Monday, 24 September 2018

Nokia 7600 (2003)

Launched September 2003

Fifteen years ago the mobile phone market was still new and exciting. New technologies and features were being squeezed into handsets, and those handsets themselves came in a variety of different designs. And the Nokia 7600 was certainly different. In fact, the 7600 is probably one of the weirdest looking phones ever made.

Let’s ignore the shape for the moment – the 7600 squeezed in some very advanced features for its time. It had a 2” colour display, a VGA resolution camera that could also take really basic low-res videos, Bluetooth, an MP3 player, Java, a stonking 29MB of internal storage, email support, a WAP browser and most importantly of all the Nokia 7600 was a very early 3G phone capable of an awesome download speed of 384 kbps.


Nokia 7600. There's a reason phones don't look like this.

It’s easy to be dismissive of these specifications, but the 7600 really was something very advanced for its time. On paper it should have been a success – but for some unfathomable reason they packaged it in about the maddest way possible.

Instead of putting the keypad at the bottom, Nokia decided to put the numbers on either side of the screen with the call control buttons and selector pad at the bottom. This meant that you’d have to re-learn texting completely to use it and you would also have to hold in in two hands. Worse, the buttons were different sizes with the “6” key being particularly tiny.

Oh yes, the Nokia 7600 looked immensely cool. The unique shape (curved lozenge? asymmetric rounded rectangle?) looked amazing with swooping intersecting lines and a variety of plastics that contrasted not only in colour but also in texture. It’s just that somewhere along the way Nokia forgot about usability completely and came up with some ill-thought-out but very high-tech fashion accessory.

You might guess that the 7600 didn’t sell all that well. Although it had killer specs, the weird design didn’t help its appeal… but also consumers were proving pretty cool when it can to the idea of 3G phones. There wasn’t a lot you could actually do with so-called high-speed data on a tiny 128 x 160 pixel screen.

Nokia's "7000" series always had a tendency to be a bit "out there" when it came to styling, but this is one of those designs to file under “W for Weird”. As with a lot of odd-looking Nokias it is somewhat collectible with prices for really good ones being £200 or more, however prices vary a lot depending on condition and accessories.

Image credit: Nokia

Monday, 17 September 2018

Apple iPhone 5S and 5C (2013)

Apple iPhone 5S. Sleek. Sexy. Successful.
Launched September 2013

A few days ago we saw Apple’s annual launch event of new iPhones with the XS, XS Max and cheaper XR devices. The XR is designed to bring iPhone features in at a lower price point by replacing some of the more expensive features with something a bit cheaper. This isn’t the first time that Apple have tried a marketing approach like this. Five years ago this month they launched the iPhone 5S annd iPhone 5C at the same time, with mixed results.

As with the XS, the iPhone 5S was an upgrade of the previous year’s model – the iPhone 5. Keeping the same smallish 5” display of the 5, the 5S added a fingerprint scanner and had a more powerful 64-bit processor, housed in a variety of high-end metallic-and-glass cases.

The iPhone 5C was the cheaper model, similar in concept to the new XR. The 5C was essentially a reskin of the old 5, replacing the case with a brightly-coloured polycarbonate affair. This was essentially copying Nokia who had won praise for the cheerful design of their Windows-powered Nokia Lumia range. It wasn’t just the hardware that look a bit like Nokia, the new version of the operating system – iOS 7 – introduced a simpler, flatter interface which was a little more like Windows than the skeuomorphic feel with older versions of iOS.

The new design of iOS was well-received, shipping with both the 5S and the 5C and pushed out over-the-air to everything back to the iPhone 4. On top of that, the iPhone 5S sold very well – as most new iPhones do – but the 5C was more of a problem.

Apple iPhone 5C. Cheapskate.
Ever since Apple had launched their second iPhone, there was always a lower-cost option available… the previous year’s model (or in some cases the model before that too). Cheaper they may have been, but it wasn’t obvious that the owner had got something out of the bargain bin. The 5C was different – it wasn’t just priced more cheaply, it was constructed out of cheaper materials and because it looked very different from other iPhones it was immediately obvious that the owner had gone for the cheaper option. That might have been acceptable if the 5C really was cheap, but in reality the 5S didn’t cost a lot more. So, buy a 5C you might look like a skinflint even though you’d forked out a substantial wad of cash.

Sales of the 5C were nowhere near the levels that Apple was expecting, and the 5S outsold it three-to-one. This led to a shortage of 5S devices in the supply chain and a surplus of 5Cs. It seemed clear that consumers preferred the premium product to the better value proposition, which was probably not lost on Apple when they launched their top-of-the-range grand-and-a-half iPhone XS Max this week.

The iPhone 5S is still supported by Apple and is due to have the new iOS 12 OS available for it, support for the 5C ended in mid-2017. Yes, you could have saved $100 by buying the 5C instead of the 5S, but it wouldn’t have had the life-span. And everyone would have thought you were a cheapskate.

Image credits: Apple

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Morris Minor, Hindustan Ambassador, Rover P5, Citroën Visa, Fiat Strada (1948-1978)

What do the Morris Minor, Rover P5, Hindustan Ambassador, Citroën Visa and Fiat Strada have in common? Well, they were all launched in September 1948, 1958 or 1978… but let’s see if we can make a tenuous connection between them all.

Morris Minor (1948)

Late model Morris Minor Traveller
Perhaps – after the classic Mini – the post-war Morris Minor is the most quintessential British car. Manufactured between 1948 and 1971, over 1.3 million of these cars were produced. This made it the first British car to ship over a million vehicles.

Much of the inspiration behind the Morris Minor can be attributed to legendary car designer Alec Issigonis. Work on the Minor began under the codename “Morris Mosquito” during the Second World War, work that had to be carried out in secret because Morris Motors was meant to be concentrating on war production.

The Mosquito was technically a radical design for its time…  a bit TOO radical it turned out. But most of the ideas behind it found themselves productionised into the new car. The Minor came with rack and pinion steering, independent torsion bar front suspension that allowed the engine to be placed nearer the front and lower down giving better handling characteristics and optimised internal space by having small wheels near each corner. Taking inspiration from American cars of the time, the original Minor had low-set headlights, although these were moved to the more familiar position on top of the wings later.

Work was already being finalised on the Minor when a last-minute decision was made to widen the car by four inches. Although this made for a bigger cabin and better handling, many of the panel pressings had already been finalised. As a result, the bonnet had to be widened by adding a strip in the middle, which actually looked rather pleasing. However, on the original models the bumpers also had an unsightly gap as a result.

There were three main versions of the car over 23 years of production, including two and four-door saloons, an attractive convertible, a popular estate version called the Traveller with exposes wooden beams plus vans and pickups. Many engines were shoe-horned into the Minor over the years, and there was a process of continuous improvement… although by 1971 it was looking extremely dated.

The Morris Minor remains a popular classic car today, with over 13,000 still on the road in the UK. Issigonis went on to design several other cars for Morris and its successor British Leyland, one of which was the Morris Oxford...

Hindustan Ambassador (1958)

Rare example of an Ambassador exported to the UK
The next part of our story takes us to the Issigonis-designed Morris Oxford Series III, which was introduced in 1956 and was a fairly traditional saloon. Morris had a long history of cooperation with Hindustan Motors of India, and in 1958 they made their own version of the Oxford – the Hindustan Ambassador.

Although the Oxford Series III was in production for just three years, the Ambassador was in production for a remarkable 56 years. Although there were technically several generations of Ambassador, they all retained the basic body shape of the 1950s Morris and most of the changes were to the engine with some creature comforts added in over the years.

A huge success among the growing middle class in India, the Ambassador also fulfilled roles as a car for government officials and was a popular taxi too.

The Ambassador soldiered on in production until 2014, but it was always an oddity compared to the modern cars that the rest of the Indian automotive industry made. There are countless Ambassadors still on the road of India though, and there are rumours that the Ambassador may yet be reborn in partnership with PSA of France.

Rover P5 (1958)

Rover P5
Meanwhile, back in England the Rover Car Company released its new saloon, much more upmarket than anything in the Morris catalogue. The Rover P5 was designed to be impressive to look at and well-built, and it succeeded decisively over the 15 years it was in production.

The P5 was a favourite of senior management, politicians and the police… and even royalty. The plush interior with the stylish exterior made this an attractive car, and it was certainly screwed together with an air of quality. The main problem was the power plant.

Weighing approximately 1.6 tonnes, the P5 was a heavy car for its time. The original straight-six 3 litre engine produced 115 horse power which was good for the time, but it made the P5 a bit of a slouch. Tweaks to the engine for the 1962 Mark II upped to power to 129 HP, the 1965 Mark III squeezed 134 HP out of the same unit. This was better, but it hardly made the P5 fast.

In 1967 the final version of the P5 was introduced – the P5B. “B” in this case stood for “Buick” and referred to the American-designed V8 engine that Rover had acquired the rights to. This 3.5 litre engine produced 158 HP which was finally enough to make the Rover impressively fast with a top speed of 110 mph and a 0-60 time of 11.7 seconds.

Later P5s were available in a standard and rather stately saloon version, or a rather more rakish four-door coupé. The British government liked the P5B so much that it stockpiled a decade’s worth of cars for Prime Ministers and other important officials.

Most of the design of the P5 was done by David Bache, along with Spen King and Gordon Bashford. Between them, this trio also produced the Rover P6, Rover SD1 and the original Range Rover.

Although Rover and Morris were competing companies in 1958, in 1968 Rover was merged into British Leyland… where Bache, King and Bashford were employed alongside Alec Issigonis.

Citroën Visa (1978)

Issigonis had recognised the practicalities of the small hatchback car back in 1967 with the 9X prototype, which to our eyes is a recognisably modern layout, but his employers didn’t pick up on the idea. A decade-and-a-bit later, the small hatchback was all the rage and it was clear that Austin-Morris had missed the boat.

Citroën had been looking for something new to at least partly replace its extremely ancient range, including the then-30-year-old 2CV. The company had been struggling financially, and the oil crises of the 1970s had hit sales of their bigger cars hard. In 1976, Peugeot had taken over Citroën to form the PSA Group. Under this new ownership, Citroën had produced a small hatchback called the LN which was basically a frumpy-looking version of the Peugeot 104 with a 2CV engine. Hardly inspiring stuff.

A whole bunch of Visas in hatchback, van and even pickup configurations
Starting with the same 104 underpinnings, another renowned designer Robert Opron was working on something rather better and more in keeping with Citroën’s design philosophy which concentrated on sleek aerodynamics and comfort - the Citroën Visa. Up until then, hatchbacks (such as the Fiesta) had been rather boxy.

Over the years the original 625cc engine was upgraded, leading eventually to a 1.6L 115 HP unit in the Visa GTi – a car weighing just 870 kg, which was seriously fun to drive as a result. Production of the Visa ended in 1988, but it set new standards for design and also showed that platform sharing between cars wasn’t simply a case of badge engineering.

Fiat Ritmo / Strada (1978)

Fiat Strada
Launched in the spring but coming to market in September, Fiat launched a somewhat larger hatchback called the Fiat Ritmo (or the Fiat Strada in the UK). Fiat had pioneered the hatchback market with the 127, but the Ritmo was a replacement for the larger Fiat 128 instead.

Two things made the Ritmo stand out – firstly there was Sergio Sartorelli’s smart and contemporary styling, but secondly the body was assembled and painted by robots, which led to a memorable advertisement screened in the UK.

The advertisement was so well-known that it spawned a parody, filmed on the production lines of the British Leyland Ambassador (not the Hindustan Ambassador!). THAT car – to carry on our tenuous link – was designed by Harris Mann, who can be considered Issigonis’s successor in the Morris / BMC / BL story.

The Ritmo / Strada carried on in production until 1988, with a “facelifted” version that actually toned down Sartorelli’s original design. The 1983 Abarth model introduced the obligatory 80’s hot hatch with a 130 HP two litre version.

Today the robotic automation used in assembling the Ritmo is commonplace in the car industry, but back in 1978 it made the Rtimo / Strada stand out from other rival hatchbacks and helped to cement Fiat as a successful Europe-wide automaker.

From a pair of quintessential British and Indian cars of the 1940s and 1950s to a pair of quintessential French and Italian cars of the 1970s, all of these vehicles managed to do something significant. And curiously enough, out of all those cars – on British roads at least – the oldest one is the most common, with thousands of Morris Minors still roadworthy compared to only a few dozen Visas and Stradas from 30 years later..

Image credits:
Loco Steve via Flickr
Ron Fisher via Flickr
pyntofmyld via Flickr
Klaus Nahr via Flickr
CarbonCaribou via Wikimedia Commons



Tuesday, 4 September 2018

T-Mobile G1 / HTC Dream (2008)

T-Mobile G1
Launched September 2008

Ten years ago we saw a significant shift in the mobile phone market. The “golden age” of traditional mobile phones was ending, where every phone had a different design and features and in its place the era of the modern smartphone was beginning, ushered in with the feature-rich Nokia N95 in 2006, the ground-breaking Apple iPhone touchscreen device in 2007 and finally the HTC Dream in 2008, mostly found under the name “T-Mobile G1”.

The G1 was the world’s first consumer Android handset, manufactured by smartphone pioneers HTC who had previously been a major partner in developing high-end Windows phones. T-Mobile and HTC had a long partnership with the MDA series of smart devices, and it was a natural extension of this to come up this.

Where the iPhone was sleek and with a minimum of control buttons, the G1 had a whole bunch of them, including a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. In addition to the 3.2” HVGA touchscreen there was a little trackball, plus buttons for call control, the home screen and the menu.

The QWERTY keyboard was completely necessary because originally Android did not support on-screen keyboards at all (a feature that was added more than half a year after the G1 was launched). Indeed the whole device was very much a “version 1.0” smartphone at launch, and although it featured full integration with Google’s suite of applications including Gmail and Google Maps a lot of the software features were clunky and not very feature-rich. Rivals Apple had already moved on to their second-generation iPhone and the G1 did not seem as accomplished.

On the back was a 3.2 megapixel camera (capable of taking videos, unlike the iPhone), the G1 supported HSPA 3.5G data, WiFi, GPS, microSD expandable memory and pretty much all the features you would expect from a modern smartphone with the notable omission of a front-facing camera.

HTC Dream
The first Android phone had been keenly anticipated, with the official launch of the project in later 2007 (although it had leaked out earlier that year). The G1 gathered masses of press coverage too, but consumer reactions were rather cooler to begin with, especially because in most regions you would have to be a T-Mobile customer to get your hands on one.

The T-Mobile G1 wasn’t only the first Android phone to market, for a long time it was the ONLY Android phone on the market. A few months later Australian retail electronics giant Kogan announced the Agora smartphone which was subsequently cancelled. In early 2009 HTC came out with a keyboardless version of the Dream known as the HTC Magic, but it took until April 2009 for the launch of the original Samsung Galaxy which was the first true rival to HTC.

A little more than a year later, Motorola launched the world’s first Android 2.0 handset – the Motorola DROID (sold internationally as the Milestone). This offered a significantly better user experience, and sales of Android devices skyrocketed – at the expense of Nokia’s Symbian range. Today Android holds almost 80% of the share of the smartphone market, with Apple’s handsets accounting for almost everything else.

A modern Android phone bears only a passing resemblance to the G1 – apart from BlackBerry, nobody makes an Android with a physical keyboard. But it’s still an important device, and unusual enough to be collectable. Typical prices for an unlocked G1 or Dream seem to be in the region of £150 or so.

 Image credits: T-Mobile and HTC

Saturday, 18 August 2018

ABC 80 (1978)

Released August 1978

1978 was still very early on in the microcomputer revolution which was arguably only a year into its stride. The year saw the launch of some less-well-known but interesting machines, including the Swedish ABC 80.

The ABC 80 was designed by Dataindustrier AB in partnership with Luxor, and it was sold throughout Scandinavia and other parts of Europe under the Luxor or Metric brands. The ABC 80 would come as a complete system including a modified TV for output and a cassette recorder for storing data, and along with comprehensive documentation the ABC 80 really did come with everything you needed to get started.

Dataindustrier were also involved in industrial control systems, and their expertise in this meant that the ABC 80 was fast, reliable and flexible system with an expansion bus that could be used for all sorts of peripherals. Inside was a 3MHz Zilog Z80 CPU, monochrome graphics (including a Teletext mode), 16 to 32Kb of RAM and a Texas Instruments SN76477 sound chip which was the same one found in Space Invaders machines.

The ABC 80 was quite a success in its home markets, in part because of the availability of programs in local languages, and it gave rise to the ABC 800 business computer in 1981 which met with limited success against the IBM PC.  In 1985 the ABC 1600 was launched, running a Unix-like operating system on a Motorola 68008 processor, but while this was technically interesting it wasn’t really a success either.

In the end, the influence of the ABC 80 was fairly indirect – giving Scandinavian youngsters their first taste of computing on something locally produced no doubt inspired a generation to take up technology careers later on. Finding one for sale in fully working condition is tricky, but prices in the range of 1500 to 2000 Swedish Krona seem typical, but there are many emulators also available for a variety of platforms if you don’t fancy sourcing the real thing.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Apple iMac G3 (1998)

Apple iMac G3 in Blueberry
Launched August 1998

The late 1990s was a desperate time for Apple. After losing nearly two billion dollars during 1996 and 1997, many people assumed that the company was doomed. Apple desktop and laptop computers had their fans, but they were struggling to compete against cheaper and ever-improving Windows PCs.

When Steve Jobs returned to run Apple in 1997 he trimmed down the product line – including canning the pioneering MessagePad – and launched a programme of reimaging Apple’s product line. The original Apple iMac (dibbed the iMac G3), launched in August 1998, is one of the more famous examples of this process.

When launched, the iMac came with an enormous amount of press coverage. It looked like nothing else on the market: simple and elegant with a shape a little like an egg, the casing was construction of translucent plastic with a large “Bondi Blue” panel on the top. The eye-catching looks were largely due to the work of Apple’s Jonathan Ive.

The iMac also ditched the floppy disk and legacy ports of earlier Macs and instead it came with a CD and USB ports. Mac purists may have recoiled at the technical changes, but in many ways the iMac was a very contemporary reworking of the original classic Mac from 1984. Only this time, the iMac sported a 15” 1024 x 768 display and a speedy 233 MHz PowerPC processor with 32MB of RAM.

The iMac was a significant sales success, but crucially it was a design success too. Even people who would never want to buy a Mac liked the way that it looked, and it helped to re-establish Apple’s coolness in the eyes of consumers. This was a significant help when it came to subsequent products such as the iPad, iPhone and iPad – devices that sold much more widely than the iMac itself. The iMac G3 was crucially to the process of Apple reinventing itself.

There were several revisions to the iMac in the four years it was in production, most obviously with different coloured cases. The iMac also became more powerful and a little sleeker along the way. Although the original operating system was MacOS 8, the iMacs can also run the more modern OS X operating system.

The remarkable looks of the iMac G3 - with the case wrapped around the shape of the CRT – would not last as this type of display technology was in its final generation. Subsequent iMacs would use flat panels instead, giving a very different design aesthetic.

As a footnote though, when some people saw the radical design of the iMac at launch it looked rather familiar. As we have noted previously, 22 years before the iMac there was another curvy design in brightly-coloured plastic – the Lear Siegler ADM-3A. Although it’s a different technology for a different time, there are certainly some uncanny similarities.

Image credits: Apple

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Digital (DEC) VT100 (1978)

DEC VT100
Launched August 1978

Although the late 1970s saw the birth of the microcomputer revolution, most people in businesses and academia still used a big mainframe computer or minicomputer (such as a DEC VAX) connected to a dumb terminal, for example the DEC VT52 or Lear-Siegler ADM3A.

Early terminals were nothing more than glass teletypes – essentially replacing a box of fanfold paper with a screen. The next big advance was to make the cursor addressable, in other words to be able to place text wherever you wanted on the screen. And it was the VT52 (launched in 1975) which introduced a lot of these features to customers for the first time.

The Digital Equipment Corporation (known as DEC or just Digital for short) wanted to develop the dumb terminal further, and in August 1978 they launched the DEC VT100 which pushed the boundaries ever further with support for ANSI X3.64 codes which pretty much allowed you to do anything you liked text-wise, plus it came with some rudimentary block graphics which were very handy for designing on-screen forms.

This was sophisticated stuff for the late 1970s, and the key breakthrough here was the use of an Intel 8080 (or later the 8085) microprocessor to do the hard work. Depending on variant, the 12” display could show 80 x 24 characters or up to 132 x 24 characters for a top-of-the-range version. The relatively fast 19200 baud serial interface was enough to display a full screen of 80 column text in just a second. And unlike many earlier terminals, the keyboard was attached to the main unit with a curly cable, so you could move it about to whatever position you found comfortable.

As with the VT52, the VT100 came in quite a big case which could allow extra boards to be added, turning the platform into a graphics terminal (with the VT125) or even a full-blown microcomputer with the VT180. Printers could even be attached to the back of the terminal, so you could easily have your own printer rather than sharing with the rest of the office.

The V100 family was a significant success at the time, and it and its successors sold six million units worldwide, until finally going out of production in 2017 with the VT520. One of the reasons that the VT terminal survived so long against more capable PCs was the low running cost – there was very little to go wrong, no moving parts and VT terminals were immune to things like computer viruses. VT terminals are still in use worldwide in locations where these things are important, such as warehouses.

But perhaps more commonly these days, pretty much any terminal program emulates a VT100 by default, including the command line interface on Macs and Linux systems. Perhaps more importantly, the VT100 paved the way for modern computer applications. Connecting one to a modern computer system is a bit tricky as VT terminals primarily use a serial interface, but if you get your hands on a terminal server or media converter you might be able to make it run on Ethernet, if you are up for the challenge..

Image credit: Wolfgang Stief via Flickr