Sunday 27 April 2014

Biggest handset disasters.. Part 2

A few months ago we looked at what we considered to be the ten biggest handset disasters of all time. Well, there's no shortage of devices that failed in the market, either because they were ill-conceived, weird or just too far ahead of their time.

11. Nokia N9 / N950 (2011)

Nokia's one-and-only commercially available MeeGo handset, the Nokia N9 is actually a pretty desirable bit of kit with a well-regarded operating system and a highly influential hardware design that was copied by Nokia's Lumia range and helped to popularise brightly-coloured plastics. Also available to developers only was the Nokia N950, a handset that is quite rare and is highly sought-after.
The N9 represents Nokia's utter failure to come up with a home-grown rival to the iPhone. Coming two years after its predecessor, the N900, the N9 was too late to make a difference, partly because of a foolish decision to try to merge platforms with Intel. It was obvious even before launch that the N9 was going to be doomed, and even before it was launched in a few minor markets the project was killed, and Nokia went with the Windows platform instead. The bottom line? The world doesn't need another mobile phone OS, no matter how good it is.
Buyer's guide: N950s are available from time-to-time, but are expensive.. prices range from €700 all the way up to €2300. Strictly speaking, they are all property of Nokia and were sent to developers only. The Nokia N9 is more commonly available for between €260 to €330 depending on model.

 Nokia 7700 12. Nokia 7700 / 7710 (2003 / 2004)

Nokia's first attempt at a touchscreen for was the Nokia 7700 which was a strikingly designed device, but it was far too big to be practical and features Nokia's infamous "side talking" system where you had to speak into side of the phone rather than the front. The 7700 was also crippled by a lack of memory, so that particular device was cancelled and replaced with the slimmed down and slightly upgraded Nokia 7710.
The 7710 lacked the essentials of 3G and WiFi, and consumers weren't really interested in touchscreen phones anyway. Instead of sticking with it, Nokia ditched the idea of touchscreen smartphones.. which was to prove a mistake.
Buyer's guide: the Nokia 7700 is one of the rarest Nokias around with prices starting at about €700, but they are so rarely available that one could cost much more. The 7710 is a lot cheaper but still uncommon, at around €20 to €150 depending on condition.

 Nokia N-Gage 13. Nokia N-Gage (2003)

A handheld gaming console from Nokia, the Nokia N-Gage should have been a winner. But Nokia got it badly wrong - it was too bulky to use as a phone, too limited to be used for games - so it was never very popular. An attempt to improve the platform with the 2004 N-Gage QD wasn't much of a success either.
Buyer's guide: there seems to be quite a lively trade in the N-Gage and cartridge games. Prices range from €10 or less to €30 for the handset itself.

 Sony Ericsson Xperia Play 14. Sony Ericsson Xperia Play (2011)

The lack of success for the N-Gage meant that there were no other high-profile phone/games console hybrids until 2011, with the launch of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play. Where the N-Gage was underpowered, the Xperia Play was much more powerful (although hardly high-end). Despite this, the Xperia Play wasn't a success and no attempt was made to revive the format.
Buyer's guide: officially the Xperia Play is stuck with Android 2.3 although there are some custom ROMs available with later versions. It is an inexpensive device on the second-hand market, typically coming in at €40 or less.

 Sony Ericsson Vivaz 15. Sony Ericsson Vivaz (2010)

Sony Ericsson's Symbian swansong, the Sony Ericsson Vivaz featured a pretty unpleasant resistive touchscreen when almost everything else had moved to superior capacitive displays. The handset might have done better in 2008 than 2010.
The Vivaz and its sibing the Vivaz Pro were commercial failures, and Sony Ericsson never made another Symbian handset after that.
Buyer's guide: there are not many of these on the market, but those that are tend to be very cheap indeed.

 Sony Ericsson P1i 16. Sony Ericsson P1i (2007)

Sony Ericsson was a pioneer with Symbian touchscreen devices, but the Sony Ericsson P1i represented a step in the wrong direction for their P-Series of smartphones.
Although in many ways it was superior to the original Apple iPhone launched at roughly the same time, the small stylus-drive screen and physical QWERTY keyboard were not the sort of things that consumers wanted.
Buyer's guide: a quirky and quite interesting device, it also falls into the "rare but cheap" category of handsets that can be hard to find, but come in at less than €50 or so.

 Samsung i8510 17. Samsung i8510 (2008)

In 2008 Symbian was by far the best-selling smartphone platform around, even though the iPhone was coming into its second generation. In order to try to get a slice of the pie that was dominated by Nokia, Samsung released the Samsung i8510 (also known as the INNOV8).
A well-designed, well-engineered device with a good feature set it seemed like an attractive proposition, but it turned out that customers preferred their Nokias to be made by Nokia after all.
Buyer's guide: like the Vivaz, this probably only appeals to collectors of non-Nokia Symbian devices, and it is another uncommon but inexpensive handset coming in at less than €30.

 Nokia N97 18. Nokia N97 (2009)

It should have been a winner - a touchscreen phone like the Nokia 5800 combined with a QWERTY keyboard like the Nokia Communicator, and a feature set that looked great on paper. But the Nokia N97 was slow, buggy and had several design flaws that made consumers unhappy. Most of these were fixed with the rather better N97 Mini launched later in the year. But keyboards were on the way out anyway, and in retrospect the entire concept was not likely to be a winner.
Buyer's guide: The N97 (in mini and non-mini versions) sells for around €25 to €50.

 Nokia X7 19. Nokia X7 (2011)

Symbian had already been given its death sentence by the time the Nokia X7 was announced which led to a speedy collapse of that product line. The coffin-like design of the X7 didn't help either, although as with all late Symbian devices it is actually a pretty good phone. Consumers don't like buying into a dead end product, and the X7 was certainly one of those.
Buyer's guide: Resale values are quite high, expect to pay between €60 to €120 for an unlocked version.

 Nokia 5000 20. Nokia 5000 (2008)

With a product number like this, you would expect the Nokia 5000 to be something special. A good-looking and inexpensive device, one of the key features was that it had an MP3 player. But with no expandable memory and just 12MB of internal storage, you could probably only fit in about three tracks which was a bit useless. And you also had to be careful about how many photos you took with the 1.3 megapixel camera too. Adding a microSD slot would have transformed the product, as it was it was almost completely useless.
Buyer's guide: if you collect chocolate teapots then the Nokia 5000 might be the phone for you. Good ones can be had for next to nothing.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

The 8-bit computer that spawned the phone in your pocket

The origins of the phone in your pocket are probably older than you think. Running Android or an iPhone? Well, that operating system is based on Unix which was created in the early 1970s. Running Windows Phone? That is based on Windows NT from the early 1990s, which in turn was largely inspired by another 1970s operating system, VMS. Have a new BlackBerry? Well, that's based on QNX from 1980s.
But one thing that links almost all modern smartphones is the processor - almost every one sold runs on some sort of core licensed from the British company ARM.
But the story of ARM begins with something familiar to anyone who grew up in Britain during the 1980s  - the BBC Micro. This 8-bit microcomputer was developed in conjunction with the BBC by Acorn. At first glance it seems to have little in common with those tiny computers we carry in our pockets with just 32Kb of RAM and a 2MHz processor.. after all, even the most basic smartphone has a processor that runs hundreds of times quicker and with 32 times the memory. But there was more to the BBC Micro than that.

 BBC Micro Conceived one third of a century ago, this humble machine could support a second processor, had a built in analogue to digital converter, optional networking and speech synthesis, a whole host of interface ports, possibly the best audio of any machine at the time and high-resolution graphics. With the optional Teletext adapter the BBC could download news, information and even programs over a TV signal, and with a Prestel adapter it could access information over the phone line. The BBC Micro was designed from the outset to communicate with other devices and to be flexible and expandable.
But the key thing about the BBC Micro was that it was fast. Really fast. Some of this was down to the highly optimised version of BASIC that programs could use, but mostly it was down to the processor itself. Although clocked at a modest 2MHz, the 6502 processor was significantly speedier than the rival Z80, due mostly to the simple design of the onboard logic which meant that it was relatively primitive but also very quick.

In turn, the simplicity and speed of the 6502 inspired Acorn to develop their own processor, the 32-bit ARM which appeared in Acorn's Archimedes computers in the late 1980s. The Archimedes range used and evolved many of the same features pioneered in the BBC, but the processor was a huge leap forward.
Clocked initially at just 8MHz, the ARM processor's simple internal RISC design was both very fast and relatively cheap to make, which met Acorn's requirements for a home computer. But almost coincidentally, this also made the processor very small and power efficient.
ARM eventually spun off from Acorn and began to licence the processor cores to other manufacturers. Although the take-up was initially quite slow, the growth of PDAs and later smartphones from the late 1990s onwards really expanded the use of the ARM processor enormously, and it is now the most commonly used type of CPU in the world.

So, next time someone shows you their snazzy new smartphone, instead of just being jealous you can simply point out that it is based on 1970s and 1980s technology instead..

Image sources: [1] [2] [3]
Data sources: [1] [2] [3]

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Retro 5|10: April 2004 and 2009

April 2004

2004 was a bit of a low point for Nokia who couldn't quite find the right formula with customers despite coming out with some radical designs. The Nokia N-Gage QD was an attempt to revive the ill-fated N-Gage gaming platform with something a little less clunky, but in the end the N-Gage only managed to attract a small but quite loyal following and Nokia never repeated the experiment again. On the other end of the design scale, the Nokia 6610i was a nasty and very basic camera phone which simply didn't meet the standards that customers wanted even ten years ago.
Japanese manufacturer Sharp had a very close relationship with Vodafone because of Vodafone's operations in Japan, so it was unusual to see a Sharp handset with anyone else.. in this case T-Mobile. The Sharp TM-100 slider outclassed most of the competition when it came to specifications, especially with the screen and camera, although it wasn't the breakthrough device that Sharp needed.
Samsung promised a whole range of interesting devices, but many of them never made it to market. Out of these, the Samsung i700 was a notable early Windows smartphone device which did ship to customers. Conversely, the curious Samsung i500 a proposed PalmOS clamshell phone with a touchscreen never made it to market, neither did the strange but funky looking Samsung X900 and indeed many other products they announced during 2004.

April 2009

The Samsung I7500 is the original Samsung Galaxy smartphone, and was one of the very first Android devices to market. Although the I7500 is somewhat unimpressive in hardware terms, it did spawn the world's best-selling smartphone range which still carries the "Galaxy" name. Samsung were also years ahead in pioneering dual-SIM phones, and the Samsung B5702 DUOS was a simple and effective way of putting two SIMs into one device.
 Samsung I7500
Samsung I7500
 Samsung B5702 DUOS
Samsung B5702 DUOS
8 megapixel phones were very rare in 2009, and the LG KC910i Renoir touchscreen phone was about as advanced as they came, but the Renoir was only a feature phone and ultimately this made it less appealing to a market had seen what the iPhone could do.
 LG KC910i Renoir
LG KC910i Renoir
Nokia were pioneering with NFC-capable devices, and the Nokia 6216 Classic was one of a tiny number of NFC devices to have been announced. Five years on, NFC is still a solution looking for a problem, and in the end the 6216 itself was cancelled before release.
 Nokia 6216 Classic
Nokia 6216 Classic
The last of the traditional Sidekick range, the T-Mobile Sidekick LX 2009 joined the family of messaging devices that had proved a massive hit in the US, although they had limited success elsewhere. Although the Sidekick demonstrated that feature phones could still sell, a catastrophic data outage later in 2009 effectively killed the range off forever.
 T-Mobile Sidekick LX 2009
T-Mobile Sidekick LX 2009