Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Multics (1969)

Artists rendition of early MIT Multics system
Launched July 1969

These days the computer you possibly interact with most often is your smartphone, and that is most likely to be an Android or iOS device. Both those operating systems are related, descended from the Unix operating system developed during the early 1970s.

Unix-like operating systems are not just found on smartphones – they are everywhere from web servers and huge mainframes to embedded devices and smart TVs. Over the decades it has been around, the influence of Unix is almost universal with only Microsoft’s Windows operating system offering any competition at all.

But what came before Unix? Just as your ARM-powered smartphone is spiritually descended from the 8-bit BBC Micro, Unix itself was borne out of another project: Multics.

Originally a project between General Electric (GE), Bell Labs and MIT. GE sold its computing business early on to Honeywell and Bell Labs dropped out. After five years of development, Honeywell released the first version of Multics to general users running on Honeywell 6000 series mainframes – with the Multics versions later named the DPS-8.

Multics was arguably the world’s first modern operating system, a highly-secure multi-tasking and multi-processor system it was also fault tolerant and the hardware could be reconfigured while the system was still in use. Multics also introduces the now-standard hierarchical file system, supported the concept of “daemons” (system processes that carry out tasks, in Windows these are called “services”). Multics also allowed every part of the system to be accessed as if it were a file, and introduced the concept of dynamic linking – Windows users would recognised these as being the ubiquitous DLLs we see today.

I kept hold of this manual for 30 years.
Just for this blog post.

It was highly advanced, secure and pretty user-friendly. But it was not really a success. Multics was limited to running on certain types of hardware - expensive hardware. A typical installation would cost several million dollars, back in the days that several million dollars was a lot of money. And in an attempt to be sophisticated, it was maybe too sophisticated.

So where does Unix fall into all this? Two engineers working for Bell Labs in the early days were Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie who didn’t like the over-sophistication of Multics but did like some of the features – notably the file system and command line. Instead of making a computer system that could run on expensive multiprocessor mainframes, they designed something that would run on cheaper single processor minicomputers. They called it Unix, a play on the word Multics… Unix was for uniprocessor computers, Multics for multiprocessor ones.

In some ways Unix was similar to Multics, but in most fundamental ways it was completely different, because Kernighan and Ritchie could see where the design decisions of Multics were leading it to be an expensive niche product. At its heart, Unix is the antithesis of Multics.

Unix grew and evolved from its roots on the DEC PDP-7 to run on a huge variety of hardware. The match the choice in hardware, a wide variety of different versions of Unix were created. Somewhere along the way the Unix-like Linux and Mach operating systems were created which in turn spawned Android and iOS. Unix wouldn’t have been Unix without the influence of Multics.

Multics itself continues in development until the mid-1980s. Not long after that, Honeywell sold its computer business off to Groupe Bull. Despite all this, Multics hung around with the last system being shut down in October 2000. 31 years of history isn’t bad for something that wasn’t really considered a success.

Today, Multics memorabilia is pretty rare and it’s unlikely anyone has a complete system in their attic. However, the OS was open sourced some years ago and as a result there are some simulators available for you to try. If you are interested in learning more about this historic operating system, the Multicians.org website is utterly comprehensive and details just about everything you would ever want to know.

Image credits: MIT, Conrad Longmore

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Sony Walkman TPS-L2 (1979)

Introduced July 1979

These days music is something that we enjoy on the go. We take for granted the ability to listen to music wherever we are, and to listen to whatever we’re in the mood for. On the train, on foot, in the car, in bed… listening to music is often a very personal experience.

It wasn’t always this way of course, and if the old days a typical way of listening to music would be an LP record on a record player. Which was fine, at least some of the time, but you could only listen to pre-recorded records in the vicinity of the record player itself. And although portable record players did exist, they were more luggable than convenient.

The invention of the Compact Cassette in the 1960s came up with a medium that was smaller and more durable than the LP, and crucially it was something that people could record onto themselves. Cassette technology improved through the 1970s which made it a popular medium for listening to music – and even for recording your own mix tapes – but cassette decks were still fixed in place and portable cassette player were still bulky and tended to be tinny.

The executives at Sony however recognised that the Compact Cassette had more potential, and it 1979 they launched the Sony Walkman TPS-L2, a portable cassette player powered by batteries which played back on stereo headphones.

Here was a device that you could attach to your belt or put in a bag… or squeeze into your pockets if they were big enough. And although cassettes may not have had the music quality that records had, the stereo headphones were a revelation to many users. Instead of listening to music, the Walkman put the music straight into your head.

It was an enormous success. Sales far exceeded expectations, and production of cassette-based Walkmans continued well into the 21st Century. Part of the appeal was down to the inherent “Japanese-ness” of the technology, but part was also down to opening up new ways of listening to music that weren’t available before.

Of course, eventually other ways of playing music became more popular. You can digitise thousands of songs and store them on your smartphone, or you can stream them with a service such as Spotify. You’d think that cassettes would be extinct, but in recent years they’ve enjoyed something of a renaissance, and a significant role for the original Walkman TPS-L2 in The Guardians of the Galaxy boosted the retro appeal further.

Today the Sony Walkman TPS-L2 is highly collectable with prices for units in good condition being in excess of £400. If you want something less iconic but a bit more high-tech, £20 or so can buy you a portable cassette player that can even convert your tapes to MP3.

Image credit: Yoshikazu TAKADA via Flickr

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Nokia 6630 (2004)

Nokia 6630
Launched June 2004

By and large, smartphones were pretty rubbish a decade and a half ago. But the Nokia 6630 was a good deal less rubbish than most of them.

There’s no escaping the 6630’s hamster cheeks charm when you look at it, early 3G phones such as this were quite chunky compared to their 2G cousins, and the 6630 certainly shows it. The 6630 was a Symbian Series 60 smartphone as well, and having both 3G plus smartphone capabilities in one device was pretty rare.

Add to that a decent 1.3 megapixel camera, Bluetooth, expandable memory, a multimedia player web browser and a decently powerful 220 MHz ARM CPU to run applications on, the 6630 was a pretty good handset all around. Video calling was an optional extra which needed a desk cradle, but although 3G devices were sold on their video calling capabilities, hardly anyone actually used it.

The 2.1” 176 x 208 pixel display is tiny by modern standards, and the 6630 lacks GPS or WiFi which are two essential ingredients to today’s smartphones. But the Nokia 6630 was certainly getting there, and can be considered one of the predecessors of the legendary N95.

Today you can pick up a 6630 for about £30 upwards depending on condition and accessories.

Image credit: Nokia

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Atari Portfolio (1989)

Released June 1989

Handheld computers had been around for a couple of years by 1989, with Psion being an early pioneer. But a group of former Psion engineers wanted to put a PC in the palm of your hand, so they created the DIP Pocket PC which is mostly commonly known as the Atari Portfolio.

Weighing just 505 grams, the Portfolio had approximately the footprint of a modern 7” tablet while being a fair bit heavier. A clamshell design, the Portfolio resembled a shrunken laptop with a little QWERTY keyboard and a small 240 x 64 pixel screen that could display 8 rows of 40 characters.

Inside was a low-power version of the Intel 8088, with 256Kb of ROM for applications and 128Kb of non-volatile RAM for applications and storage, which could be further increased by using the built-in “Bee Card” expansion module. Power was provided by three AA cells.

It didn’t quite run MS-DOS, but something pretty close and built-in applications included a text editor, spreadsheet and various personal information management tools. New programs could be loaded in on an expansion card.

Unlike a modern tablet, the Portfolio was highly expandable, including parallel and serial adapters, a modem, an ISA expansion card bus and many others.  These impressive capabilities earned the Portfolio a role in the 1991 movie Terminator 2.

Despite being a niche product 30 years ago, the Portfolio is still pretty common to find as a second-hand buy with prices starting at less than £100 and going up to several hundred pounds depending on condition and accessories.

Image credit: Felix Winkelnkemper via Flickr

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Nokia 6260, 6170 and 2650 (2004)

Launched June 2004

Cast your mind back and think of a classic Nokia. Perhaps you are thinking of the 3210, the 6310i or the N95. Whatever you are thinking of, it’s probably one of Nokia’s signature monoblock or candy bar designs. But Nokia could also make some interesting clamshell phones, and in June 2004 they launched a trio of innovative designs.

Nokia 6260

Sitting at the top of the pile was the Nokia 6260. Not just any old clamshell phone, but a Symbian S60 smartphone to boot. This was Nokia’s first attempt to put Symbian in a clamshell, and this was certainly competitive with other similar devices with downloadable native apps, a 176 x 208 pixel display and expandable memory.

But really, that was all boring stuff… because the 6260 also came with a novel rotating display. Possibly inspired by similar devices coming out of Japan, the 6260 could be used like a traditional clamshell or have the screen twisted around to create a sort of touchscreen-less tablet. Or if you wanted you could use it in pretty much any position in between.

The clever screen is perhaps what gave the 6260 its “wow factor” rather than the powerful Symbian OS underneath. Ultimately, the sort of users who liked Symbian weren’t really drawn to clamshell designs. Nonetheless, this is a very collectable Nokia handset with typical prices being £70 or more.

Nokia 6260

Nokia 6170

Where the 6260 had hidden depths, the lower-cost Nokia 6170 didn’t. A very basic phone in terms of technical specifications, the 6170 came with a gorgeous design that made this a very desirable handset.

Not a million miles away from the 6260 in terms of understated squared-off design, the 6170 was clad in an etched stainless steel housing. Even the NOKIA name was discretely etched into the steel, and the phone looked just as good on the inside as on the outside, along with a small colour display.

The lack of Bluetooth was certainly a hindrance in what could have otherwise made a decent business phone, but overall the 6170 was quite usable despite its simplicity. Today, examples in decent condition will cost around £30 or so.

Nokia 6170

Nokia 2650

2004 was certainly in the middle of Nokia’s “weird period” when it came to design, and given that their only other foray into clamshell design was the fabric-clad 7200 you might think that Nokia would want at least one sober design. Well, instead the Nokia 2650 was the weirdest to date.

On the outside, the 2650 looked like nothing at all. A plastic case with NOKIA written on it, an exercise in utterly minimalistic design. But open the 2650 up and it revealed an amazingly retro-futuristic design of flexible plastic that looked like a cross between a prop from a Sci-fi show and a sun lounger.

A very basic (and inexpensive) phone underneath, the 2650 always polarised opinions and even fifteen years later it a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. It does however represent the sort of fresh thinking that phone designers had a decade-and-a-half ago, an approach which is sorely lacking today. Again, £30 or so will get you one in decent condition if you want one.

Nokia never really did crack the clamshell market, and of course in the long run it didn’t matter anyway. But Nokia handsets from this era are highly collectable, and these three are certainly no exception to that rule.

Nokia 2650

Image credits: Nokia

Saturday, 8 June 2019

HTC Hero (2009)

Announced June 2009

By the middle of 2009, Apple was hitting its stride with the seriously good third-generation iPhone 3GS. However, the rival Android platform was still in its first generation with devices such as the Samsung I7500 Galaxy and T-Mobile G1 which didn’t quite have the same level of polish.

However, HTC was pushing things forward and their third Android smartphone was the elegant-looking HTC Hero. In technical terms, this wasn’t a million miles away from HTC’s earlier Magic handset, but it had a better camera and a much sharper design.

HTC Hero
Unlike the somewhat retro G1 and Magic, the HTC Hero looked very modern. At the bottom of the handset was a distinctive kick or chin, which bent out from the handset. Unusually, the Hero had a little trackball mounted in the kick, something that lingered in HTC devices for a while, an addition to a set of physical buttons that the iPhone lacked. This was also the first HTC with a 3.5mm jack plug for headphones.

The sharper design wasn’t just in terms of hardware. The Hero ran Android 1.5, a fledgling version of this now ubiquitous OS. Early versions of Android were rather rough around the edges, so HTC added their “Sense UI” interface on top of it to make it nicer to use. HTC were pretty good at this sort of thing, having reskinned Windows Mobile on their other smartphones for some time.

It did pretty well in terms of sales, but problems getting carriers to roll out updates to Android 2.1 left some customers annoyed and for most customers there would be no official updates beyond that. In comparison, Apple fully supported the 3GS for four years. Even a decade after the launch of the Hero, the short support lifespan of certain Android phones is an issue.

Image credit: HTC

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Apple iPhone 3GS (2009)

Apple iPhone 3GS (2009)
Launched June 2009

The Apple iPhone 3GS is – possibly – the best smartphone ever at the time it was launched. A bold claim perhaps for a product line that had been around for two years, but there's a saying the third time's a charm and perhaps it applies here.

Earlier generations of the iPhone were well-received, but fundamentally flawed and displayed the lack of maturity of the product. Two years in and the 3GS finally fixed many of these faults. One of the main ones was that the 3GS was the first iPhone that could record video. Almost unbelievably, the first two generations couldn’t do these even when it was a standard feature on just about every other phone on the market. The camera on the back was improved from 2 to 3 megapixels for stills photos, which while still pretty good in terms of quality still lagged behind the competition in terms of pixel count.

The 3GS also added MMS support, a digital compass, copy-and-paste, a landscape keyboard and 16GB or 32GB of internal storage. It was also twice as fast as the iPhone 3G, which was a key selling point.

There were still a few features lacking – the 320 x 480 pixel display was beginning to look a bit dated, and there was no front-facing camera… but video calling still wasn’t really a thing a decade ago. Overall though, no excuses needed making for this generation of the iPhone, unlike the first two.

Reportedly, Apple shifted a million units in the first weekend and then around 30 million over the life of the device, far more than the previous two generations added together. The iPhone was supported by Apple until September 2013, giving over four years of software updates and setting a standard that still puts most rivals to shame.

Although it’s an important device, it’s not a particularly collectible one and unlocked models can be had for a few tens of pounds.

Image credit: Apple