Monday 31 August 2015

A Tale of Two Tablets: Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 and BlackBerry Playbook (2010)

Announced September 2010

The concept of a “tablet” had been around for five years or so by September 2010, with the Nokia 770 pioneering the way with modest sales in 2005. However, the launch of the original Apple iPad in January 2010 really defined what people expected from a tablet, and the iPad rapidly went on to be a huge success.

Of course, other manufacturers wanted a slice of this market and two of the earliest competitors were quite similar to each other - the Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 and the BlackBerry PlayBook. However, neither of these could match the success of the Apple product for somewhat different reasons.

Both the Galaxy Tab and the PlayBook shared similar form factors, each using a 7” 1024 x 600 pixel panel and coming in at about half the weight and footprint of the original iPad. Both devices were available in either WiFi-only or (eventually) cellular versions, but they both ran very different operating systems.
Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000

Samsung's first Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 was an Android 2.2 "Froyo" device (upgradable to Android 2.3 “Gingerbread”), which was basically just a straight port of the OS that Samsung had running on their smartphones. This version of Android met with criticism as it wasn’t really designed to run on a big-screen device such as a tablet, to the extent that Google developed the tablet-only Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” OS that addressed many of those shortcomings.

Unlike the iPad, the original Galaxy Tab was a somewhat bland affair which didn’t have much shelf appeal when it hit the shops shortly before Christmas 2010. Even so, you might expect it to sell in reasonable numbers... but bizarrely it was even more expensive than the iPad to buy, and the Tab stayed firmly on the shelves until Samsung started to discount it heavily.

Overall, the original Galaxy Tab was not a successful product, but Samsung stuck with it and made much better and more competitive devices. Although Apple is still the manufacturer to beat, Samsung have carved out a significant slice of the tablet market five years later.

On the other hand, RIM had taken a different approach with the BlackBerry PlayBook. Although BlackBerry makers RIM were riding high with their traditional smartphones such as the Curve and Torch devices, the operating system on those was ancient and it was never going to be suitable for a tablet device.

Instead, the operating system on the PlayBook was based on QNX, a real-time OS aimed at embedded devices that RIM had acquired earlier in 2010. But QNX wasn’t really a consumer-ready OS, and although it provided a solid platform to build on, it still meant that RIM had to create almost everything from scratch. All rivals Samsung had to do was port Android, this was much harder and it took seven months from the product announcement to units actually shipped in the Spring of 2011.
BlackBerry PlayBook (LTE version)

But when the PlayBook finally did hit the market, it was clear that it wasn’t ready. The operating system was extremely buggy, it had few applications of any real worth and worse still, it could not integrate with BlackBerry email which was the one killer application that RIM did better than everybody else.

Hundreds of thousands of PlayBooks were shipped to the supply chain, where they remained. Take-up of the PlayBook was close to zero, until RIM started to discount units very aggressively. However, PlayBooks clogged up the retail channel for years afterwards and indeed so-called “new” units are still available five years later.

Eventually the QNX-based OS on the PlayBook was developed into BlackBerry 10, which was launched with the BlackBerry Z10 in 2013. But RIM (now just called BlackBerry Ltd) had learned very little from the PlayBook, and sales channels became stuffed with Z10s that nobody wanted, leading to a billion-dollar inventory write-off.

BlackBerry never made another tablet, and by 2015 they are only just hanging on as a smartphone manufacturer. In fact, BlackBerry are now rumoured to be looking at moving to Android, which is really half a decade too late.

Although neither the Tab P1000 nor the PlayBook were a success, the 7” form factor actually was. In 2012 Apple launch the iPad Mini which was much smaller and lighter than the full-sized iPad of the time. And of course there are many, many Android tablets on the market today – but almost all of them are much cheaper than the iPad, which seems to be what consumers actually want.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Microsoft Windows 95 (1995)

Released August 1995

Windows 95 was the fourth major release of Microsoft’s graphical operating system, launched nearly 10 years after Windows 1.0 and 20 years before today’s Windows 10.

Since the Apple Macintosh popularised the idea of graphic interfaces in 1984, Microsoft had been trying to catch up. The original first two versions of Windows were little more than crude interfaces running on top of DOS, but Windows 3.0 in 1990 and especially Windows 3.1 in 1991 had proven to be very successful, even if they weren’t as sophisticated as Apple’s offerings.

Windows 95 was still underpinned by the ancient DOS architecture, but the immediately obvious thing was a completely different user interface centred on the somewhat infamous “Start” button that lasted all the way up to Windows 8. But Windows 95 also introduced better multitasking, plug-and-play, better disk support, properly integrated network and superior memory management.

By 1995 rivals Apple had System 7 (later Mac OS 7), but although it was superior in many ways to Windows, it was much more expensive to buy a Mac than a Windows PC. A combination of stiff competition from Microsoft and some very poor business decisions from Apple nearly drove Apple at of business.

It wasn’t the only competition for Microsoft. A few years previously, Microsoft had broken up with long-time partners IBM. At the time of the break-up, Microsoft and IBM had been working on a revision of OS/2 which was meant to be the “next generation” of Windows. By 1995, IBM had started eating into the Windows market with OS/2 2.0 followed by OS/2 3.0 (known as “Warp”).

Although OS/2 was in many ways better than Windows, it was essentially an IBM-only product and you would have to buy an IBM personal computer to run it on. And because IBM’s computers were expensive, most people bought something else… and that something else would be running Windows 95.

Image Credit
Windows 95 was also the first version of Windows to offer Internet Explorer, although Netscape Navigator (which eventually evolved into Firefox) had been available for some time before that. Integrated TCP/IP networking meant that Windows 95 machines could access the Internet, such as it was 20 years ago.

Later versions of Windows 95 added USB support, and the operating system had a major overhaul in 1998 with the highly successful Windows 98 environment. However, the final revision of this operating system line was Windows Millennium Edition (“ME”) launched in 2000, which was buggy and unpopular.

Even in 1995, the writing was on the walls for Windows 95 and its successors. Microsoft had launched Windows NT 3.1 in 1993, followed by versions 3.5 and 3.51 which shared the clunky interface of Windows 3.1 on top, but underneath NT was a much more modern and extremely capable operating system. Windows NT 4.0 in 1996 added a Windows 95 style interface, and eventually after several revisions it evolved into Windows 10, designed to a single OS that can run on PCs, smartphones and tablets.

Almost every version of Windows in user today runs on the NT core, so in the long term Windows 95 itself was a dead-end. However, it cemented Microsoft’s dominance of the PC industry and left them in a position that seemed unassailable until the rise of tablets and smartphones… many of which were built by the same Apple that Microsoft nearly killed off in the nineties.

Thursday 20 August 2015

BlackBerry Curve 9300 and BlackBerry Torch 9800 (2010)

Announced August 2010
BlackBerry Curve 9300

Five years ago, BlackBerry owners Research in Motion (RIM) were at their peak, with an income of almost $20 billion in the fiscal year from March 2010 to February 2011. Two handsets that formed the heart of this success are were the BlackBerry Curve 9300 and the BlackBerry Torch 9800. These two devices were very tightly focussed on messaging, and both featured the classic BlackBerry physical keyboard.

The Curve 9300 was an inexpensive low-end device with a 2.4” screen, which was the first in the Curve range to feature 3G and GPS. Although many of the features were very basic (such as the 2 megapixel camera), the 9300 sold in very large numbers to both consumers and corporate customers. A lightweight device with good battery life, the 9300 is probably one of the best “classic” BlackBerry devices ever.

Moving upmarket, the Torch 9800 added a larger 3.2” touchscreen and had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, plus a better camera and 3.5G support (which the 9300 lacked). It was much closer in concept to a traditional BlackBerry than earlier BlackBerry touchscreen phones, and sold quite well to corporate customers who wanted something better than a Curve.

Although these two devices were certainly an improvement over previous BlackBerry handsets, it had been clear for a while that RIM was failing to innovate. These two new devices were not a million miles away from the sort of thing they had been doing in 2003, and yet rivals Apple had come up with their fourth-generation iPhone just a few weeks earlier and this had rapidly become a huge success.

Compared to the iPhone and the new generation of Android devices that were coming out, the contemporary BlackBerry devices did not look good. Certainly, RIM’s email support was better than pretty much everything. But media playback sucked. The applications sucked. And web browsing sucked so much that it was more a Black Hole than a BlackBerry.
BlackBerry Bold 9800

It was 2013 by the time that RIM (now called just BlackBerry) came up with anything remotely comparable to a modern smartphone with the BlackBerry Z10. But the Z10 couldn’t reverse collapsing sales, and by February 2015 BlackBerry’s income had dropped to just $3.8 billion with the firm posting a massive $6 billion dollar loss the previous year.

The upshot of this spectacular lack of competitiveness was that consumers went elsewhere and corporate users revolted against the BlackBerry brand, forcing companies to adopt “bring your own device” (BYOD) policies to support iPhones and Android handsets.

So, peculiarly the 9300 and 9800 were both a blessing and a curse. Although they helped to propel RIM to record sales, they also helped to almost kill the company. But despite that, and despite BlackBerry trying to reinvent its handset range, the best-selling BlackBerry handset in 2015 appears to be the BlackBerry Curve 9320, perhaps showing that BlackBerry fans know what they want.. and it isn’t any of this fancy touchscreen nonsense.

Monday 10 August 2015

Amstrad CPC 6128 (1985)

Launched August 1985

The summer of 1985 saw the launch of some powerful home computers, including the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. These powerful computers broke new technological ground with a forward-looking 16/32 bit architecture, but they were also rather expensive.

But in Europe one of the most successful competitors to the ST and Amiga was the 8-bit Amstrad CPC range (distributed in Central Europe through Schneider). The Amstrad CPC464 had been launched in 1984 and featured a Z80 CPU with 64KB of RAM, an integrated cassette player and it also shipped with an integrated monitor, at a very attractive price. A floppy-disk version called the CPC664 followed, and in August 1985 Amstrad launched the CPC 6128 which featured a whopping 128KB of RAM as well as the floppy drive.

Although the CPC range were built using inexpensive components, they were relatively sophisticated with a dedicated sound chip and three screen display modes of various resolutions and colour depths. The CPC 6128 could also run CP/M (still used in businesses at the time) and it was the cheapest floppy disk drive system on the market.

The disk drive itself was an unusual 3" format designed by Hitachi. Disks for these drive were expensive and had a relatively low capacity, however they were designed to be very rugged. Despite their drawbacks, the floppy disk drive was enormously better than the cassette drive that the CPC464 was lumbered with.

A wide range of games were produced for the CPC6128, and it found a niche with businesses looking for a low-cost but practical computer. For home users, the fact that it included a monitor was an enormous advantage because it freed up the family TV for.. well, watching TV. Back in the mid 1980s even a small TV set would cost hundreds of pounds.

When sold in the US, the colour CPC6128 was pitched at $799 compared to $1000 for an Atari ST and about $1600 for an Amiga, and a shocking $2500 for an Apple Mac. In the UK the same model was priced at £399 and in Germany the price was 2098 DM. With prices like that the CPC range became a huge success in Europe, although not in the States.

Amstrad went on to produce the Z80-base PCW word processor range, a variety of upgraded ZX Spectrums after they bought Sinclair before moving into the PC business. In 1990 the CPC range received a makeover which made them look much more contemporary, but the era of 8 bit computing was over by this point.

A well-built and reliable machine, today there is a lively retro scene around these CPC models. Complete working models with a colour monitor cost from £100 upwards in the UK with secondhand games coming in at around £10, alternatively you could try playing with the CPC emulator on your Android phone. Although the CPC ended up as being a dead-end, it does have a legacy of introducing many families to a computer for the very first time.

Image credits: [1] [2] [3]