Tuesday 26 April 2016

Nokia X7: the beginning of the end (2011)

Announced April 2011

For years and year the Symbian operating system had been a cash cow for Nokia. Even five years ago with the iPhone and Android smartphones being firmly established in the market, Symbian was still outselling any other mobile OS at the end of 2010.

Symbian had a loyal fan base, it was an established platform with a wealth of applications and Nokia had a wide variety of high-quality devices to run it on. But the roots of Symbian lay in the 1990s and although it was well-suited to relatively simple smartphones, more powerful hardware meant that the much more powerful iOS and Android platforms could simply do more.

Nokia wasn't sitting around doing nothing though, and they had been slowly developing the Linux-based Maemo operating system which was fundamentally very similar to iOS and Android and certainly had the potential to be every bit as good. But Nokia hadn't made a Maemo phone since 2009 and development along that path had stalled with a disastrous attempt at merging the platform with Intel's Moblin to create MeeGo. By 2011 MeeGo was looking like a dead duck.

With no high-end devices in the pipeline the strategic situation was looking grim, but sales were still pretty buoyant. But then in one probably the most controversial decision in Nokia's history, CEO Stephen Elop announced that Nokia were to phase out Symbian, discontinue MeeGo and move all smartphones to the Windows platform.

The idea was that Symbian would be phased out gradually over a number of years, but customers had different ideas and sales of Symbian devices started to collapse. Worse still, Nokia didn't actually have any Windows phones and it wouldn't until the end of 2011. It was the beginning of the end for Nokia, who as of 2016 are no longer in the mobile phone business.

Launched in the path of this oncoming storm was the Nokia X7 (strictly called the X7-00). It was an unusual device with tapered-off edges, a large 4.0" 360 x 480 pixel display, 8 megapixel camera plus all the usual smartphone features that you'd expect and even the operating system had been spruced up. Although the pricing was broadly similar to a midrange Android of the time, the specifications were struggling to keep up. The fact that it was one of the best Symbian devices ever could did not seem to matter to consumers who suddenly lost interest in the dead-end product line. Symbian was essentially dead a year later.
Today, prices for the Nokia X7 are pretty high with decent unlocked models coming in at about €100 or so which is actually more than a contemporary iPhone 4. It seems that this obsolete device still has a few fans after all.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Nokia N93 (2006)

Announced April 2006

Nokia's N-Series range of high-end smartphones had been making waves for a year by the spring of 2006, with several interesting devices coming to market. April 2006 saw the launch of the unusual N93 clamshell phone, launched alongside the forgettable N72 and popular N73.

The main selling point of the N93 was the camera module, installed in the hinge (as found on the N92 and N90 phones). This 3.2 megapixel unit had Carl Zeiss optics, could capture VGA resolution video at 30 frames per second and most unusually for a phone it has a 3X optical zoom. Presumably all of this made the N93's camera quite bulky, hence it was hidden in the hinge with a twistable screen to make it usable.

The Nokia N93 was a Symbian device, making it a smartphone.. although the 2.4" 240 x 320 pixel display wasn't a touchscreen. It supported both 3G and WiFi connectivity, could output directly to a TV, came with expandable memory, Bluetooth, a multimedia player and even had an FM radio.

It was a well-specified but chunky device, coming in at 180 grams and over an inch (28mm) thick when closed. It was expensive too, priced at €550 before tax and subsidy. Despite the apparent desirability of the N93, it was only a moderate sales success. Eight months later a slimmed down version was produced, the N93i.. but THAT device was announced just one day before the original iPhone which ended up getting all the attention.

Because it is such an unusual device, both the N93 and N93i tend to be relatively expensive these days, with prices ranging between €50 to over €600 depending on condition. A good unlocked example of either model can cost around €200.

Monday 18 April 2016

IBM 3800 Laser Printer (1976)

IBM 3800 Printing Subsystem
Announced April 1976

Announced forty years ago this month, the IBM 3800 was the world's first commercially available laser printer. In one form or another the 3800 was in production for a decade-and-a-half and revolutionised high-volume computerised printing.

Beating rivals Xerox to market by a year, the IBM 3800 was a massive device that could typically print about 167 pages per minute. Today, even a high-end device such as the Ricoh Pro 1357 would struggle to keep up. Crucially though, the IBM 3800 used continuous stationery rather than cut-sheet paper which must have helped with the throughput. The print resolution was about 160 dpi.

It wasn't cheap - even the 1987 model cost a staggering $175,000, but then you would hook it up to an IBM mainframe which would have cost you a couple of million dollars. Strictly an enterprise computing component, the 3800 must have been a welcome relief from the deafening noise of banks of impact printers.

It wasn't until the mid 1980s that laser printing because remotely affordable on the desktop, with the breakthrough product being the original HP LaserJet. IBM span off the printing business as Lexmark in 1991, which still exists today.

Today you can pick up a new small laser printer for less than €50, with typical very high volume systems coming in at €35,000 or more.

Image credit: IBM Archives

Thursday 14 April 2016

MOS Technologies KIM-1 (1976)

Launched April 1976

These days, single-board computers such as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino are all the rage. These small and inexpensive devices are ideal for hobbyist and industrial application, but of course this is not a new idea. Forty years ago one of the most important single-board computers was launched: the MOS Technologies KIM-1.

MOS Technologies had produced low-cost 6502 processor the previous year, but (as today) the problem was getting it into the hands of people who could actually DO something with it. So, the KIM-1 was produced as a basic bare-boned system that people could adapt, at the relatively affordable price of $295 (equivalent to around $1050 today).

It was a primitive device. The 8-bit 6502 CPU came with 1K of RAM, a small LED display, and a hexadecimal keypad. It had a couple of expansion ports and pair of serial interfaces, which meant that it could be paired with a teletype for output or a cassette recorder. Later independently-produced expansion modules included a video board.

The design was adapted and expanded by other manufacturers too, and the KIM-1 and its derivatives became a significant success and helped to establish the 6502 as one of the key processors of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the end, MOS Technologies ended up being bought up by Commodore, and the ideas behind the KIM-1 were expanded and eventually developed into the Commodore PET.

In Europe, the KIM-1 is a very rare device indeed. They are occasionally available in the US with prices ranging between $300 to $1000, with a typical price of around $700. Of course, in order to get it the best out of it you would need a whole pile of obsolete equipment to go with it, or alternatively you can bamboozle yourself with this Javascript KIM-1 emulator.

Image credits [1] [2]