Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Apple Macintosh LC (1990)

Introduced October 1990

The Macintosh LC helps to demonstrate the tricky situation that Apple found itself in at the beginning of the 1990s. On one hand, sales of the Macintosh were doing well with a continually evolving product line including the powerful colour Macintosh II range. On the other hand, a large slice of the their sales were still to educational markets who very much favoured the ancient Apple II platform, development of which had continued into the late 1980s with Apple IIc Plus, IIe Platinum and even a 16-bit version called the Apple IIGS.

Not unreasonably, Apple wanted to move this market on from warmed-over products of the late 1970s. Schools in particular demanded colour, but the Macintosh II platform was very expensive and the cheaper Macintosh Classic platform was monochrome-only. The challenge was to create a colour Mac that didn’t cost the earth, and the LC was created in response to that challenge.


Apple Macintosh LC
Apple Macintosh LC

Although half the price of the contemporary Macintosh IIx, the LC was crippled in performance terms by the out-of-date Motorola 68020 processor, 16-bit internal bus and a maximum of 10Mb of RAM. Graphics capabilities were more limited than the Macintosh II, leading to some compatibility problems, and internal expansion was more limited.

Still it was a Mac, and if you wanted a colour Mac but didn’t have the substantial amount of cash needed for a Mac II then the LC was the way to go. And it turned out that a lot of people wanted a colour Mac very badly, and they were prepared to put up with the performance hit that the LC came with. So despite everything, the LC was a sales success.

Although it was cheap compared to the more than $7000 demanded for the IIx, the base unit of the LC by itself had a list price of $2400, more than four times the price of an Apple II. Still, it was around the same price and same market segment that 80386SX PCs were selling into. Schools stubbornly stuck with the Apple II though, which soldiered on until 1993. After that point you would need an Apple IIe card in your Mac LC series to run Apple II programs (which was another $250).

It was always going to be a tricky transition – the LC certainly took sales away from the Mac II and it wasn’t the budget computer that could replace the Apple II. Performance was an issue, mostly because the LC could easily have been made faster for a little more money.

But perhaps the biggest problem was fragmentation… by the end of 1990 there were four different models of Macintosh II on sale, plus the Mac Classic, SE/30, the esoteric Portable and the LC. In a few year time, Apple would have 20 or more competing products which confused both consumers and showed a lack of direction within the company that nearly led to its bankruptcy in the late 90s.

The LC itself didn’t last long, replaced by the similar 68030-based LC II in 1992 and finally getting the performance it needed with the LC III in 1993. Surprisingly, prices for an original LC in decent condition can easily be a few hundred pounds whereas an equivalent model 386SX PC of the same era is basically landfill. Old Apple devices are quite collectable, but really you want to find an Apple I in a cupboard rather than a humble Mac LC…

Image credit:
Jay Tong via Flickr - CC BY-ND 2.0



Saturday, 24 October 2020

Epson MX-80 (1980)

Introduced October 1980

It was the noise you remember most of all, the slow tortured screeching of metal pins hammering thousands of tiny black dots onto paper, for what seemed like an eternity. When you were in a room full of them, the sound was cacophonous but distinctive. Not quite like the rat-a-tat machine gun fire of a daisy wheel or the howled whistling of a modem, the din of a dot matrix printer is thankfully something seldom heard today.

The Epson MX-80 is probably the key product of its type. Introduced in October 1980, this 9-pin dot matrix printer was capable, reliable, compact and lightweight. Most of all, it was successful – the MX-80 and the Epson printers that followed it defined the way most of us printed for more than a decade.

Elegantly but practically designed, the MX-80 used a simple 9 x 9 matrix to produce typically 80 columns of text. Nine pins meant that the printer could produce “true descenders” on letters such as p and g rather than 8 x 8 matrices (as found on most computers) which could struggle. Italics, bold characters and underlining was all supported, and the printer could also produce custom graphics with a little effort.

Epson MX-80
Epson MX-80

The MX-80 was a bidirectional printer with logic seeking which meant faster print times of up to 80 characters per second. On the standard model the paper was tractor fed from a box of fanfold paper (also called continuous stationary) on the floor, typically allowing for up to 2000 sheets before the slightly awkward task of feeding in some more.

You would typically hook up the MX-80 to a small computer using a parallel port which was a big cable, but it didn’t require anything to set it up. Serial options were available, and the MX-80 F/T had a friction feed so it could use cut sheet paper. A larger MX-100 had a wider carriage for bigger paper.

It was cheap to run – mostly you’d just need a new ribbon from time-to-time, although quite expensive to buy. By modern standards it was very slow, taking up to a couple of minutes for each page. And then there was the paper…

Fanfold paper is all connected together, making one continuous piece of paper where the pages are perforated so that they can be pulled apart from each other. Most fanfold paper also has perforations along the sprocket holes on either side. If you’d waited a couple of hours for a really big document to print out, you might then want to split the paper into A4 sheets. This was an agonising manual process that involved carefully pulling the paper apart. If you didn’t pay attention then you could rip the page, and you might have to reprint it (if it was even possible to print a single page in whatever application you were using).

Epson MX-80 and Apple II
Epson MX-80 and Apple II

Despite all the drawbacks, it was a useful device and consumers loved it, not least because it was very cheap to run. IBM loved it too, and rebadged it as the IBM 5152 to go alongside the IBM PC. The MX-80 spawned a number of 9-pin and 24-pin successors, and despite most modern printers being lasers or inkjets, you can still buy Epson dot-matrix printers today. But where are they used?

Dot matrix printers can be found in industrial environments, warehouses and also in the aviation industry. A combination of ruggedness, reliability and low maintenance costs outweigh the slow speed, low quality and noise in those environments. Although you would be unlikely to find an MX-80 still in operation after all of these years, you can still find many examples of its descendants.

Image credits:
Cushing Memorial Library via Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Nakamura2828 via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0


Tuesday, 20 October 2020

3Com Audrey (2000)

Introduced October 2000

These days we are glued to our mobile devices, wanting to access the web and applications wherever we are. For many the idea of having to sit and the computer to use the internet seems old-fashioned. Smartphones, tablets… and yes, maybe a laptop if it’s something serious.

Twenty years ago however, the internet was not a mobile experience. Cables, dial-up modems and old-fashioned PCs were the way to go. If you wanted to access the web while you were in – say – the kitchen, you’d be out of luck.

3Com had an idea. One of the stars of the dot com boom, they created a device that could enable you to access the internet from almost any room you wanted. Using cutting-edge technology and undoubtedly with an eye to the future, they introduced the 3Com Ergo Audrey (or just the “3Com Audrey”). 3Com weren’t into consumer computing, except for their Palm subsidiary, so this was a new market for them.

It looks like a dangerous environment but loads of us are working from home in worse

In some ways the Audrey was like a modern tablet – an 8” VGA-resolution touchscreen display was complemented by a compact design, a wireless keyboard and USB expansion ports. The beating heart of the Audrey was the QNX operating system, a Unix-like platform designed to run on small devices. The Audrey could access the web, email, personal information management tools and a variety of push content that could be selected by a rather retro knob. You could sync it with up to two Palm PDAs (back in the days when a Palm Pilot was still a big deal). For added quirkiness, the stylus plugged into the top of the unit and it lit up when you received an email. It sounded great, but there were some drawbacks.

Internet access was via a dial-up modem, although you could plug an Ethernet adapter into a USB port if you had Ethernet at home. Also, you had to power it from a wall socket, so it was tied to both the mains and a phone or network port. At $499 it was quite pricey, and it didn’t have the power of a contemporary laptop. And – probably mostly – people just didn’t have the need to do internet all the time from anywhere.

3Com envisaged the Audrey (named after Audrey Hepburn) as being the lead device in their new “Ergo” sub-brand, including a “Mannix” device for the living room and presumably an “Andrex” device for the toilet. Presumably then you’d need a phone line in every room, which would be a pest. Wireless networking was technically a thing back in 2000, but it wasn’t widespread.

Is the kitchen the natural environment for the Audrey? Or the box it came in?

Still, this was pretty exciting stuff and of course 3Com hadn’t seen the iPad which was still a decade away, so it all sort of made sense. If you hadn’t seen the iPad. Which they hadn’t. Which was a problem really, because in hindsight it was the iPad that consumers really went for, followed by ridiculously oversized smartphones. Consumers wanted a cheese soufflĂ©, 3Com offered them a soggy omelette instead.

It was a moderate success, but the dot com crash sent investors running away from tech shares and 3Com cancelled the Audrey and all the other Ergo devices in the summer of 2001. Some of the unsold inventory ended up in the hands of hackers who discovered how to jailbreak QNX and do their own things with it, turning these remaindered devices into something like a prototype Raspberry Pi.

Twenty years on and the Audrey is largely forgotten, along with 3Com who eventually vanished without trace into HP (along with their one-type subsidiary Palm). QNX was bought by RIM and turned up in the catastrophic BlackBerry Z10 in 2013, but despite that it still successfully soldiers on in embedded systems. As for the Audrey, you can pick one up for a few tens of dollars from sellers in the US but if exporting it you’ll need to watch the voltage on the power supply.

Image credits:
Andrew Turner via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Alessandra Cimatti via Flickr - CC BY 2.0



Sunday, 11 October 2020

Going nowhere: Windows 7, Bada, Symbian, BlackBerry OS and WebOS (2010)

Announced October 2010

It’s October 2020 and if you have a smartphone in your pocket it’s almost certainly going to be one of two things: an Apple iPhone or an Android device. It seems like it has been that way for ever, but ten years ago this month rival platforms were duking it out as if they had some sort of chance.

The big news ten years ago was Windows Phone 7. Microsoft had been haemorrhaging market share ever since the iPhone was launched. Earlier versions of Windows Mobile (as it was then called) had been capable enough, but the user interface was a frankly horrific relic from an earlier age. Stung by failure, Microsoft decided to redesign the product entirely and came up with something entirely different.

Windows Phone 7 was a huge critical success in interface design. Clean, responsive, informative and intuitive at the same time, it made Android and iOS look old-fashioned. iOS in particular was wedded to the skeuomorphic design that had been an Apple hallmark for decades, but by contrast Windows looked utterly modern.

Microsoft made the decision to base Windows Phone 7 on the same underlying Windows CE platform that had powered previous generations, rather than the more modern Windows NT platform that could have delivered the same power as Android and iOS. The next-generation of Windows Phone – version 8 – would change the platform while retaining the UI… but that is another story.

There was certainly some buzz about Windows Phone 7 though, and a lot of manufacturers had lined up behind Microsoft to push this new platform. HTC were the keenest with several new devices – the HTC 7 Pro, HTC 7 Trophy, HTC 7 Mozart, HTC Surround and the high-end HTC HD7. Samsung resurrected the Omnia sub-brand to come up with the Samsung Omnia 7, where rivals LG had the LG Optimus 7 and LG Optimus 7Q. Even Dell got in on the act with the Dell Venue Pro.


A trio of doomed Windows Phone 7 devices

The operating system was sleek, the phones were pretty good and competitively priced. But of course Windows Phone failed, mostly because it lacked the apps that Android and iOS had. And perhaps partly because… who actually needed another mobile phone OS anyway?

But Windows Phone 7 wasn’t the only doomed platform being touted this month. Samsung had also developed the Unix-like Bada operating system for use in smartphones. The Samsung Wave II was the company’s flagship Bada phone… again it was a sleek operating sytem, competitively priced with excellent hardware. Samsung had tried hard to get apps for the platform and had done reasonably well. But still… it wasn’t Android or iOS. But it did at least feature the somewhat infamous Rick Stivens.


Samsung Wave Goodbye might have been a better name

Bada didn’t last long, being folded into Tizen in 2012. Tizen itself was the effective successor OS to a medley of other Unix-like platforms: Maemo, Moblin, MeeGo and LiMo. Tizen found itself ported to a wide range of smartwatches and the Samsung Z range of smartphones up to 2017 when eventually they fizzled out. But Tizen didn’t die, instead becoming the most popular operating system in Smart TVs instead.

Another relatively new kid on the block was Palm’s webOS platform found in the Palm Pre 2. Stop me if you’ve heard this before… but the phone had a combination of good hardware, a great OS, competitive pricing and a reasonable set of apps which sadly couldn’t compete with the market leaders. The Pre 2 was the last smartphone to be launched under the Palm name (apart from the peculiar Palm Palm). But less than a year after the Pre 2 the entire webOS product line was cancelled by Palm’s owners, HP.
Palm Pray might also have been a better name

The excellent webOS operating system lingered on, with HP attempting to open source it. Eventually it was picked up by LG who applied it to smart TVs and smartwatches, in a directly parallel to Samsung and Tizen.

Three doomed platforms is surely enough? Not quite.

The Nokia C5-03 was a nice enough, low-cost Symbian touchscreen smartphone. Unlike the others, this had a really good library of apps, it was attractively priced and designed and also Symbian had been around for donkey’s years there had been a process of continual improvement and an established base of fans. But Nokia were on the verge of a spectacular collapse, and Symbian would effectively be dead within a year.
Inexpensive but doomed smartphone fun with the Nokia C5-03.

Windows Phone 7, Bada, webOs and even the aging Symbian were all modern platforms that could deliver the sort of experience that customers might want. In comparison, the BlackBerry OS on the Bold 9780 was not. BlackBerry’s efforts at repeatedly warming over an OS that was nearly a decade old had created a device that was pretty good at email and absolutely appalling for web browsing or any other of the meagre collection of apps that were available.
BlackBerry missed the memo about what a 2010 smartphone should be

It sold pretty well into corporations that had standardised on BlackBerry, but users hated it – instead choosing to use their own iOS and Android devices which they expected their companies to support, leading in turn to the idea of BYOD (“bring your own device”). BlackBerry did eventually come up with a vaguely competitive smartphone… in 2013, a full six years after the iPhone was announced.

Today, if you want a smartphone without Android or iOS then the pickings are fairly slim. But Huawei – currently the world’s number two smartphone manufacturer – is working on the Linux-based Harmony OS to replace Android. This move is mostly due to trade sanctions from the US, but Harmony is also available as open source, or alternatively Huawei will licence their closed-source version to other manufacturers. Who knows, perhaps this rival OS will be a success?

Image credits: HTC, LG, Samsung, BlackBerry, Dell, HP, Nokia.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Nokia E7 (2010)

 Introduced September 2010

Looking back at Nokia, there was a point in its history where it slipped from being the market leader to a market failure. The Nokia E7 sits on the cusp on that change.


Nokia E7
Nokia E7

The Nokia E7 was the spiritual successor to Nokia’s long-running range of Communicator devices. Big and often bricklike, the Communicators had bigger screens that almost any other phone combined with a large physical QWERTY keyboard. Oddly, the Communicators often lagged behind in terms of features – the Nokia 9210i lacked GPRS for example when rivals had it, and the Nokia 9500 didn’t have 3G just when it was becoming common. It wasn’t really until the E90 in 2007 when it caught up in communications terms… a bit odd given the “Communicator” name.

Anyway, more than three years had elapsed since the launch of the E90 and in that time Apple had released their third-gen iPhone and Android devices were eating into Nokia’s market share. Many Nokia fans who had bought the E90 had moved on to other smartphone platforms. Nokia needed something special, and it looked like the E7 could be it.

Sleekly designed, the most prominent feature of the E7 at first glance was the huge 4” AMOLED capacitive touchscreen display, bigger than almost anything else on the market at the time. Hidden underneath that was a large keyboard that could be found by sliding the screen. A decent 8 megapixel camera was on the back, and the E7 supported 3.5G data and WiFI. GPS was built-in along with an FM radio and 16GB of internal storage.


Nokia E7
Nokia E7

All of this was powered by Symbian^3, Nokia’s latest version of their S60 operating system. This supported all the usual applications plus document editors, comprehensive email support, built-in navigation and excellent multimedia capabilities. It was quite possibly the best Symbian phone that Nokia ever made. But since nobody uses Symbian today, something must have gone wrong..

Nokia had both been very early to the touchscreen smartphone party and very late at the same time. The Nokia 7710 had launched in 2004 – years before the iPhone – but the technology wasn’t quite there and consumers stayed away. Nokia’s next attempt at a mainstream touchscreen smartphones was the 5800 XpressMusic which launched waaay after the iPhone. The 5800 proved popular but it was pushing S60 almost as far as it could go.

Symbian was meant for an earlier era of handheld computing. First appearing in 1989 as Psion’s EPOC operating system (see on the Psion Series 5 for example) it was designed to run smoothly on minimal hardware. The Series 5 for example had a puny 18MHz processor and 4MB of RAM, but by the time the E7 was launched it had a 680MHz processor and 256MB of RAM… hardware which in theory could run something more sophisticated. Rival Apple and Android devices both ran on operating systems descended from Unix which allowed a much richer environment for software developers. Developing for Symbian was harder, but it was worthwhile because even in 2010 Nokia’s OS was the market leader – even if it was beginning to fade.


Nokia E7
Nokia E7

It wasn’t as if Nokia lacked an alternative – the 770 Internet Tablet launched in 2005 running Nokia’s own take on a Unix-like OS called Maemo. But it wasn’t a phone and development of the platform was slow, but eventually they came up with a practical if somewhat rough around the edges smartphone in the Nokia N900. It looked likely that whatever would succeed the N900 would be a winner, but instead Nokia decided to merge Maemo with the Intel-led Moblin platform… a decision which completely derailed the strategy to replace the N900.

Stuck with the limitations of Symbian and with no next-gen product on the horizon, Nokia’s future was beginning to look uncertain. Even though sales were strong, it wasn’t clear how they could compete in the long term. But as it happens just a few days before the announcement of the E7, Nokia also announced a new CEO – Stephen Elop.

Elop realised the predicament that they were in and explained it to Nokia employees in the now-infamous “burning platform” memo that was leaked to the press. Ultimately Elop wanted to move Nokia away from Symbian and Maemo/MeeGo towards Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 OS. This was a bold move as Microsoft’s platform was very new… and Microsoft themselves had lost market share sharply to Apple. The plan was that Symbian would eventually be discontinued, but Nokia were hoping there would be a gradual transition of customers from Symbian to Windows. But that’s not what happened.

Dubbed shortly afterwards as the “Elop Effect”, the impact on Nokia’s sales were disastrous. Elop had effectively made Symbian a dead-end platform and that killed off pretty much any market appeal to customers. Sales fell through the floor, and worse still Nokia didn’t have a product to replace it (the first Lumia handset launched late in 2011). Far from being a smooth transition from one platform from one platform to another, it simply persuaded Symbian fans to jump ship… mostly to Android.

Less than six months after the announcement of the E7, Symbian was effectively dead. A trickle of new Symbian devices emerged from Nokia with the last mainstream handset launched in October 2011 and the final ever handset being launched in February 2012. None of them sold well. But then neither did the Windows phones that followed.

The E7 marks the point when Nokia’s seemingly invincible empire crumbled. The last high-end Symbian smartphone, the last of the Communicators, the E7 might have been a game changed if it had been launched three years earlier. Today the E7 is quite collectable with prices for decent ones starting at £60 or so with prices into the low hundred for ones in really good condition. 

Image credits: Nokia

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

TRS-80 Color Computer (1980)

Introduced September 1980

The original TRS-80 (launched in 1977) was one of the “holy trinity” of early consumer-friendly microcomputers along with the Apple II and Commodore PET. Capable though the original was, it lacked colour and sound which was what the next-generation of home micros would provide, so in September 1980 Tandy Radio Shack launched the TRS-80 Color Computer.

It had almost nothing in common with the original TRS-80 Model I except for the name. Crucially the Color Computer (often called the “CoCo”) didn’t have the Z80 processor that gave the “80” to the Model I’s name but instead it included a Motorola 6809. Indeed, the whole thing was more Motorola than Tandy – the basis of the CoCo was a Motorola-designed Videotex terminal which Tandy joined in to manufacture and market.

TRS-80 Color Computer 1
 

The 6809 was a bit more sophisticated than the Z80 and the rival 6502, and the more powerful Motorola 68000 was still an expensive and rather niche device. This was combined with a Motorola MC6847 graphics chip and there was an optional sound and speech cartridge.

Although the CoCo had pretty powerful graphics capabilities it was complex to get the most out of them, and the machine had some odd quirks such as being unable to display pure white and lacking lowercase character support. At launch the CoCo had 4, 16 or 32KB of RAM but later models shipped in 16 or 64KB configurations, and the last series of Color Computers could support up to 512KB.. and wonder of wonders, even lowercase text.

Over eleven years the hardware evolved somewhat with three distinct series of computers being made with different case colours, detailing and keyboards. The third and last series had improved graphics, built-in software and better support for peripherals. The larger memory allowed the sophisticated OS-9 operating system to run which brought a modern operating system to this fairly simple 8-bit machine.

TRS-80 Color Computer 2

Production ended in 1991, which wasn’t bad for an 8-bit machine. It was more popular in North America than in Europe, but the same Motorola reference platform emerged in the somewhat CoCo-compatible Dragon 32 and Dragon 64 a few years later.

For collectors, the CoCo isn’t an expensive buy and is commonly available in the US, however those run on a different voltage and have different video standards to European ones. Plenty of software emulators are available if you fancy tinkering on more modern hardware.

Image credits:
Adam Jenkins via Flickr - CC BY 2.0 - [1] [2]


Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Amstrad GX4000 (1990)

Introduced September 1990

During the late 1980s Amstrad had been on a roll. The Amstrad CPC range had taken a respectable share of the home computing market, the cheap all-in-one PCW wordprocessor had been a remarkable success for small businesses and home users, the PC-compatible PC1512 and PC1640 had sold in huge quantities and Amstrad had bought out arch-rival Sinclair to produce their own take on the iconic ZX Spectrum micro.

Not everything had been a success. The deeply strange portable PCs – the PPC 512 and PPC 640 – proved to be a high-profile flop. Worse still, the next-generation PC2000 series which had been launched to great acclaim ended up as a disaster with a batch of faulty hard drives significantly damaging Amstrad’s reputation.

Amstrad’s success had been built on offering quality devices at bargain prices, typically by exploring ways to drive down costs. The CPC computers were a good example, a home computer, monitor and storage device starting at £399, all inclusive. Amstrad leveraged their relationships with makes of TV tubes and cassette players to give them a price advantage, the inclusion of the cheap-but-capable Z80 processor drove down costs further. Amstrad chose to use the CPC platform for their next venture.


Amstrad GX4000

The Amstrad GX4000 was essentially a games console version of the CPC. Stripped of the cassette drive, TV and keyboard, the GX4000 used cartridges and hooked up to a domestic TV. Still running a Z80 with 64Kb of RAM the console was modestly specified even by 1990’s standards… but at just £99 it was really cheap.

It was an elegantly packaged device, with two slightly creaky games controllers attached and video output via RF, SCART or and Amstrad DIN connector for a CPC monitor. You could add a light gun or an analogue joystick took, but expansion options were pretty limited. Still, it was pretty capable for an 8-bit platform and the related CPC had a huge variety of good quality games available for it. So, it should have been a success? Not exactly.

By 1990 the 8-bit era that had dominated the 1980s was at an end. 32-bit home computers such as the Commodore Amiga had been established for some time, and the games console market itself was in the process of moving to 16-bit platforms such as the Sega Megadrive. But technological obsolescence had never been a problem for Amstrad - a company that shipped CP/M computers well into the 1990s – where instead they were interested in value-for-money. And the GX4000 certainly seemed to have that.

But the GX4000 was a massive failure, and perhaps the key problem was games. CPC games on cassette cost a few pounds where a GX4000 cartridge for the same game cost £25 (a quarter of the price of the console). Only a couple of games were available at launch, and a combination of manufacturing delays and high costs means that just 27 games of varying quality were launched. The 8-bit CPC platform that the GX4000 ran on wasn’t something that gamers could be excited about either.

Perhaps if the GX4000 had been released a few years earlier with more (and cheaper) games plus better designed hardware, it might have been a success. As it was, the GX4000 was discontinued in 1991 having sold just 15,000 units. Of course, that makes this console quite collectable today with prices for ones in good condition going for up to £200 which would be a lot more than was paid for it in the first place..

Image credit:
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain