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





Saturday, 20 March 2021

Nokia 8310 (2001)

Launched March 2001

Twenty years ago mobile phones were becoming very popular, no longer the plaything of yuppies or sales reps the early 2000s saw the beginning of a golden age of handset design. Although primitive by today’s standards, phones of this era were developing rapidly and the space of just a few years saw colour screens, cameras, Bluetooth, multimedia and packet data.

One feature that was highly prized was size – but unlike today when bigger phones are considered better, two decade ago the race was to make things smaller. Into this market came the Nokia 8310, an exquisitely designed but very tiny device that formed part of Nokia’s “perfect” 8000 series of high-end mobile phones.

Nokia 8310
Nokia 8310

Weighing just 84 grams, the 8310 had a brightly-lit monochrome display, but surprisingly it also packed in an FM radio and was the first Nokia phone to feature GPRS. One key feature was the swappable Xpress-on covers which allowed to customise your phone with whatever style you wanted. Some built-in games such as the popular Snake II and the must-have early noughties infra-red port rounded off the feature set. The thing would run for days on a single charge, as would most phones of the time.

It wasn’t cheap, retailing at £400 or so in the UK. This of course just made it rather more exclusive and more desirable, and it ended up being one of Nokia’s iconic designs of the time. These days they are pretty common, and if you want a no-frills retro 2G phone then you can get a good one for about £30 or so. 

Image credit: Nokia

Sunday, 14 March 2021

UNIVAC I (1951)

Introduced March 1951

The immediate post-war years saw the first viable commercial and scientific computers hitting the market, such as the LEO I and Ferranti Mark 1 in the UK and the UNIVAC I in the United States. These huge, heavy, power hungry, expensive and slow computers are very primitive by today’s standards, but they found their niche in corporations and laboratories.


UNIVAC I in use at the US Census Office
UNIVAC I in use at the US Census Office


Rather like the British LEO I, the UNIVAC I was a business computer made up of around five thousand vacuum tubes, weighed about 8 tons and sucked in 125kW of electricity. Primary memory consisted of 1000 12-character words stored in mercury delay lines (similar to the LEO), but one novel feature the UNIVAC had was magnetic tape drives for secondary storage. These UNISERVO I drives were the first ever commercially available computer tape drives, and they used heavy nickel-plated phosphor bronze tapes. Other rival computers tended to use punched cards, and initially the UNIVAC I lacked this option.

It was an eye-wateringly expensive system, costing the equivalent of around $7 million in today’s money.  This tended to put it out of reach of many universities and into the realm of government departments and large corporations instead. Given the price and complexity of the UNIVAC I, they wouldn’t always go straight to the customer but would instead be used for a while as demonstrators.

UNIVAC I mercury delay line memory
UNIVAC I mercury delay line memory


Once such UNIVAC I was bound for the US Atomic Energy Commission, but took a detour to detour to CBS to help predict the results of the 1952 US Presidential Election. Programmed by the legendary computing pioneer Grace Hopper, the UNIVAC had a complex model built up of data from past elections. With a sample of 5.5% of the vote, the UNIVAC came up with a prediction – out of the two candidates of Dwight D Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower would win in a landslide. The problem was that the UNIVAC’s prediction was completely at odds with pollsters who were predicting a win for Stevenson. So the UNIVAC’s analysis was downplayed by CBS.

Even if you don’t follow US presidential elections of the 1950s, you’ve probably heard of President Eisenhower and not President Stevenson.. that’s because the UNIVAC turned out to be accurate and Eisenhower did indeed beat Stevenson, by a similar margin to the computer’s prediction. Eisenhower might have won the vote, but the UNIVAC won when it came to the star of the election night count. 


Grace Hopper working on a UNIVAC I console
Grace Hopper working on a UNIVAC I console


Demand for UNIVAC machines boomed… but Remington Rand were struggling to build them. So ironically, it was rivals IBM who actually benefitted with their IBM 701 mainframe and its successors as they could build them in the quantity customers wanted. As for Remington Rand, they were taken over by Sperry in 1955 which in turn merged with Burroughs to create Unisys in 1986. Unisys is still around today, and it still makes computer hardware such as the Intel-based ClearPath Forward systems among a muddle of consultancy services and resold products.

Although the UNIVAC I was only a moderate success in sales terms, it is socially significant for its role in the Presidential Election where it offered a glimpse into the future of computing, only seven years after the end of the Second World War. It’s astonishing to think that all this was still more than a quarter of a century before the launch of micros such as the Apple II

Image credits:
U.S. Census Bureau via Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain
Tiia Monto via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 2.0



Saturday, 6 March 2021

Sinclair ZX81 (1981)

Launched March 1981

By early 1981 the microcomputer revolution was well underway, with plenty of options available for people wanting to dip their toe into this new high-tech world. The problem with most of these options was that they were expensive.

In the US, the Commodore VIC-20 was leading the charge on behalf of low-cost computing, but in the UK there had been an even cheaper and more basic computer launched in 1980 in the shape of the Sinclair ZX80 which had been a modest success. But it was Sinclair’s next computer – in the shape of the Sinclair ZX81 – that became the ground-breaking machine that found its way into more than a million homes.

Sinclair ZX81
Sinclair ZX81


On paper, the ZX81 was just a minor upgrade to the ZX80. But crucially, Sinclair had redesigned the electronics completely – where the ZX80 had 21 mostly off-the-shelf chips, the ZX81 had just 4. The difference was a custom-built ULA designed and built by computing pioneers Ferranti. This made the whole design simpler, and critically cheaper. A fully-assembled version cost just under £70, compared to £100 for the ZX80. If you were a real cheapskate you could buy a kit for just £49.95 and assemble it yourself.

The ZX81 was a simple but clever system. Smaller than a sheet of paper, the ZX81 boasted a reasonably powerful Z80 CPU clocked at 3.25MHz but only had a tiny 1Kb of RAM as standard. A truly terrible membrane keyboard also came with all the ZX81 BASIC functions pre-printed onto the keys, making it easier to learn how to program the thing. All you needed was a domestic TV and a cassette player so you could save and load programs, and you’d be away. In a strictly limited sense.

Text was a 32 column by 24 line affair, or a limited 64 x 48 pixel graphics display. There was no colour or sound, and anything displayed on the screen ate into the tiny amount of RAM. Also, the limited hardware meant that the ZX81 had to use a fair chunk of processor cycles to update the image which slowed it down..  you could speed things up by using FAST mode which prioritised speed over the display, which would white out when the computer was thinking.

On the back of the ZX81 was a simple edge connector, which most owners used to attach a notoriously wobbly 16Kb RAM pack, but Sinclair also sold a tiny printer that output onto silver paper. But the edge connector could be used for more, and a small cottage industry sprang up making everything from replacement keyboards, sound generators and even disk interfaces. A wide range of decent quality software appeared on tape, and a number of magazines produced printed BASIC programs that the user could laboriously key in and debug.

It was a good-looking system, designed by Rick Dickinson who had a long association with Sinclair. The comprehensive manual also featured gorgeous cover art by sci-fi artist John Harris. The fabulous design didn’t always make up for variable build quality, but certainly the unboxing experience was something a bit special.

Typical ZX81 configuration with cassette recorder, monochrome TV and manual
Typical ZX81 configuration with cassette recorder, monochrome TV and manual


Despite its flaws, the ZX81 was a hugely popular system – especially in the UK. However, an attempt to break through into the US market in partnership with Timex (who assembled the ZX81) met with limited success. A number of other clones – some licenced, some illegal – followed in worldwide markets. Enthusiasts continue to develop hardware and software for the ZX81 even today.

The profits from the ZX81 were substantial, putting Sinclair in an excellent position to develop their next machine, the ZX Spectrum. More importantly, the ZX81 introduced millions of people to computers and programming and helped to make those fields popular in the markets the ZX81 succeeded. Today the ZX81 is quite collectable with a thriving trade in software and add-ons, prices for ones in excellent condition can exceed £100 but there are bargains if you hunt around. 

Image credits:
Science Museum Group
- CC BY 4.0
Mike Cattell via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 2.0