadband. The characteristic screeching noise – a bit like a fax – joined in the rat-a-tat of dot matrix printers and the clunk clunk of mechanical disk drives. Modems had been around since the 1950s, a way of connecting computers together over the omnipresent telephone network. But initially they were very expensive and aimed at really big computer systems. As time went on, they became more affordable.. but not very usable.

By the late 1970s modems for computers had developed in two different ways – the acoustic coupler was a device where the screeching noise was fed into the telephone handset (often via a serial cable) or alternatively where it was permitted, the modem would be a card inside the computer with a telephone connection built in. But the acoustic coupler was bulky and slow, but the alternatively tended to need a modem designed specifically for every model of computer on the market – and these were only available for large systems and not the booming microcomputer market. There had to be a better way.

What was needed was a modem that could work with just about anything. That was the Hayes Smartmodem.

Hayes Smartmodem
Hayes Smartmodem


The “Smart” in Smartmodem wasn’t just marketing speak. It took advantage of the fact that almost every microcomputer system on the market had a serial port fitted, or one available as an optional extra. By using a serial port, all you needed to connect the Smartmodem to your micro was the appropriate cable, which if you couldn’t buy you might be able to make yourself.

But the implementation of serial ports varied from computer to computer, the Smartmodem needed to know (for example) when to hang up the connection. More sophisticated computers used pins to indicate when the connection was up or down, but cheaper ones didn’t. The serial port could also be running at a variety of speeds, so matching the port with the modem could be tricky on some devices.

Hayes designed a series of commands to control the modem, all beginning with “AT” for “attention”. But because all the commands started with the same two latters, the modem would attempt to use this to automatically match the baud rate of the computer with the modem. This made setting up the Smartmodem much simpler, but there was a more tricky problem… how could you tell the modem to hang up if you had a basic serial port that didn’t have the right wires to signal that to the modem?

To achieve this, the Smartmodem would look for a sequence “+++” followed by a once-second pause. This would break out of the communications sequence and make the modem ready to receive a command. If that command was ATH then the modem would hang up. It was an elegant solution, the pause minimised the possibility of it happening by accident. When competitors tried to copy the functionality of the Smartmodem, this was often implemented badly (in part because Hayes had patented it and demanded a fee). This meant that on some non-Hayes modems could hang up completely at random if they were sent the +++ sequence accidentally.

In these pre-internet days, modems would be use to connect computer directly to another computer, or perhaps to a BBS (bulletin board system) or if you were one of a small number of privileged people, they could act as a gateway to what was to become the internet.

The original Hayes Smartmodem was a 300 baud unit, but as technology improved the Hayes modems became faster. However, competition was also becoming fierce and although Hayes products were expensive, they were also very reliable and they carved themselves a healthy share of the market.

All good things come to an end though, and in the 1990s Hayes bet the barn on ISDN products, a market that never materialised. Competitors such as USRobotics were taking the analogue modem market. By the mid-1990s Hayes were in serious trouble. Bankruptcy and mergers led to them being subsumed into rivals Zoom Telephonics, where the brand eventually vanished. However, the Hayes website is still available although it was last updated in 2013.

Surprisingly, analogue modems are not quite a dead technology but their heyday has certainly passed. However, Hayes certainly made it easier to connecting disparate computer systems together and in part that drove the uptake of the internet in the 1990s.

Image credit:
Michael Pereckas via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0


Sunday, 18 April 2021

Xerox Star 8010 (1981)

Introduced April 1981

By the early 1980s, hardware and software designers had great dreams about what they wanted products to be. Portable perhaps, affordable or business-oriented… but all of these were constrained by technology and price. But what if you dreamed big and without compromise, and built the best computer system you possibly could? This is what Xerox did.

The catchily-named Xerox 8010 Information System – more commonly known as the Xerox Star – introduced potential customers to the graphical user interface, mouse, Ethernet, servers and email. A great deal of modern computing technology was first available in the Star, but it certainly came at a price.

Xerox Star 8010
Xerox Star 8010


It had been a very long journey. Doug Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos in 1968 had introduced many of these modern concepts, but running on primitive hardware. Many of Engelbart’s team migrated away to the giant Xerox corporation which had pioneered photocopiers and laser printers. The fortunes of Xerox were very much based in paper, but the concept of the paperless office loomed large and Xerox wanted to still be in business when paper was consigned to museums.

The Xerox Alto was their first attempt, launched in 1973 it incorporated a GUI (graphical user interface) and a mouse, but it was never sold commercially. Instead the Alto was deployed around the Xerox PARC as well as some universities and research organisations. It took another eight years for Xerox to realise a commercial product – the 8010 – but even though it had taken over a decade since Engelbart had shown the concepts, the Star was still way ahead of everyone else.

Strictly speaking, “Star” referred to the software rather than the hardware. And this wasn’t simply a computer you could buy and take home. Doing anything required a network, some servers and perhaps $100,000 in 1981 money for a small installation (about $250,000 today).

Japanese market Fuji Xerox 8012-J
Japanese market Fuji Xerox 8012-J


The price like the name was astronomical. But what that substantial wedge of cash bought you was a computer system with a high-resolution 17” monitor, a carefully thought out software interface that could work collaboratively with others, based on the high-end AMD Am2900 CPU. And the software was like nothing else.

Everything was WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) – you could edit two pages of a document side by side, including charts and tables from other applications and when they printed out they matched what was on the screen. You’d expect that today, but in 1981 it was revolutionary. The clever object-oriented operating system delivered features to the desktop that wouldn’t be common until a decade later.

There’s a problem with trying to sell customers a product that they don’t know they want at a price they can’t afford... all the efforts of Xerox to create an advanced computer system did not translate into many sales. Xerox tried to reposition the 8010 into a desktop publishing platform called the 6085 (aka Daybreak) which included a laser printer, and although this was a capable system it was still expensive and sales were slow. Later attempts to port the software to OS/2 and other platforms also failed. Xerox weren’t done with WYSIWYG though, a spin-off created the iconic Ventura Publisher, but that was only a passing success.

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Xerox Star UI
Xerox Star UI


Despite being a sales failure, the Star was a technological success. In particular elements from the Star user interface found their way into the Macintosh, Windows and a host of other platforms. The networked environment too was increasingly emulated by competitors. As is sometimes the case with big, sprawling companies the Xerox Corporation itself did not seem to understand or be able to protect its own intellectual property. As with many pioneers, it was other adapting their idea that made it a success. Today elements of the Star user interface are pretty much everywhere, but this pioneering system is long dead.

Image credits:
Rhys Jones via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Fuji Xerox - Courtesy of FUJIFILM Business Innovation Corp
Amber Case / Digibarn via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0



Sunday, 11 April 2021

Victor 9000 / ACT Sirius 1 (1981)

Introduced April 1981

By 1981 the business microcomputer market was developing very rapidly. First generation 8-bit systems were giving way to more powerful 16-bit systems, and so too a new generation of computer companies were challenging the early pioneers.

One of these companies was Sirius Systems Technology, founded by (among others) the legendary Chuck Peddle who had designed the Commodore PET and MOS Technology 6502. Peddle and his team then set about designing a next-generation computer system based around Intel’s 8/16-bit CPU, the 8088, called the Victor 9000.

Now you’ve probably heard about the IBM PC, also launched in 1981 and eventually finding its descendants on just about every work desk everywhere. The Victor 9000 was better and hit the market first, but would it be enough to succeed? The answer is complicated.


Victor 9000
Victor 9000

It was based around a 5MHz 8088 CPU with between 128Kb to 896Kb of RAM, a high-resolution 800 x 400 pixel display, clever variable-speed floppies with up to 1.2Mb of storage, a bunch of interface ports and a very pleasing industrial design. On top of this the Victor 9000 could run CPM/86 (the 8086/8088 version of CP/M) and could also run Microsoft’s new (although slightly recycled) MS-DOS operating system. A useful wordprocessor, spreadsheet and financial management software could be bought to run on it.

Overall, this was a good and extremely competitive system… and perhaps it could have been a world leader if it wasn’t for the launch of the IBM PC in the US in August 1981. The PC was more expensive and less capable, but the magic three letters “IBM” ensure that larger corporations went out and bought it. Sales of the Victor 9000 were disappointing in the United States… but IBM waited another 18 months to launch the PC in Europe where the market was wide open.


Sleeker Victor 9000 with half-height drives
Sleeker Victor 9000 with half-height drives


In Europe, the Birmingham-based Applied Computer Techniques (ACT) acquired a licence to sell the Victor 9000 as the ACT Sirius 1. With little competition, the Sirius 1 became a major success in the UK and Germany in particular, even though it wasn’t really PC compatible in any meaningful way. Of course when IBM did start shipping into Europe, sales of the Sirius I were hit badly.

ACT Sirus 1 advertisement
ACT Sirus 1 advertisement


For the US-based Sirius Systems, their history was short one that followed a traditional path – only three years after the launch of the Victor 9000 they were bankrupt. It was a different story for ACT who launched several generations of advanced but not-quite-PC-compatible computers under the “Apricot” brand afterwards including the world’s first production system based on a 486 CPU. A takeover by Mitsubishi in 1990 was effectively the end of the independent Apricot brand - indeed Mitsubishi shuttered operations in 1999 – but it outlasted Sirius Systems, and along the way ACT kept innovating and was probably far more influential than its American partner.

Image credits:
Samuel via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Bradford Timeline via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
The Henry Ford Museum - CC BY-NC-ND 3.0



Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Osborne 1 (1981)

Introduced April 1981

These days we take our computers everywhere – powerful smartphones, big-screen tablets and for more serious work, laptop computers that can do anything that a desktop machine can do. But if you wanted to take your computer with you forty years ago, then it was a serious hassle to disassemble everything and then assemble it all on the other end – travelling with a computer was just not a practical proposition.

That wasn’t the only issue in the early ‘80s. Even if you bought a computer, at best you’d have the operating system on a floppy disk and really nothing else. To get the most of it you would need to buy software for it, which could often cost more than the substantial amount of money you had already spent on the machine.

Launched in April 1981, the Osborne 1 attempted to tackle both of these issues. A self-contained “luggable” computer, you could simply unplug it from the wall socket and take it with you. Although it weighed a hefty 10.7 kilograms, it was packaged in such a way that you could stow it under an airline seat and potentially take it anywhere. The hardware had its appeals, but it was the bundled software – nominally worth $1500 – which had even more appeal, especially given that the Osborne 1 was priced at $1795. It seemed like a bargain.


Osborne 1

The bundled software included WordStar (the leading wordprocessor of its time), dBASE II (the leading database package), SuperCalc (a spreadsheet), PeachTree accounting software, two versions of BASIC, some tutorials and a couple of games: Infocom’s Deadline and a version of Colossal Cave.

Inside the Osborne 1 was a Z80 CPU with 64Kb of RAM, running CP/M 2.2 which was pretty typical for its time. A pair of full height floppies were on either side of a tiny 5” CRT display – smaller than most modern smartphones. The small screen size was in part due to the limited space left in the case due to these drives, which were chosen for robustness rather than capacity and as a result could only store 90Kb. An external monitor interface was available, so you could have a screen both in the office and at home which is still a common solution to portable displays today.

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It's a "portable" computer. You can move it. Not put it on your lap.

Despite its flaws, the Osborne 1 found its niche. No other company made a viable portable computer, and the software package made it a compelling buy even if you didn’t want to lug it about. It was somewhat expandable too, including a 300 baud modem that could fit into one of the diskette storage bays which made the Osborne 1 viable for rudimentary remote working.

Although the shine was coming off CP/M with the launch of the IBM PC later in 198, Osborne was still selling these in quite large numbers and at a profit. They also had more machines in the pipeline, including the Osborne Executive which had a bigger screen, more storage and more RAM. Things were going well, but then a disaster occurred.

The disaster was a human one. Adam Osborne - a prolific writer of computer books who had founded the Osborne Computer Corporation – announced the follow-on models a significant time before they were ready. Customers and distributors stopped buying the Osborne 1 in anticipation of the better models. This cutting away of their customer base also coincided with the launch of the Kaypro II and eventually the PC-compatible Compaq Portable for high-end users. The company declared bankruptcy in 1983 – just two and a half years after the release of the Osborne 1 – trying a last-ditch attempt to get back in the market with the Executive and the more advanced Osborne Vixen. Ultimately it failed to re-establish a foothold in the market it created, although Osborne limped on until 1985 ultimately producing the Osborne 3 which was based on the Morrow Pivot.

One you added a couple of full-height floppy drives there wasn't much space for anything else

Today the infamous “Osborne Effect” is probably better known that the computers that presaged it. Most collectable models are in the United States, but prices for one in working condition are typically just a few hundred dollars.

Image credits:
Tomislav Medak via Flickr – CC BY 2.0
Thomas Conté via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Dave Jones via Flickr – CC0

Monday, 5 April 2021

LG KG800 Chocolate (2006)

Released April 2006

Today LG announced that they were pulling out of the mobile phone business, a market that they had competed in for two decades. The loss-making unit struggled to compete with the likes of archi-rivals Samsung (a Korean company like LG) and increasingly competitive Chinese manufacturers are taking substantial market share in the Asia-Pacific region.

Recent LG devices have been slabby and competent smartphones, but did they ever make an iconic device? Possibly the most memorable phone they made was 2006’s LG KG800 “Chocolate”.

LG KG800 Chocolate
LG KG800 Chocolate

An elegant slider phone, coming to market 15 years ago, the KG800 came from the golden age of mobile phone design. The smooth almost featureless phone slid open to reveal a keypad that had a passing resemblance to the squares on a bar of chocolate – hence the “Chocolate” name the phone was marketed under. An adaptation of a Korean-only phone launched the previous year, the KG800 was sold worldwide in one form or another and was a huge hit.

What interesting feature were the touch-sensitive buttons on the front of the phone which were normally invisible but lit up when they were active. This gave the device a sleek, mysterious form factor. Unfortunately they could also be easily triggered accidentally, one common problem being that it was easy to trigger the sequence to delete all the contacts in your phone. Ooops.

In these pre-iPhone days, expectations about technical specs were not very high but the Chocolate didn’t really meet up with those, even by 2006 standards. A 2.0” 176 x 220 pixel display, 1.3 megapixel camera, 128Mb of non-expandable storage, no 3G support… it wasn’t great. But primarily this was a fashion phone and the sleek looks were the appealing factor.

Where the Chocolate may have been the most memorable, there were some other interesting devices too. LG’s U8000 series of clamshells were among the first 3G phones to be widely available on the market, the GD900 had a very cool transparent keypad, there was the GD910 watch phone, the PRADA phone that might have been an iPhone rival under different circumstances, the LG Optimus 3D (which you might guess had a 3G display), indeed looking back LG weren’t short of innovation, but they could never quite create the “must have” phone that they needed for real success.

LG tried to follow up the success of the Chocolate with a number of other devices such as the BL20, BL40, KU800 plus also the Secret and the Shine. They met with limited success in a market that was shifting towards smartphones rather than feature phones.

While it’s sad to see LG go, it’s unlikely that most people will notice. But if you want a device to remember them by, the KG800 is typically priced at only £10 to £25 in decent condition.

Image credit: LG

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Nintendo Game Boy Advance (2001)

Introduced March 2001

Nintendo had popularised handheld gaming, first with the simple but fun Game & Watch in 1980, then then Game Boy in 1990 and the Game Boy Color in 1998. By the early noughties, the technology for handheld devices was improving at a rapid rate – and it was into this market that the Game Boy Advance (or “GBA” for short) was born.

The original series of Game Boy devices used a weird Sharp CPU – the LR35902, which was a sort of cross between an Intel 8080 and a Zilog Z80. The new Game Boy Advance used a 32-bit ARM processor of the type that was eventually to become ubiquitous in handheld devices. The weird Sharp CPU was still there though, providing backwards compatibility with earlier Game Boy generations.


Game Boy Advance
Game Boy Advance



Unlike earlier versions, the control buttons were on either side of the 2.9” colour display. But it was the display itself that was divisive – it didn’t have a backlight and was difficult to see in a lot of lighting conditions. Although 2001-era displays weren’t as good as they are today, the Game Boy Advance was a disappointment. However, power requirements were low and the unit would run for up to 15 hours on two AA batteries.

Limitations aside, it was a very successful device with a wide variety of games, including all those written for earlier Game Boy devices plus a large number of others written just for this console. The GBA also came in a wide variety of colours and special editions to tempt people to buy more than one. Less commonly used were adapters and link cables for playing multiplayer games and watching videos.

Game Boy Advance SP
Game Boy Advance SP

Although it was a fundamentally good console, the poor screen held it back. In 2003 Nintendo launched the Game Boy Advance SP in a clamshell design with a front-light which improved matters, but a later revision in 2005 (the AGS-101) included a backlight and it finally made the GBA playable in all environments. The Nintendo DS effectively replaced the GBA and was compatible with most of its games, originally launched alongside the SP it eventually took over. Between all different models of the GBA, total sales were in excess of 80 million. If you want one today, prices vary significantly but an AGS-101 in good condition will start at around £150 but rarer variants can be much more expensive.
 

Image credits:
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons – CC 0