Monday 27 July 2015

Sharp 903 (2005)

Announced July 2005

Ten years ago, Vodafone was attempting to leverage its Japanese subsidiary to come up with some exciting 3G phones to help promote their push into this new market.

To this end, the Sharp 903 was launched, replacing the year-old Sharp 902. The 903 featured a 2.4" QVGA display, a 3.2 megapixel camera with autofocus and optical zoom, it came with miniSD expandable memory, Bluetooth, a music player with stereo sound, a barcode scanner plus OCR support, and of course it supported UMTS data with a download speed of 384KBps.. which doesn't sound like much these days, but it was six times faster than GPRS.

Sharp 903

Featuring a similar swivelling clamshell design to the 902, the 903 was a big beast and was in many ways very much better than all the competition. So why didn't this catapult Sharp into the big league?

There were several hurdles to Sharp and Vodafone's plan to break into European markets. Firstly, 3G handsets were expensive and they didn't really do much. Websites didn't render well on those little screens (and this was way before site operators made mobile versions of their sites), and the phones were big and tended to have poor battery life.

But there was another factor too.. Vodafone were looking at selling off their Japanese operations and in 2006 the unit was bought by SoftBank. This change of ownership meant that the relationship between Vodafone and its Japanese partners cooled off considerably, and although Sharp did release a few lower-end devices through Vodafone after that, they never again challenged for the high-end.

Thursday 23 July 2015

Atari ST (1985)

Atari 1040ST

Launched June 1985

Launched in the summer of 1985, the Atari ST was a direct competitor to the Commodore Amiga. Cheaper than the Amiga but also based on a Motorola 68000 processor the ST was another key contender in the home computing market in the late 1980s.

The Atari ST was much simpler than the Amiga in graphics and sound terms, but it could support MIDI devices which lead to it being very popular with musicians. The user interface was DR's GEM system that also found its way onto Amstrad computers and some PC clones.

The history of the creation of the ST actually intertwined with that of the Amiga. Atari were an early investor in the Amiga's technology, but eventually that platform went to Commodore. But the rivalry was more intense because the Atari brand was owned by Jack Tramiel who had founded Commodore in the first place. Tramiel himself is an interesting character, aged 83 today, and a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

An elegant all-in-one design, the Atari ST sold well for several years, and in 1992 it was followed up by the more powerful Atari Falcon which was only on sale for a year before Atari pulled it to concentrate on the unsuccessful Atari Jaguar console. Atari disappeared from the market in 1996, a couple of years after Commodore declared bankruptcy.

However, as with Commodore, the Atari name refused to die and these days the descendant company concentrates on mobile and online gaming. And although the legacy of the ST is limited today, it did help to popularise gaming and the low cost helped many musicians produce their own music.

Commodore Amiga (1985)

Commodore Amiga 1000 (1985)
Launched July 2005

Launched 30 years ago this month, the Commodore Amiga was an early 32-bit computer that featured dedicated graphics and sound chipsets and is widely regarded as the first multimedia computer. It was also a highly expandable system running on an efficient operating system, and as such it was one of the key contenders in late 1980s and early 1990s home computing.

Starting off with the original Amiga 1000, the popular Amiga 500 followed on in 1987 and continued on through several models until Commodore's bankruptcy in 1996. Afterwards other Amiga models appeared from other manufacturers with different processors and upgraded operating systems, but these were strictly niche products for Amiga fans looking for an upgrade. The currently-available derivative is the AmigaONE X1000.

Easily outclassing everything else on the market, the Amiga launched at a time when the IBM PC was taking the lion's share of the market. Nonetheless, it was a successful product for its time and is fondly remembered by owners.

In a wider context, the Amiga showed the value of adding dedicated hardware for multimedia where before all processing would have to be done by the main CPU. Effectively the Amiga line was the first widely available system to feature a dedicated GPU, something that is commonplace today in smartphones and tablets.

As an aside, the Commodore name has been revived several times, and the company currently bearing the name is in the process of launching the Commodore PET smartphone, named after Commodore's influential 1970s computer line.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Motorola PEBL U6, Q8 and RAZR V3x (2005)

Announced July 2005

Ten years ago this month, Motorola was still riding the wave of success created by the iconic RAZR handset. But they were finding it a struggle to find new products to capitalize on their surge in popularity, with several devices that had been announced.. and then cancelled. However, in July 2005 we saw a trio of products being shown off that Motorola hoped would change things.

Despite its popularity and radical design, the RAZR was simply a cosmetically different addition to the V500 range that Motorola had been making since 2003. The Motorola PEBL also used the V500's underlying technology, but this time it came in an elegantly curved case that looked like a pebble. Inside the keypad was a flat affair inspired by the RAZR. Overall, the PEBL was a pretty limited device with support for 2G only, it had a little 1.8" 176 x 220 pixel screen and a 0.3 megapixel camera. The PEBL couldn't play music, but it did have Bluetooth.

The PEBL had the same shortcomings as the RAZR, so was only a modest success. The Motorola "4LTR" phones (RAZR, PEBL, ROKR) are among the more collectible Motos and are readily available for a minimum outlay.

Motorola PEBL

The Motorola RAZR V3x had a confusing launch, at various points being called the Motorola V1150 and Motorola V3x (dropping the RAZR label). Despite some cosmetic similarities to the RAZR V3, the V3x was a very much more advanced handset with 3G, a music player, expandable memory and a two megapixel camera plus video calling capabilities.

As with all 3G phones from that era, the V3x was a lot bigger and heavier than its GSM competition. The V3x was a niche success with 3G-only carriers such as the Hutchison 3 network. As with the PEBL, the V3x is readily available for not much money.

Motorola RAZR V3x

The Motorola Q (later called the Motorola Q8) attempted to take a bite out of the BlackBerry market. It was a Windows smartphone with a rather familiar looking keypad, and although not a huge success it did spawn a couple of sequels with the Q9h in 2007 and Q11 in 2008.

It's hard to remember now, but BlackBerry was becoming a seemingly unstoppable force at the time, and rivals could not compete with the quality of their push email service. After all, why buy something that wasn't as good as a BlackBerry when you could just buy a BlackBerry.

The GSM version of the Q8 is very rare today, however the CDMA version is commonly available, but won't work outside the US.

Motorola Q8