Monday, 19 July 2021

Ericsson T68 (2001)

Introduced July 2001

By the middle of 2001 the golden age of mobile phone design was beginning. New features were added to phones rapidly, and every handset managed to look very different from rivals. The next few years would see a wave of innovation – but for Ericsson, 2001 was also its swansong as a mobile phone brand.

Ericsson had produced a range of successful (and mostly very compact) phones but was losing money on the operation in a big way. Despite this, Ericsson continued to launch great new products and the Ericsson T68m (usually referred to as just the “T68”) was one of them. A diminutive 84 gram device, it packed in more features than rivals to create a very desirable handset.

This Ericsson T68m has seen better days
This Ericsson T68m has seen better days

One of the main selling points was Bluetooth – one of the first phones to feature this technology. It also had a colour screen, tri-band GSM, GPRS packet data, a WAP browser, predictive text, a bitmap editor and a bunch of included games. A camera – the MCA-25 CommuniCam – was available as a clip-on extra, again making it one of the first phones to feature that particular technology.

Not long after the launch of the T68, Ericsson merged their mobile phone business with Sony to create Sony Ericsson. The T68 received a slight cosmetic makeover and had a software update to become the Sony Ericsson T68i, the first phone to carry that branding. Eventually the camera add-on became a standard accessory, helping to popularise the idea of cameraphones.

Sony Ericsson T68i with Communicam
Sony Ericsson T68i with Communicam

When it eventually arrived, the replacement for the T68 was the stylish T610 and there was a successful run of handsets after that. Today, used prices for the T68i and T68m are pretty healthy with really good ones selling for £100 or more, although sub-£50 is more common. The Communicam camera add-on is available as new old stock from £50 or more, all pretty healthy for a 20 year old feature phone..

Image credits:
The Norwegian Telecom Musuem via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Science Museum Group - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Renault 4 (1961)

Introduced July 1961

One of world’s most successful single models of car, the Renault 4 sold over eight million units in 33 years of production. It was an enduring success, utilising several technologies which were novel in the 1960s but commonplace in later years.

Although the Renault 4 is shaped like a small station wagon or estate car, it was actually the world’s first mass-produced hatchback. It was also front-wheel drive, at a time when almost everything else on the road was rear wheel drive. Indeed, the engine was in the front as well when rear-engined cars were still a thing.

Renault 4
Renault 4

The design was modern by early 1960s standards, and the target market was people who up until then had been buying the Citro├źn 2CV. Despite the rival 2CV having been introduced in 1948, it was still a strong seller due to its practicality and simplicity. However, the Renault 4 offered more power, more comfort and lower maintenance costs.

Unlike modern cars, the Renault 4 is built on an independent chassis with the body being placed on top. The chassis provided all the structural strength, allowing more windows and thinner pillars in the car itself giving better visibility. A range of engines were available – the smallest was in the Renault 3 (fundamentally the same car as the Renault 4), giving 22 horsepower. The Renault 4 had up to 32 horsepower. The rival 2CV thrashed around on just 12 horsepower at the time.

It was a practical car, and comfortable too. Although it maybe lacked the charm of the 2CV, it went on to be a massive sales success worldwide. Licence-built versions of the Renault 4 were made in such diverse countries as Argentina, Ireland, Morocco, Australia, Mexico and Yugoslavia. There was a popular van ("fourgonnette") version, plus a pickup and dozens of quirky custom versions made by converters and enthusiasts.

Renault 4 fourgonnette
Renault 4 fourgonnette

After the Renault 4’s launch came a host of other front-wheel drive hatchbacks, both from Renault and other manufacturers. The 4 lingered on though, with French production going on until 1992 (and until 1994 in Slovenia). Eventually it was replaced with the first-generation Twingo which successfully built upon the 4’s design philosophy – becoming a modern classic in its own right.

Today the Renault 4 is a rare sight on British roads – much rarer than the rival 2CV – with prices starting at just a few thousand pounds for a slice of Gallic charm. 

Image credits:
Spline Splinson via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0
Gzzz via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Chromebook (2011)

Introduced June 2011

Chromebooks are boring. Not as sleek as a tablet, not as powerful as a laptop. They’re for people who think a chicken korma might be a bit spicy and whose automobile of choice is an off-brand South-East Asian compact people carrier which just reliably gets them, their family and the dog from A to B with the minimum of fuss.

Based on Google’s Chrome OS - derived from the open source (but still largely Google) Chromium OS which is essentially a lightweight version of Linux – Chromebooks are inexpensive laptop-like devices designed for running web applications and a somewhat limited range of native apps, plus on many devices that ability to run applications designed for Android.

Currently most Chromebooks run on Intel-compatible processors, especially lower-end Celeron CPUs. Alternatively some variant of the ARM processor can be used, but these seem to be losing popularity. Like laptops there are a variety of configurations, mostly different screen sizes and CPUs. Internal storage is usually very limited as it is expected that most storage will be done in Google’s cloud. Similarly, there’s only limited functionality available without an internet connection.

HP Somethingorother
HP Somethingorother

Bland? Well, when you consider that people shell out thousands for high-end devices such as Macbooks but only use them for web browsing, they are certainly better value for money… in the same way that most expensive four-wheel drive SUVs never go further off the road than the supermarket car park. Since most Chromebooks tend to cost a few hundred pounds, they are usually a decent value proposition.

There are irritations, one of which being that Google got rid of the CAPS LOCK key to replace it with a search button. Printing can be difficult, but anyone who has tried to print from a smartphone will know that feeling too. You can’t run heavyweight native apps either because the hardware is generally underpowered and there is minimal storage space, but Chromebooks don’t pretend to be laptops. On the plus side they are inexpensive and have a real keyboard which makes them more suitable for real work than a tablet.

One key advantage is security – Windows devices are plagued with viruses and other malware, and so are Macs and even iOS and Android devices to a lesser extent. Although Chromebooks aren’t to security flaws, for all practical purposes they are much safer than using a traditional PC. On the other hand, software updates for Chromebook models have a much shorter lifespan than (say) a Windows PC, especially in early models which led to some hardware becoming obsolete in just a few years.

Chromebooks in a school environment
Chromebooks in a school environment

Did I mention they were boring? Well, really they are... but Chrome OS has a greater market share than the Mac (if you count a Chromebook as a laptop and not a door wedge), and in markets such as education they have a much larger share still. Is the idea a success? It’s a slow burn to be sure, but it does seem that Google and its partners have managed to come up with a viable alternative to Windows, Macs and tablets. Will they be around for another ten years? Given Google's habit of dropping products I would not bet on it..

Image credits:
BUF Simrishamn via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
TechnologyGuide TestLab via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Frogger vs Centipede (1981)

Introduced June 1981

Early popular arcade games tended to be space-themed shoot-‘em-ups, which tended to appeal to male customers. However, games such as Pac-Man had a much broader audience and were especially popular with female players.

Fighting for a share of this market - and introduced roughly at the same time as each other – were Frogger (by Konami and Sega) and Atari’s Centipede. Both these games are regarded as classics of the golden age of arcade machines, but both had very different gameplay.

The origin story for Frogger is as cute as the game itself. Konami employee Akira Hashimoto was watching a frog trying to cross the road from his car, and was thinking about the difficulties the poor creature was having… which led to the inspiration for creating the game. Only the poor old frog in Frogger has an even tougher time.

Frogger machine from Seinfeld
Frogger machine from Seinfeld

In the game, the player starts at the bottom of the screen and tries to make it to the frogs’ homes at the top. To do this, the frog has to cross several lanes of traffic, and then cross a river on floating logs and diving turtles while avoiding alligators. There are many ways to die. Colourful graphics and a catchy soundtrack added to the appeal of the game, and it was a huge hit.

Centipede was another animal-themed game, but very different in execution. From a gameplay perspective, this was closer to a traditional shooter game, but here the adversaries were various bugs that you had to defend yourself against, primarily a long centipede which wound its way down the screen and which would split up if you shot it. Fleas, spiders and scorpions appeared with different behaviours, and the playfield was full of mushrooms which changed the course of the centipede when it hit.

Atari Centipede
Atari Centipede

Like Frogger, Centipede was a huge hit particularly with female players. Both games were widely ported – officially and unofficially – to the booming home computer and console markets. Indeed, both arcade machines shared many hardware parts with theses home machines – Frogger ran on a Zilog Z80 with the versatile AY-3-8910 sound chip and Centipede used the MOS Technology 6502 with Atari’s own POKEY sound chips which found their way into every Atari product of the time. This symmetry in hardware capabilities allowed this generation of video games to be a huge hit away from the arcades. Eventually powerful home computers and then consoles would end the golden age of arcades but by 1981 that was still some way off…

Image credits:
Arturo Pardavila III via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 2.0
Matt M via Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Monday, 14 June 2021

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (1981)

Introduced June 1981

When Texas Instruments (often known as just “TI”) entered the home computer, it wasn’t a typical player. Most machines were made by startups, or companies that had specialised in calculators and electronic games. Instead, TI was a massive and long-established electronics manufacturer which could trace its origins back to the 1930s, and by 1981 it was the largest semiconductor company in the world.

Rivals such as Motorola were happy to supply all the important bits and bobs to go into these new microcomputers, but that was as far as it went. However, TI chose to leverage its considerable expertise in silicon to try to carve out a slice of the market for itself.

In 1979 TI launched the TI-99/4, based on the 16-bit Texas Instruments TMS9000 CPU. The TI-99/4 was expensive, had a horrible keyboard and was limited in expansion capabilities. Two years later, TI fixed many of these issues with the improved TI-99/4A with a massively improved keyboard, clever expansion system and – crucially – a price tag that was half that of the original. The TI-99/4A looked promising to consumers, and sales started to take off.

It was a good-looking machine, with plenty of brushed aluminium and black which was in line with the aesthetics of the time. It wasn’t cheap, but the 4A’s price ticket of $525 was at least competitive unlike the 4. The graphics and sound were amongst the best in its class, so initially at least it seemed like a compelling proposition.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
Texas Instruments TI-99/4A

At its heart was the TMS9000 CPU, a sophisticated beast that was essentially a 1970s Texas TI-990 minicomputer on a single chip. It should have allowed the 99/4A to be one of the most powerful microcomputers on the market, but instead it was a major source of problems. Because building a full 16-bit system would be prohibitively expensive, almost all the internal architecture is just 8-bit which negated the possible performance impact. More difficult still was the fact that the 16-bit CPU’s instruction set was twice as memory hungry as a contemporary 8-bit CPU.

To get around this, TI essentially created an 8-bit virtual machine using an intermediate language called GPL. This made coding more efficient and was a technically advanced technique, but the processing limitations of the hardware meant that all of this sophistication created a computer that was significantly slower than its 8-bit rivals, despite running with a 16-bit core.

No computer of the era was perfect though, so the TI-99/4A wasn’t disadvantaged as much as you might think. But there were other problems – and the main one was software. TI were reluctant to share information about the platform with independent developers, instead TI wanted to produce the bulk of the software and peripherals for the 99/4A themselves – and thus profit from them. In truth, the TI-99/4A was probably better than most offerings but it was much weaker than the likes of the venerable Apple II or the upstart Commodore VIC-20.

But there was trouble brewing, and it was the Commodore VIC-20 which would deliver it in a giant tankard with a single raised finger painted on the side. Commodore’s boss – the legendary Jack Tramielloathed TI for nearly bankrupting his business during the pocket calculator wars of the 1970s. The VIC-20 ran on the 8-bit 6502 CPU (built by Commodore subsidiary MOS Technology) which was cheap, fast and well understood by programmers. The VIC-20 wasn’t as sophisticated as the TI-99/4A, but it was about half the price… at first.

Tramiel dropped the price of the VIC-20, TI followed suit. A price war emerged with both Commodore and TI dropping the prices until both units were shipping at less than $100. TI was haemorrhaging cash at this price point, but sales were good and it thought it could make the money back on software and peripherals. It couldn’t. TI started to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in this price war, driving the whole corporation into a sea of red ink. Even cost-cutting in production couldn’t turn it around – late 99/4As swapping to a cheaper beige case rather than the snazzy aluminium-and-steel one.

Late model fully-expanded TI-99/4A
Late model fully-expanded TI-99/4A

TI couldn’t sustain these losses, and in late 1983 it announced that the TI-99/4A would be discontinued. Production ended in the spring on 1984 and TI cancelled the interesting TI-99/2 and TI-99/8 systems that it was working on. Instead TI switched its efforts to 8088-based PCs running DOS, machines that were better than the IBM PC but weren’t IBM PC-compatible. In retrospect this was not a winning market strategy either. On and off TI stuck with the PC business, coming up with the TravelMate line of laptops which were quite successful, but TI sold their PC business to Acer in 1997.

Ultimately TI went back to concentrating on making the components that make the world go around apart from one consumer product – calculators. Yes, the product that so ired Jack Tramiel is still a profitable line for TI and outlasted the Company that dared to challenge it.

Image credits:
Max Mustermann via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0
Leigh Anthony Dehaney via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Zuse Z3 Computer (1941)

Completed May 1941

Who made the world’s first programmable digital computer? The Americans? The British? The Japanese? Well, in what is perhaps a forgotten part of history it was quite possibly the Germans with the Zuse Z3 which was completed in May 1941.

The electronics of the time were not sophisticated, the Z3 relied mostly on relays and the whole machine ran at a little over 5 hertz (no, not megahertz.. just 5 cycles per second). It weighed a ton and drew 4000 watts of power, but it was actually remarkably capable.

Zuse Z3 detail
Zuse Z3 detail

Floating point numbers were supported, the Z3 could not only add and subtract, but divide, multiply and calculated the square root. Many of the computer’s operations were actually implemented in microcode rather than being hard wides. A keyboard and row of lights formed the basis of the operator console, and the Z3 could store data on punched celluloid tape.

Sometimes considered a design flaw, the Z3 was incapable of performing a conditional jump – i.e. the program couldn’t take a different path depending on different circumstances, an essential feature of a multipurpose computer. Still, the Z3 could perform complex calculations more quickly and accurately than a human, which is pretty much all early computers were used for.

It might not have escaped your attention that a lot was going on in Germany in 1941. Designer Konrad Zuse struggled to get resources for his project, but the much simpler predecessors of the Z3 (the Z1 and Z2) persuaded the Nazi government to support it in a limited way. Despite commissioning the Z3, the authorities were not convinced of its value and it was not used to its full capabilities. A bombing raid in 1943 destroyed the computer, and by this time Zuse had gone on the design the Z4 – arguably the world’s first commercially available computer - which was released a few years after the end of the war. Zuse continued to develop computers into the 1960s.

Zuse Z3
Zuse Z3

It is perhaps fortunate that the Nazis didn’t see the potential of the computer – in Britain the Colossus computer was breaking high-level German codes produced by the Lorenz cipher. This allowed the Allies to read communications from German high-command, including some from Adolf Hitler himself.

The Z3 ended up being largely forgotten, although a reconstruction was made after the war which now resides in the Deutsches Museum. In different circumstances – probably not very good circumstances considering – the Zuse Z3 might have been the progenitor of modern computing. But it wasn’t, instead the Zuse company was taken over by Brown Boveri in 1964 and then was sold on to Siemens in 1966, eventually disappearing in 1971. In 1999 the computer division of Siemens merged into a joint venture with Fujitsu, eventually being wholly taken over by the Japanese firm in 2009. Perhaps somewhere in there a little bit of Zuse DNA lives on.

Image credits:
DKsen via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Floheinstein via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

Saturday, 22 May 2021

IBM 7030 Stretch (1961)

Introduced May 1961

Sometimes products are released that look like they are sure-fire successes at the time, but end up in the long run as being insignificant. Sometimes products are launched that look like failures, but end up changing the world in some way. The IBM 7030 Stretch is a little of one and a little of the other.

The 7030 was IBM’s first fully transistorised computer, and at launch it was the fastest computer in the world. Projected to be priced at an eye-watering $13.5 million dollars in 1961 money (about ten times that today), this was a serious computer for serious organisations – coming in at 32 metric tons and consuming 100kW of power.

Transistor technology had been developing at a rapid rate by the start of the 1960s and IBM proposed using diffusion transistors for the new design. This was a risk move for the typically risk-averse IBM, but competition with companies such as UNIVAC was heating up. The initial goals for the 7030 was impressive – a 64-bit system capable of a processing capacity of 10 MIPs. When the technical complexities of the project began to dawn, this was dropped to 4 MIPS. When the 7030 was launched, it actually shipped with 1.2 MIPS. 

IBM 7030 Stretch
IBM 7030 Stretch

The system performance was a disappointment – even though it turned out that the 7030 was the fastest computer in the world. IBM cancelled new orders and halved the price for those who had already ordered it. In IBM’s eyes, the 7030 was a failure. Just 9 units were sold – including one secret version known as “Harvest”. There were significant internal recriminations at IBM, with plenty of finger-pointing going round and people anxious to assign blame.

But the 7030 was more of a technological success than was realised, and the innovations in hardware and software found their way into other IBM products, especially the successful IBM System/360 series which found their way into corporations everywhere. And although many of the technologies in the 7030 were soon obsolete, they all provided an important stepping-stone in the development of 1960s computing.

IBM 7030 Stretch

Two key figures in the 7030 Stretch were Gene Amdahl, a legendary designer of powerful early mainframes and Frederick Brooks who went on to write the seminal software engineering tome “The Mythical Man Month”. This book attempted to learn from the mistakes in the project management of Stretch and other projects, significantly the idea that adding more people to a late software project will only make it later. Despite being in print for more than 40 years, corporations continue to make the same mistakes that IBM did in the early 1960s.

Image credits: Don DeBold via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
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