Monday 12 December 2016

Anticipating the iPhone – how manufacturers misjudged the future (2006)

By late 2006 there were persistent rumours that Apple was in the process of launching a mobile phone. But the absurd lengths that Apple went to in order to keep it a secret meant that rivals had very little idea of what Cupertino was about to unleash in January 2017.
Motorola ROKR E6

Motorola probably thought that it had some sort of idea what Apple would be doing, as it had collaborated with them on the disastrous ROKR E1 back in 2005. Perhaps based in part in what Apple had been doing with its fifth-generation iPod at the time, Moto came up with a music and video capable device called the Motorola ROKR E6 in December 2006, which coincidentally had a touchscreen and ran Linux too which made it a sort-of-smartphone. Hampered by a GSM-only connection and no WiFi, the ROKR E6 came tantalisingly close to what we might consider to be a modern smartphone... but missed.

At roughly the same time, Samsung announced the F300 (“Ultra Music”) and F500 (“Ultra Video”) handsets. Unusually, these were two-sided phones with a small screen and number pad on one side and a larger screen and multimedia controls on the other. The F500 was a 3G device and had a hinged arrangement so you could use it as a tiny video player, the F300 was a GSM-only device without the hinge. Both were interesting a novel devices. Neither was particularly successful.

The mistake that Motorola, Samsung and other manufacturers had made was to guess that Apple was working on an “iPod phone” when in fact they were working on an all-touch smartphone instead. In fact, Motorola in particular (with devices such as the A1000) and to a lesser extent Samsung (with the SGH-i700 and others) had experimented with devices much like the iPhone years before Apple, but consumer responses had been cool.

Today the F300, F500 and ROKR E6 are quite rare devices, especially the Motorola. Typical prices seem to be around €70 or so going up to several hundred for good examples of the F300. And while they are certainly interesting devices, they were also dead-ends. Just a few weeks after Samsung and Motorola announced these, Apple revealed what it had really been working on..

Samsung F300 Ultra Music and F500 Ultra Video
Image sources: Samsung Mobile and Motorol

Monday 21 November 2016

VHS (1976)

VHS Cassette
Launched late 1976 (Japan)

Launched in Japan forty years ago, the VHS video tape recorder standard helped to revolutionise they way we watch TV worldwide. But despite twenty years of popularity, VHS tapes are seldom seem today.

Developed by JVC, VHS found itself going head-to-head with Sony's Betamax in the early days (the so-called "Format War") plus a number of less well-known formats. VHS was cheaper and offered longer recording times, but Betamax had better picture quality and more compact cartddges. In the end VHS won and became de facto standard worldwide.

VHS had drawbacks though, often suffering from poor picture quality and the inconvenience of having to rewind the tape when you had finished.. and if you've ever rented a movie to find that the previous user hadn't bothered then you'll know how frustrating THAT was.

The relative ease-of-use and cheapness of VHS meant that it remained popular until the later 1990s (with product continuing well into the 2000s), despite several attempts to popularise something better. In the end it took two devices, the DVD player and the DVR to finally kill off VHS. Today, even those devices are being threated by video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Collection of VHS movies
Even in the 1980s one of the main shortcomings of VHS was clear - the size of the tapes. The plastic case that movies came in typically measures 202 x 125 x 30mm or so which is essentially the size of a hardback book. Tape for home recording were a little smaller, but still bulky. Ten movies on VHS would require about a foot of shelf space to store, so if you enjoyed such things then you could soon run into problems with actually finding somewhere to put them. A single DVD package took up just half the space, and for things such as TV box sets you could easily put several episodes on one disk and squeeze two disks in one box without making it bigger. Modern BluRay packing is smaller still. Even then, DVD and BluRay storage can be a pain which is probably one of the reasons that digital distribution is growing in popularity.

But what do you do with old VHS tapes? You can't even give them away these days, and they are generally not accepted for recycling, instead they are destined for landfill. Companies such as Terracycle in the UK offer paid solutions to recycle VHS tapes but the process is not cheap. In fact the whole issue is a nightmare for the environmentally conscious, but there are some more.. errr. creative solutions out there.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Nokia 6300 (2006)

Launched November 2006

A decade ago this month, Nokia announced one of their most iconic features phones - the Nokia 6300. Compared with advanced smartphones such as the N95 announced a few weeks before, the 6300 was rather simple and low-tech... but it provided customers with exactly what they wanted and was a huge success.

A very slim device for its time, the Nokia 6300 was also elegantly designed with classic understated good looks, lots of brushed metal and with highly usable ergonomics. The 2" QVGA screen seems small by today's standards, but was ahead of most of the feature phone competition of the time. The Nokia 6300 also had a microSD slot, music player, Bluetooth and a reasonably decent 2 megapixel camera.

The Series 40 operating system on the 6300 was familiar to Nokia fans and very easy to use. Although not as sophisticated as a smartphone of the type, users could still download Java applications such as games and customise it a little. The whole thing created a package that was ideal for people who wanted a little bit more than a basic mobile phone, and who still wanted it to be good looking and easy-to-use.

On the downside, there was no 3G or WiFi support and no GPS either. Most consumers didn't really seem to want those things though, and it did mean that the 6300 was only a fraction of the cost of the state-of-the-art N95. A reported 35 million units were shipped, testament to Nokia getting this particular handset exactly right.

Arguably, Nokia never did manage to come up with a feature phone as iconic this afterwards. The 6300 remained on sale for two and a half years, and there was some sadness at its eventual passing. Today, Nokia 6300 handsets in good condition are commonly available for under €40. Admittedly you can get new "Nokia" handsets with a slightly better spec for the same price, but the 6300 is a bit of a design icon and surely much more desirable?

Image source: Nokia

Saturday 22 October 2016

Apple Macintosh Classic II (1991)

Apple Macintosh Classic II
Launched October 1991

Launched in 1984, the original Apple Macintosh was an epoch defining computer that remains as one of the most memorable product launches ever. This is not the story of that computer. Instead, a quarter of a century ago Apple was heading into a period of decline. To some extent the Macintosh Classic II, launched 25 years ago this month, reflects the doldrums the company found itself in.

The Macintosh Classic II was the last monochrome "compact" Mac, styled on the original device launched more than seven years earlier. Sporting a similar case design, the Mac Classic II may have looked cute but even in 1991 the 9" 512 x 342 pixel display looked rather stupid. Things were better inside with a 32-bit 60830 CPU clocked at 16 MHz and 2MB of RAM as standard, plus a 40 or 80MB hard disk. The Classic II shipped with the System 6 OS out-of-the-box, upgradable all the way to Mac OS 7.6.1.

The tiny screen did have the advantage that the entire main unit weight just a little over 7 kilograms (16 pounds), making it quite easy to lug about. The $1900 contemporary price also made it quite stealable. At a time when laptops were both prohibitively expensive and pretty rubbish, the Classic II did have a certain portable appeal.

Apple sold the Classic II until 1993, but after that home users had to put up with the under-designed and over-priced Performa range. The malaise continued until 1988 and the launch of the iMac G3. Today a Mac Classic II in good condition can command prices of several hundred pounds / euros / dollars or whatever, a fraction of the price of an original 128K Mac.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Porsche Design P’9981 Smartphone from BlackBerry (2011)

Tastefulness is a pretty subjective thing. One person's stylish accessory is another person's overpriced tat. The Porsche Design P’9981 is one of those devices that polarises opinion along those lines.

The full and rather clumsy name for this handset was the "Porsche Design P’9981 Smartphone from BlackBerry". Simply put, it was the Bold 9900 in a different precision engineered and very expensive body. Complementing a range of products such as watches, sunglasses and in-car entertainment systems, the P'9981 was in good company. As for exclusivity, the price tag of £1275 (around €1450) guaranteed that, being three times the price of the Bold on which it was based.

It was.. frankly.. a bit pointless. The 9900 represented BlackBerry at its peak, but the dominant position it held in the smartphone market was collapsing around it. The market was being taken over by the iPhone and a wide variety of Android devices, so it did seem that Porsche Design had chose the wrong partner. However, they stuck with it and a couple of years later we saw the P'9982 (based on the Z10) and the P'9983 (based on the Q10) coming in at an equally eye-watering price.

Although it was a more upmarket partnership than the Sagem-based P'9521 and P'9522 from 2008, it was still a pretty niche device. However, these handsets still have their fans and are available today from £500 (€550) upwards for a used one to £1500 (€1650) for a "new old stock" one. Most of the available units have an Arabic keypad, which probably indicates where these were most successful.

Certainly it is a head-turning device, and the P'9981 and its successors do manage to look different from the usual slabby smartphones we see. BlackBerry's new Android-based DTEK handset range could certainly doing with a bit of sexing up..

Image credits: BlackBerry

Monday 17 October 2016

Amstrad PC1512 (1986)

Amstrad PC1512
Launched Autumn 1986

By 1986 the IBM PC had been around for five years, and that machine and those compatible with it had largely taken over the business microcomputer market. But the home market was different, with companies such as Apple, Atari, Commodore, Acorn, Sinclair and Amstrad holding the bulk of the sales with a variety of mutually incompatible machines.

Om paper, Amstrad was the least technically innovative, but probably the most business-savvy. The Amstrad PCW had been launched the year previously, based on a combination of new and old technologies which created a very useful and exceptionally good value machine that had become a surprise hit for home users.

After the PCW, Amstrad turned its eye to IBM PC compatibles. But instead of looking at business users, Amstrad was interested in tapping into the home market. It seems obvious today that you can play games and do work on the same computer, but home ownership of PCs worldwide was still very low. Perhaps the time was right for Amstrad to change that.

Launching in the autumn of 1986, the Amstrad PC1512 immediately caused a shockwave in the markets that it was launched in. Following the example of the PCW, the PC1512 combined new and old elements and packaged it up in a smart box with a rock-bottom price. The most basic PC1512 (monochrome display with a single floppy disk) cost juts £399 plus VAT (sales tax). Various options were available, and at the top of the range a colour version with a hard disk cost £949 plus tax. That was still a lot of money in 1986, but even the most basic IBM PC XT would set you back at least £1500.

Inside was an Intel 8086 (launched in 1978) clocked at 8 MHz, nearly twice that of the IBM version. 512KB of RAM was standard (expandable to 640KB via an expansion card) plus a tweaked CGA adapter. Cleverly the power supply for the PC was actually in the monitor which handled the necessary conversion from AC to DC and saved on the cost. This also meant that the PC didn't need a fan anywhere as the monitor cooled by convection and the heat dissipation from the main board was minimal.. but it also meant that you always had to use an Amstrad monitor. The PC1512 could output greyscales on a monochrome monitor which was useful for those on a budget.

A set of brightly-coloured floppy disks came with MS-DOS 3.2 plus GEM and GEMpaint from Digital Research, along with Locomotive Basic (an Amstrad favourite). GEM was the most-used application after DOS, providing a rudimentary but useable graphical environment. GEM could be used with the rather rat-like proprietary Amstrad mouse which was included in the bundle.

In the back were three expansion slots that could be easily accessed via a slide-off cover rather than by using a screwdriver. A joystick could be plugged into the proprietary keyboard and - perhaps as a nod to Amstrad's roots in audio equipment - there was a volume control knob for the internal speaker. Despite the proprietary nature of some of the components, the PC1512 also came with a standard serial and parallel port.

The PC1512 was a huge sales success for Amstrad, topped only by the PC1640 launched in 1987 which has 640Kb RAM as standard and upgraded EGA graphics, but this lost the useful greyscale capabilities of the PC1512. The PC1640 addressed most of the shortcomings of the older version and was an even bigger success, and it managed to break out of the home market into schools, colleges and small businesses. The PC1512 and PC1640 sold in the millions.

Amstrad PC1640 with 20MB hard disk
Part of the sales success wasn't just that it was cheap, but it was also very well built and extremely reliable.. despite rumours circulating otherwise (possibly put out by competitors). The PC1640 represents Amstrad's computer business at its peak, but unfortunately this success was not to last.

Even though it was cleverly packaged, there was no doubt that the PC1512 and PC1640 were pretty old hat. Amstrad then set to work on the PC2000 Series, comprising of a low-end 8086-based machine, a midrange 80286 and a high-end 8086. Launched in 1988, this was a much more modern design, and these should also have been a huge success.. but they had a fatal flaw.

The problem was the hard disks - a batch of faulty Seagate drives led to an unacceptably high failure rate followed by a product recall that seriously damaged Amstrad's reputation. Amstrad later sued Seagate and won millions of pound worth of damages, but Amstrad's reputation never fully recovered. Amstrad kept going in the PC market, launching the PC3000 through to PC7000 ranges until the early 1990s along with some portable PCs. Amstrad's final PC product was the unusual Amstrad Mega PC which also had a Sega Megadrive built in.

Today the Amstrad PC1512 and PC1640 are quite collectible, with prices going up to £650 (€720) or so for a top-of-the-range unit in good condition. Old computers take up a lot of space, so survivors are uncommon. Of course, you can get a pretty decently specified modern PC for that sort of money too.. but nothing else quite has the same retro appeal of Amstrad's finest.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Motorola RAZR XT910 (2011)

Motorola RAZR XT910
Launched October 2011

Having endured some years of declining sales and frankly pretty awful products, Motorola had shifted its emphasis to Android smartphones and launched their first Android device in 2009. By 2011 they were getting pretty good at it, and the high-end Motorola RAZR XT910 formed part of what looked like a renaissance for the world's oldest mobile phone manufacturer.

Borrowing a name from the iconic 2004 RAZR V3 and its successors, the RAZR XT910 was an ultra-thin device coming in at just 7mm thick (apart from the camera bump). The 4.3" 540 x 960 pixel AMOLED display was better than most of the competition, and combined with a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM it was fast too. On the back was an 8 megapixel camera, and there was a 16GB of flash memory inside plus a microSD lot.

It didn't look like other Android smartphones, and not just because of how thin it was. The kevlar back gave the device a unique feel for the time, and the sawn-off corners and distinctive back bump really did make it stand out. Initially shipping with Android 2.3.5 an upgrade to Android 4.0 followed not long afterwards.

Sold in the US as the DROID RAZR with 4G LTE support, the XT910 met with a cool reception from European carriers who expressed very little interest in the device. However, it sold quite well as a SIM-free device for those looking for something a bit special. You could even convert the RAZR into a sort-of-laptop with the Lapdock 100 and 500 add-ons.

The slim form factor of the RAZR came at a price - the battery life. A few months later, Motorola launched the RAZR MAXX (again recycling an old name) with a battery twice the size while increasing the thickness to just 9mm. It was a good trade-off, and the RAZR MAXX again proved to be a niche success.

At the time Motorola was in the process of being acquired by Google, and this iteration of Moto Android device didn't mess around too much with the OS, but it did come with the very useful addition of SmartActions which could be programmed to do certain things at certain times or places.

Motorola eventually gave up competing at the high-end and shifted downmarket to value devices instead. Motorola's ownership did not last long, and in early 2014 it announced that it was going to sell Motorola, minus its key patents, to Chinese firm Lenovo. However, Motorola continues to produce a wide variety Android devices that have proven to be very successful in certain markets.

On the second-hand market, the XT910 commands prices of about €80 and upwards, the latest version of Android available is 4.3. However, the Motorola Lapdocks can command even more especially as it is possible to connect the Lapdock with a Raspberry Pi to make a sort of homebrew Linux laptop.

Palm Treo 680 (2006)

Launched October 2006

It's hard to look back at smartphones launched a decade ago without the hindsight that the game-changing iPhone would redefine the market utterly. But ten years ago this month, Palm came up with the Palm Treo 680 which looked interesting at the time... but a few months later it would look like a relic of times past.

Palm Treo 680

The story of Palm is one of the more complicated ones in tech history. Having defined the PDA market a decade previously, Palm completely failed to realise that the standalone PDA was on the way out in the early 2000s. However, some Palm employees had broken away to form a company called Handspring which decided to make a PalmOS-based smartphone called the Treo, and in 2003 Palm liked the idea so much that they bought the company.
Treo 680 running Google Maps

But by 2006 Palm was an also-ran. Windows and Symbian were battling it out to be king of the smartphone market, and BlackBerry was rapidly growing in strength with increasingly attractive and capable devices. Palm's previous smartphone, the Treo 650, had come out two years previously and looked almost ridiculously old-fashioned.

The Treo 680 looked a bit more contemporary, with the antenna tucked inside the case and a more modern design. The 2.5" 360 x 360 pixel display was large for its time, but it was a 2G-only affair and the increasingly geriatric look of the PalmOS platform meant that it really appealed to Palm fans only, and not anyone else.

Still, it was successful enough for Palm to soldier on until 2010 when it was bought by HP... which proved to be the kiss of death. PalmOS was dying too, the Treo 680 was the penultimate PalmOS device from Palm with the Centro being the very last in 2007.

Treo 680s are not commonly available on the second-hand market, but the older 650 is available in small numbers for around €50 and upwards for an unlocked model.

Friday 14 October 2016

Nokia 330 Auto Navigation (2006)

Launched October 2006

It is five years since the launch of Nokia's first Windows-based Lumia phone, but that wasn't Nokia's first foray into mobile Windows devices. Five years before that - a decade ago this month - the Finnish giant announced the Nokia 330 Auto Navigation system.

The Nokia 330 ran Windows CE 4.2 and sported a 3.5" touchscreen with 320 x 240 pixels, quite unlike anything else in Nokia's line-up of the time. In addition to the pre-installed maps, you could install your own media files on it so if you wanted you could use it as an in-car MP3 player. The Navigation system was a customised version of Route 66.

Standalone GPS devices were a big deal at the time, with market leader TomTom shipping their improved TomTom GO range. However, the Nokia device offered good value and many people were tempted to try it, convinced by the name on the front that the would be buying a good product. They were wrong.

The problem was map updates, which to be fair is always a problem with standalone navigation units. Normally you have to connect the satnav to a PC and load new maps on that way, and sometimes the maps can be expensive. But it seems that Nokia never made map updates available, and because it wasn't the standard version of Route 66 then you couldn't get updates from there either. The Nokia 330 (which retailed for over €400) rapidly ended up being as useful as a paperweight.

Nokia never made another standalone satnav device, but in 2007 they acquired digital mapping firm Navteq for an eye-watering $8.1 billion. Nokia then successfully added mapping technology to their own devices and also sold mapping data to others. Eventually the old Navteq business became HERE which remained with Nokia until December 2015 when it was sold to BMW, Mercedes and Audi for €2.8 billion.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Samsung Galaxy Nexus (2011)

Launched October 2011

There were a lot of significant new mobile phones released five years ago this October, one of those that has faded a bit into obscurity is the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the third generation of the "pure Android" Nexus smartphones and the second one to be made by Samsung. Perhaps more significantly, the Galaxy Nexus was the first device in the world to ship with the Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" operating system.

Compared with most other phones of the time, the Galaxy Nexus was a monster with a 4.7" 720 x 1280 pixel panel on the front. Inside was a dual core 1.2GHz CPU with 1GB of RAM and 16 or 32GB of storage. There was a 5 megapixel camera on the back plus a 1.3 megapixel one on the front. LTE and NFC were available in some models too.

Performance tests showed the the Galaxy Nexus was blazingly fast, and the quality of the camera and display were noted. However, the new operating system probably got the most attention, being the third major iteration of Android for smartphones (Android 3 was for tablets only) and coming with a hugely improved user interface and better performance and power management.

Compared with the titchy 3.5" panel on the iPhone 4S, the Galaxy Nexus was enormous, and it helped to set a trend for bigger and bigger screens... although it took several years to Apple to catch up. Support for the Galaxy Nexus from Google and Samsung was quite short, just two years ending with an upgrade to Android 4.3. You would expect about twice that from an Apple product, which is one reason why Apple customers tend to remain customers. "New old" stock of the Galaxy Nexus is still available for around €90 or so.

Image source: Samsung Mobile

Futureretro: Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (2016)

Released September 2016

Product failures are often the collectible phones of the future, devices that failed spectacularly despite high hopes often come with a cautionary tale about how the the thing crashed and burned when it came to market. For most failed devices we can use the word "burned" in a strictly metaphorical sense. But with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, we also mean "burned" in a strictly literal sense too.

The original Galaxy Note was launched five years ago, with a then huge 5.3" display that seemed more like a small tablet than a smartphone, plus the addition of a stylus. It was a bit of a gamble by Samsung, but consumers really took to it and it was an unexpected hit.

Despite the name, the Galaxy Note 7 is actually the sixth generation Note device, launched in September 2016 (the version number brings it into line with the popular Galaxy S). But so far the launch has been a complete disaster, with reports of the handset catching fire as soon as it was launched. A product recall then followed with replacement devices being sent out, but some of those also caught fire.

Airlines have been banning them from flights, and postal services and couriers are refusing to ship them back for returns because of the potential danger. To counter this, Samsung are shipping special flame resistant packaging and gloves so that units can be returned. Which is a bit humiliating.

In many places you can't even return your Note 7 because of the fire risk, and you probably don't want to keep it in the house with its combustible reputation. You can't easily take the battery out. So what is the solution? Bury it in the garden? Probably not the safest idea in the long run..

So here's a product release that maybe goes down in the record books along with Dasani launch in the UK as being one of the most disastrous ever. So under normal circumstances this would make the Galaxy Note 7 an interesting Futureretro device... but who would want to keep an exploding phone in their collection?

If you want to risk a potentially exploding model, they are still available for around €1000. Or you can get a much safer dummy model for about €20. The latter option is probably the safest. We give the Galaxy Note 7 a Futureretro score of 7/10, assuming you want to take the risk.
Image credits: Samsung Mobile

Saturday 8 October 2016

Nokia Lumia 800 (2011)

Launched October 2011

If you wanted to sum up the demise of Nokia in one object, the Nokia Lumia 800 is probably it. Announced five years ago this month, the Lumia 800 represented a change in direction for the Finnish giant which ultimately ended in failure.

A potted recap - faced with sliding sales (primarily against Android devices), incoming Nokia CEO Stephen Elop switched Nokia's smartphone platform to Windows, effectively killing off Symbian and the stalled MeeGo project. Just five years previously, the Nokia-led Symbian OS and Microsoft's Windows were the two dominant smartphone platforms, but Microsoft had suffered badly (mostly at the hands of Apple), with Nokia starting to see the same sort of decline in competition with Google.

The fruits of the new Nokia/Microsoft partnership were announced in October 2011. The Nokia Lumia 800 had a lot going for it, the physical design was beautiful and the new Windows 7 operating system made everything else look very old fashioned. The price was extremely competitive too, and the whole launch was accompanied by a ton of media coverage because in tech terms this was a Very Big Thing.

There were some drawbacks, and the main one was a lack of downloadable applications compared to the vast array available for iOS and Android. On the other hand, there was quite a rich feature set included in the maturing Windows 7.5 OS. The user interface took a bit of getting used to, being stripped down and very modern-looking, it was certainly very different from rivals and predecessors. Cortana, arguably the best feature with modern Windows phones, would not become available for three years.

As for the hardware itself, the Lumia 800 had a first-rate 3.7" WVGA AMOLED screen, an 8 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, a 1.4GHz CPU with 512MB of RAM and 16GB of storage, plus all the usual smartphone features. The brightly-coloured plastic cases were also distinctive and had been lifted from the MeeGo-based N9.

The Lumia 800 wasn't a sale success, nor was it a complete disaster. Nokia made several successors including the superlative Lumia 1020, but Nokia continued to fade, selling the whole phone business to Microsoft in 2014 but they couldn't turn it around either, essentially shuttering the operation in mid 2016. The final Lumia device was the 650, released in February 2016.

It is perhaps one of the more intriguing "what ifs" of tech history to ask, "what if Nokia had gone for Android rather than Windows"? Elop's fear was that Nokia would just end up as a "me too" manufacturer if it went down the Android path, but if it could succeed with Windows then it would dominate a true alternative platform to Android and iOS. Elop chose the path with the highest risk and potential reward, but of course it failed. The alternative would have been a company probably playing second fiddle to Samsung, which would still not be like the Nokia of old. It is probably the case that Nokia was in a no-win situation back in 2011 and was largely doomed whichever way it moved.

Although the Lumia 800 is an old device from a technological perspective, it doesn't FEEL like an old device. Unlocked Lumia 800s in good condition sell for around €50, with "new old" stock commanding prices of €200 or even more. However, just €120 will buy you a brand new Lumia 650 instead. Although the Lumia brand is effectively dead, Microsoft are rumoured to be looking at producing handsets branded with the more success "Surface" name instead.

Apple iPhone 4S (2011)

Launched October 2011

These days we're used to Apple's cycle of iPhone releases - a new product every two years with a upgrade of the existing handset in between. Five years ago this pattern was not established, and despite great anticipation, the iPhone 4S ended up as a disappointment [1] [2] [3].

There were several improvements over the older model, the 4S was faster, had a better camera and fixed the antenna problems that had plagued the iPhone 4. The software was much improved, and iOS 5 introduced the Siri voice assistant.

But probably the most disappointing thing was the display. Apple had been using a 3.5" panel for nearly five years, but rival high-end Android phones had 4.3" or 4.7" panels, many with a higher pixel count. The iPhone was beginning to look dated, a problem that wasn't really fixed until the iPhone 6 in 2014.

But then Apple suffered a second blow, and a much bigger one. In August, Steve Jobs stood down as CEO of Apple, handing over the reins to Tim Cook. Less than a month later - and the day after the iPhone 4S launch - Jobs was dead. Jobs role in the creation and re-creation of Apple is well known, but some people say it was Jobs himself who wanted the iPhone 4S to be the same form factor as its predecessor.

In retrospect the 4S might not have been Apple's finest hour, but it certainly wasn't bad and it still sold in vast numbers. Although the iPhone 4S is not longer on sale, it is still supported by Apple with current software updates to iOS 9 available. Although it's hardly one of the more collectible iPhones, unlocked models in good condition are available second  hand for around €70.

Image source: Apple

Saturday 1 October 2016

Ericofon (1956)

General launch 1956

Launched to the general public 60 years ago, the iconic Ericofon telephone was symbolic of an era of growing prosperity and hope. Decades of economic hardship, starting with the Great Depression followed by World War II had left much of the world severely disrupted. In the mid-1950s, Europe was still rebuilding itself and food rationing in the UK didn't even end until 1954. But things were beginning to get better, and consumer goods were becoming much less utilitarian.

The Ericofon was a complete re-think about the industrial design of a telephone handset, which had pretty much settled into a two-piece affair with a handset sitting on a cradle, with the dialler, bell and everything else housed underneath. The snake-like design earned the Ericofon the nickname "Cobra" in some markets, but if that wasn't striking enough then the wide variety of bright colours (18 initially) that the device came in were certainly eye-catching.

One thing that made the Ericofon particularly desirable was that in many markets you were not allowed one. Monolithic old telephone carriers such as GPO in the UK and AT&T in the US simply didn't allow equipment to be connected to the network that didn't come from themselves.

Elegant design and exclusivity is often a recipe for success, and it seemed to be true for the Ericofon.

Variants of the phone were made for several different markets with two main types of case, and the phone's radical looks made it a favourite in movies and TV shows over the years. Between 1956 and 1982 some 2.5 million Ericofon handsets made in Sweden were sold around the world, with licensees and contractors making many more.

Modern reproductions of the Ericofon are available, but if you want an original one then prices vary from €50 or even less up to several hundred euro depending on type and condition. Ericsson went on to produce mobile phones such as the iconic R380, a business that was merged with Sony's to form Sony Ericsson in 2001 (the T610 being an example product), and which was finally bought out by Sony in 2012 when Ericsson left the consumer market behind for good.

Image credit: mollybob via Flickr

Sunday 25 September 2016

Ford Fiesta Mark I (1976)

Available September 1976

Forty years ago little hatchback cars were still in their infancy. Still very much the era of the saloon car, the market had been shaken up by the introduction of the Fiat 127 in 1971 followed by the Renault 5 in 1972. These two very European cars started to steal market share from traditional automobile designs, and it soon became clear to car giant Ford that this was a type of product that could not be ignored.

First shipping in Europe in September 1976 after four years of development, the Ford Fiesta was the Blue Oval's answer to those funny little cars, heralding the point when the small hatchback evolved from something quirky and continental to something very mainstream.

Unlike almost all previous Ford Europe models, the Fiesta was front wheel drive and cleanly designed with all the practicality that a hatchback could offer. Most importantly, the badge on the front was an indicator of quality and reliability shared by its bigger siblings, the Escort and Cortina.

The Fiesta was a huge sales success, and of course every other car manufacturer followed suit. These little hatchbacks proved to be inexpensive to buy, cheap to run, relatively easy to drive and had a versatile load space that was handy if you wanted to move your 8-bit micro and portable TV or something. If you've ever tried to move something bulky in the back of a saloon such as BMW 3-series you will be all too aware of the limitations of a boot, even today.

It is perhaps worth noting that a contemporary phone system that you could have installed into your Fiesta would have cost far more than the car itself, and unless you wanted to lug lead acid batteries around then the car was the best option.

The Fiesta Mark I continued in production until 1983, replaced by the lightly revised Mark II which was sold until 1989. The same basic vehicle had an impressive production run of 13 years, and of course the Fiesta is still in production today with the Mark VI.

Back in 1976 a basic 950cc Fiesta cost £1856 in the UK. Today a car from the same era with the same specification will cost between £2000 to £4000, with the rarer and much more desirable sporty XR2 version typically selling for £8000 onwards.

Image credits: davocano, nakhon100 and Niels de Wit via Flickr

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

Announced September 2011

Since 2007, Amazon had been selling the highly successful eBook reader, the Amazon Kindle. That simple device helped Amazon sell a lot of books that they might not have done otherwise, but the Kindle was a very limited device. In September 2011, Amazon therefore announced the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet running a modified version of Android, which was something that could do a lot more than just read books.

Although the Kindle Fire was a fully-featured Android device, it was designed to get all of its content from the Amazon Appstore. This meant that Amazon, and not Google, controlled what apps were available and took a cut of the profits. The Kindle Fire also had access to Amazon's music and video libraries, although you could access all of these on any regular Android device too.

One advantage the Kindle Fire had was that you had to do very little to get access to Amazon's library of digital content, and the simplicity of that had an appeal to consumers. The other advantage was that the Kindle Fire was relatively cheap, as Amazon didn't need to make a profit on the units themselves, just the content that users bought.

The original Kindle Fire tablet was a 7" device with a 600 x 1024 pixel display and just 8GB of storage. So far there have been three generations of the original tablet, plus a range of more powerful units with bigger HD screens and more memory. In 2014 Amazon tried to follow up the success of the tablet by producing a Fire smartphone, but this wasn't a success.

These days there are a range of Fire tables ("Kindle" was dropped from the name some time ago) starting at just $50 in the US or €60 or £50 in Europe. The tablet didn't kill off the original eBook reader either, which continued to evolve and kept the same epic battery life as ever.

Image credit: Amazon

Tuesday 13 September 2016

BlackBerry Pearl 8100 (2006)

BlackBerry Pearl 8100
Launched September 2006

The BlackBerry Pearl 8100 is a best-selling smartphone that you have probably forgotten. Shipping in the millions during 2006 and 2007, the Pearl was a huge sales success, even against mighty devices such as the Nokia N95 and the original Apple iPhone.

A decade ago it was email driving smartphone adoption amongst consumers rather than other factors. Web browsing sucked on 2006-era smartphones because publishers didn't make the mobile versions of websites that they do today. And although you could download applications onto your smartphone it wasn't the easiest thing to do. Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy, so most communication was done by email. And nothing did email better than a BlackBerry.

The Pearl was very much a consumer device, ditching the QWERTY keyboard and wide body (found on the BlackBerry 8700) for a hybrid keypad and a shape much closer to a standard "candy bar" phone. It was the first BlackBerry device to feature a camera (because corporate customers didn't like cameras) and be able to play MP3s and store data on a microSD card (because corporate customers didn't think it appropriate). It was also the first BlackBerry to discontinue the traditional side-mounted jog-wheel and replace it with a trackpad.. not quite as intuitive as a touchscreen but close. It didn't have 3G or WiFi though, but email use didn't really need that.

The screen itself was probably the best in class, and on top of that there were a range of applications available, on what was for the time a highly polished and rather fun operating system. Although BlackBerry purists looked at the Pearl with distaste, it wasn't aimed at them at all.. and it successfully opened up a new market helping to create six years of rapid growth for makers Research in Motion.

Some variations followed over the years, eventually leading to the final model in the series - the Pearl 3G - in 2010. All the Pearls was successful commercial products, but in the end consumers lost interest in this type of device. Today prices for the 8100 vary hugely, ranging from a few euro each to several hundred depending on condition and colour. It seems that even a decade later, this little device still has its fans.

Image credits: BlackBerry / Research in Motion

Monday 12 September 2016

Virgin Lobster 700TV / HTC Monet S320 (2006)

Virgin Lobster 700TV (HTC Monet S320)
Announced September 2006

Sometimes you have to wonder how a product ever got to market, without being put out of its misery first. The HTC Monet (also known as the S320) which was sold in the UK as the Virgin Lobster 700TV is one of those examples. Surely somebody somewhere should have taken a look at the Monet and decided for the good of humanity that it should die. Sadly, they didn't.

Take a look. It's a big, thick and plasticky monoblock phone with a large a inexplicable lump stuck on the on the side. There's a clue as to the purpose of this bulge with a button labelled "TV" stuck onto it. Here was the handset's unique selling proposition.. you could watch TV on it. If you dared to take it out of your pocket that is.

Several handset manufacturers had tried to squeeze digital TV into their handsets at this point, notably Nokia with the N92. But almost all of these use the DVB-H standard (Digital Video Broadcasting - Handheld), derived from DVB-T (the "T" is for terrestrial) which is what you'll find in a normal digital TV. The HTC Monet used a variation of DAB, as used in digital radios, with a digital video stream piggy-backed onto the signal. This was called DAB IP. The advantage was meant to be that DAB was very widely available in 2006, where DVB-H certainly wasn't.

In the UK there was some basic content available from the main terrestrial broadcasters, but not a lot of choice. And the Monet displayed all of this on a tiny 2.2" QVGA display. In portrait. Assuming you could receive anything at all. On one of the ugliest phones ever made. You can see that the unique selling proposition was looking a bit.. well, weak.

The thing was.. it could have been so much better. Essentially the Monet was a Windows smartphone with some extra circuitry and software, so even by 2006 standards it could have been so much more. HTC had pioneered Windows touchscreen phones and a bigger display would certainly have been nice, but since the video was restricted to 240p resolution then it would never have been great.

You won't be surprised to learn that the Monet was a flop, in the UK the Virgin handset ran on the BT Movio system which was canned in 2007. But it was more than a failure of a single product, the entire idea of watching broadcast TV on your phone was a failure too. DVB-H was trialled in many countries but never got any further and was switched off, DAB-based systems performed almost as badly although there was some success in South Korea. It's not that consumers were uninterested, but they wanted better phones, more choice and greater flexibility.

Because it was never popular, this odd little phone is very rare today. Apparently it did make a very good DAB radio, although quite how well it functions with contemporary networks is questionable. If you are lucky.. or possibly unluky depending on your point of view, you might find one of these quirky devices for sale second hand.. if you look hard enough.

Image credits: Virgin Mobile

Saturday 10 September 2016

Nokia N95 - one half of the smartphone story (2006)

Launched September 2006

Ten years ago this month one of the most important mobile phones ever was launched. The Nokia N95 packed in more features than any other device and introduced technologies that everyone now considers to be standard.

Back in those days, products were launched a LONG time before they shipped - the N95 was announced in September 2006 but only shipped in March the next year. The rival iPhone was announced in January 2007 and shipped in June. Now there are usually just a few days between the product announcement and release, but a decade ago manufacturers like to make people wait.

Although it wasn't a revolutionary device, the Nokia N95 was the ultimate evolution of different technologies that Nokia had been working on until that point. A Symbian S60 smartphone, it had a 2.6" QVGA display, excellent 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and VGA resolution video capture, 3.5G HSPA data, WiFi, GPS, TV output, video calling, a stereo FM radio, Bluetooth and expandable memory. Because it was a Symbian device then you could install a wide range of applications, and it came with most of the internet and media tools you would need pre-installed.

Nothing had come close to the N95 in terms of specifications, so it attracted a great deal of interest. But it was not without its flaws, in particular it was a somewhat clunky device that didn't have a touchscreen, and loading apps onto it was not as straightforward as it is today. But compared to the competition of the time, the N95 stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

The N95 represents Nokia at its very peak, a class-leading innovator that dominated the market and could still make waves when launching a new product. But Apple's then top secret phone would challenge Nokia where it was the weakest. The beautiful and slim design of the iPhone made the N95 look clumsy, the elegant user interface and cutting-edge capacitive touchscreen were way ahead of Nokia's offering too.

At first glance the iPhone looked like the more advanced device, but it is almost unbelievable to note that the original Apple didn't have 3G, GPS, video recording capabilities (never mind video calling) or even an app store. Where the N95 was strong, the iPhone was weak.. and vice versa. Every modern smartphone is an amalgam of these two decade-old devices, combining all the best features of the original iPhone and the N95.

Nokia responded to the launch of the iPhone with the improved N95 8GB launched a year later, with a better screen, more storage and a sleeker design, but surprisingly it took Nokia another two years to come up with a touchscreen phone with the 5800 XpressMusic.

The N95 and the N95 8GB in particular are very collectible devices, with prices ranging from about €40 to €250 for unlocked devices depending on condition. The N95 was a huge success for its time, and these are very commonly available. None of the follow-up devices such as the N96 and N97 really matched the success of the N95 though, leaving the N95 (and N95 8GB) as probably one of the best-loved phones that Nokia ever made.

Image credits: Nokia

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Samsung X830 Blush and P310 Cardphone II (2006)

Launched September 2006

Announced ten years ago this month, the Samsung X830 and P310 are two devices that clearly demonstrate the wide range of physical designs that were seen in mobile phones of that era. Compared to modern smartphones which are very difficult to tell apart, these interesting devices are extremely distinctive.

Out of the pair, the most radical looking was the Samsung X830 Blush. A rare "lipstick" style phone apparently in the style of the Nokia 7380, the Blush was actually a rotator as well with a very narrow numeric keypad hidden underneath. With its small screen and prominent circular control pad, this device looked much more like a music player than a phone. The 1GB of internal storage and USB 2.0 support for transferring large files plus the ability to playback most popular music formats, the X830 actually delivered on those promises too.

Samsung X830 Blush

We noted at the time that the X830 Blush looked rather iPod-like and suggested that the forthcoming "iPhone" from Apple might have some similar characteristics. Of course, the iPhone was nothing like this and the the launch of that device a few months later really killed off development of interesting handsets like this.

Available in a wide variety of colours, the X830 in pink became the quintessential "girlie phone" of the era, and indeed prices of "new old stock" and second hand units are buoyant, with prices ranging from about €200 for unused versions to €50 or €60 for used ones in good condition. It's certainly good enough to be a usable basic music player even today, with the added ability to make phone calls.

Launched at the same time as the X830 was the Samsung P310 Cardphone II. The replacement for the P300 launched the previous year, the P310 kept to same form factor but ditched the "love it or hate it" calculator-style keyboard.
Samsung P310 Cardphone II

Like its predecessor, the P310 was a credit card sized handset measuring just 86 x 54 x 8.9mm, or alternatively it can be seen as being about a third of the size of an Apple iPhone 6 Plus. An uncomplicated device, it did have a great deal of consumer appeal at a time when smaller phones were considered to be better. It did manage to pack a quite high resolution 1.9" QVGA display and come with a 2 megapixel camera, which was significantly better than you might expect from a small phone.

Not quite as collectable as the Blush, the Cardphone II still has its admirers with prices ranging from around €40 to €150 or so. Both these handsets belong to an era that was coming to a close in 2006, although at the time nobody knew it. The next four months would see new devices that would change the market forever.

Image credits: Samsung Mobile

Saturday 3 September 2016

Nokia 8110 (1996)

Launched September 1996

Back in 1996, most phones were quite brick-like but devices such as the Motorola StarTAC proved that these devices could also be carefully designed to be rather more fashionable. Nokia were probably the biggest adherent to clunky but usable design, so the Nokia 8110 (launched in September 1996) represented a significant change of direction.

The Nokia 8110 was striking for several reasons, firstly it was curved (giving it the rather cruel nickname of "banana phone"), and secondly it was a slider with the keys hidden when they weren't in use. Sliding the guard open would reveal them, and the curved shape of the device placed the microphone directly in front of the user's mouth. To show the 8110 off, you could charge it (and a spare battery) in a desk mount.

Physically it was a remarkable device, but the Nokia 8110 also found fame in the move The Matrix where a modified version appears in a crucial sequence. Although in reality the 8110 wasn't spring-loaded, the follow-on Nokia 7110 was.

Despite the clever design, underneath this was a very simple device by modern standards with a monochrome dot-matrix screen plus SMS and an advanced SMS-based information system that nobody ever used. With an add-on data card you could send faxes and email at a blazing 9600 bits per second.

Ultimately it was looks rather than ergonomics that made the 8110 a success, but despite several devices featuring the same lines over the years, ultimately customers seemed to prefer handsets that were flat. The Nokia 8110 (and revised 8110i) are highly collectible, with prices ranging from €25 or to up to €3000 for an unused one in mint condition. Median prices for good examples seem to be €120 to €500 or so.

Monday 15 August 2016

Nokia 701 (2011)

Announced August 2011

Five years ago this month, Nokia announced a set of Symbian handsets which were to be among the very last of such devices they would produce. These were the low-end Nokia 500, mid-range Nokia 600 (later cancelled) and the higher-end Nokia 700 and Nokia 701.

The Nokia 701 was the most powerful of the bunch, and is certainly one of the best Symbian handsets ever made. Inside was a 1GHz CPU (a later software update would boost this to 1.3GHz) with 512MB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage, which may not sound like a lot but the lightweight Symbian Belle OS ran very quickly indeed with those specs. On the back was an 8 megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, and on the front was a 3.5" 360 x 640 ClearBlack display. The display was a little small even five years ago, but it was exceptionally bright and clear.

Symbian Belle was the final version of the Symbian operating system and it really was as polished as it could possibly be. It was this final iteration of the OS that was the best, and it demonstrated how quite modest and relatively inexpensive hardware could be used for a very satisfying user experience. All of this was something of a shame as Symbian was essentially dead since Nokia had announced that it was moving to Windows.

The 701 was really only ever going to appeal to die-hard Symbian fans and it didn't really sell in very large numbers. Typical prices for a used unlocked version seem to be about €35 or so. The Nokia 701 wasn't actually the last Symbian device to be launched (that was the rather special Nokia 808 Pureview), but the release of mainstream Symbian handsets ended abruptly in September 2011.

It was a sad swansong for Symbian which had dominated the market during the decade that it was introduced with the Nokia 7650. Less than three years later, Nokia sold its mobile phone division to Microsoft.

Thursday 11 August 2016

Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 (1996)

Released August 1996

Twenty years ago this month if you were using a Windows PC then it was probably the new fangled Windows 95 (launched 1995) or clunky Windows 3.1 (launched 1992). But popular as these operating systems were, they were ultimately a dead-end as Microsoft continued to develop its new Windows NT platform which reached a significant milestone in August 1996 with the general release of Windows NT 4.0.

Although Windows 3.1 and 95 were popular, fundamentally they were a horrible kludge built on top of Microsoft's ancient MS-DOS operating system. Although Windows 95 looked good, underneath everything was creaking and the whole edifice had a tendency to fall over. Often. While this was perhaps acceptable for home users, it certainly didn't equate to the stable and reliable systems needed for business.

Windows NT had been developed in parallel with the consumer versions of Windows and despite sharing a similar interface to consumer versions, it was fundamentally a different operating system underneath. Designed to be a modern operating system, it was a full 32-bit affair with proper multitasking, multiuser capabilities, security, multiprocessor support and the ability to run on a range of different processors rather than just Intel. Inspired more by the operating systems on mainframes and minicomputers (especially VMS), Windows NT could potentially run anything at more-or-less any scale that you wanted.

The initial versions of Windows NT had a Windows 3.1-style interface and made very little impact on the corporate desktop world (although they started to make inroads into the server market). But Windows NT 4.0 was much improved and perhaps most importantly it came with a Windows 95-style interface that made it very usable and modern. Along with proper networking support and authentication handling, system policies and the potential for rock-steady reliability on the right hardware it rapidly became the standard operating system for larger businesses.

One major problem was that Windows NT 4.0 was essentially a server operating system shoehorned into a desktop. There was no plug-and-play support for peripherals, and NT 4.0 never supported USB either and hardware support overall was limited. Although these limitations were OK on the fleets of Compaq, HP and Dell machines corporates were using, it made for a pretty unsatisfying experience on a laptop.

Laptop users really struggled with unplugging or plugging in anything reliably with Windows NT 4.0, but users with Windows 95 and the much improved Windows 98 could do these things with ease.. they could also use new-fangled things such as USB peripherals and even WiFi. With laptop market share growing rapidly, it was clear that NT 4.0 didn't cut the mustard.

The next version of Windows NT was Windows 2000 (launched in 2000) which was still aimed at business customers, and this fixed many of the issues. Internally, 2000 was known as "version 5.0", retaining the NT versioning internally. But it was the next version that made all the difference, Windows XP ("version 5.1") which made a huge impact and finally united the consumer and business versions of Windows together (the final successor to Windows 95 was the awful Windows ME).

Today's Windows 10 operating system is still based on Windows NT, and although the interface has gone through radical changes over the years, it still retains the solid foundations that NT 4.0 introduced. And although perhaps not the best-loved Microsoft operating system, it is probably one of the most important.

Image credits [1] [2]