Tuesday 26 December 2017

2017: things that didn't quite make the cut

This year we've covered gadgets and geeky things from 1907, 1927, 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997, 2007 and 2012 (and actually even 2017). Out of all these years, 1977 stands out as the year that gave us the Commodore PET, Apple II, TRS-80 Model I, Atari VCS and DEC VAX. All of these were ground-breaking technologies that helped to shape the world we live in today.

But there were a few other things that didn't quite make the cut which are worth making a note of.

1927 may have been the year of the Jaffa Cake, but it was also the year that Newcastle Brown Ale was launched. Unusually for a brown beer, it comes in a clear bottle and the recipe has only slightly changed over the past 90 years to remove the caramel colouring. A huge export success, Newcastle Brown has been a little taste of home for Geordies the world over.

As well as chunky telephones and fancy cars, 1967 also brought the world's first Automated Telling Machine (ATM) in Enfield, London. Despite the rise of cashless payments, ATMs are still very common fifty years later... and perhaps just a little bit too common.

Another computer system launched in 1977 was the NASCOM-1 which was a computer kit built around a single board. Popular in its day due to the relatively low cost, it couldn't really compete with the fully assembled systems from rivals.

Newcastle Brown Ale (1927), ATM (1967), NASCOM-1 (1977)
 1977 also saw the release of the classic Crowther and Woods Colossal Cave Adventure. Featuring a rudimentary natural-language processor and some fiendish plot twists, Colossal Cave ended up being ported to a huge variety of computer systems and was massively popular.

We talked about the 1977 Matra Rancho, a stylish affair that looked like it could go anywhere but couldn't. Launched the same year, the Lada Niva actually could go just about anywhere but the 1970s Soviet styling couldn't compete with the chic French Matra. Thanks in part to its lightweight unibody design and dependabili, the Niva survives to this day (called the Lada 4X4 in most markets) where its simple and rugged charms start at less than €11,000 for a new one.

In 1987, personal computers were becoming more powerful with the likes of the IBM PS/2, Apple Macintosh II and Acorn Archimedes but they were also becoming more portable. The Compaq Portable III replaced the small CRT of previous models with a 10" plasma screen. At 9 kilograms it was still no lightweight, but it was finally a practical and reliable business computer that could be used on the move.

Colossal Cave Adventure (1977), Lada Niva (1977), Compaq Portable III (1987)

That's the lot for this year. See you in 2018.

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Wednesday 20 December 2017

YotaPhone (2012)

Announced December 2012

A long time ago, phones used to have a really great battery life. Then powerful big-screen smartphones took over, and suddenly you had to charge your phone more than once a day. A lot of that problem was down to the screen itself, and as screens got bigger and bigger the problem became more acute.

Not every type of display is a power hog though, and electronic ink displays such as those found on e-readers offer much better battery life. But while displays such as that are good for reading text, for a lot of other applications they are not usable because of their slow refresh rate. So you can’t really fix the power drain problem of smartphones with electronic ink displays.

Russian company Yota had different ideas, and their approach was rather radical – give the phone TWO displays. The YotaPhone had a traditional 4.3” LCD panel on one side, and on the other a 4.3” 360 x 640 pixel capacitive touchscreen electronic ink display. The secondary display was designed for things like notifications, email, calendars and other reasonably static displays. Some clever software trickery was required to do this, but otherwise the YotaPhone was a pretty standard Android smartphone.

Although it was announced in December 2012, it took nearly a whole year to get to market, finally shipping in November 2013. The €499 price tag was somewhat expensive, but it found a market niche and its own fan base. In February 2014 the YotaPhone 2 was launched with some much needed improvements and in 2017 the YotaPhone 3 followed.

The YotaPhone concept lives in that no-man’s land where products that neither fail nor succeed live. Perhaps if the YotaPhone had a better-known name on it, it might have been more of a success. But perhaps the YotaPhone is simply ahead of its time, and in another five years we’ll all have dual-screen smartphone like this…

Image credits: Yota

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Matra Rancho (1977)

Matra Rancho
Launched 1977

The Matra Rancho. If you’ve never seen one before, just one look will tell you that this is a tough offroad vehicle that can go absolutely anywhere. And that one look would lead you to absolutely the wrong conclusions.

Despite its rugged looks, the Rancho was basically just a two wheel drive pickup truck with a fibreglass body on the back. With no more off-road capabilities than any other standard late 1970s car, the Rancho promised something that it didn’t deliver. But what it did eventually deliver was no less important.

A brief history lesson – Matra was an industrial combine with a profitable line in armaments that almost accidentally became a car manufacturer by taking over sports car builder Automobiles René Bonnet. Matra’s main interest may well have been the use of fibreglass in the company’s Djet two-seaters, but this blossomed into motorsport (winning both the Formula One Drivers’ and Constructor’s championship in 1969), the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1972, 1973 and 1974 plus a host of other racing trophies. The road car division continued to make sports cars including the novel Matra Bagheera and Murena which featured a single row of three seats.

Matra Rancho showing split tailgate
Matra ended up in partnership with the Chrysler-owned Simca company to sell the Bagheera and Murena. Matras expertise in prototyping and fibreglass led to a new project that was quite a radical departure – the Matra Rancho. The Rancho was designed by Matra’s chief designer Antonis Volanis, as were the Bagheera and Murena.

The inspiration for the Rancho was the Range Rover, launched in 1970. Even then the Range Rover was an expensive and thirsty beast, and Matra thought that they could deliver a lot of the same things (looks and lots of space) for a lot less money. The compact Simca 1100 hatchback was the basis for this, although strictly speaking Matra standard with a pickup variant.

Onto the back of the chassis, Matra attached a large cab made primarily from fibreglass with lots of glass. It had a split tailgate (like the Range Rover) and lots of black plastic to make it look rugged. In optional seven seat form the Rancho was arguably the first MPV, and this hybrid of normal car and off-roader could be argued to be the first Crossover too.

The 80 horsepower engine didn’t have anything like the punch of the Range Rover’s 130 HP v8, but where the Range Rover weighed over two tons the Rancho came in at just 1130 kilos. With an array of spotlights on the front, an integrated roof rack above the driver’s seat and a practical interior which was quite nice by 1970s standards, the Rancho did have a lot going for it.

Talbot Matra Rancho press photo
It had its flaws. The two-wheel drive system was exactly the same as you’d find on a normal Simca 1100 hatchback, and ground clearance was a lot more limited than it looked. But perhaps the worst problem was rust – pretty much everything rusted except for the fibreglass (a problem that also drove the Bagheera to near extinction).

Over 56,000 Ranchos were built, first as the Matra-Simca Rancho and then the Talbot Matra Rancho when Chrysler sold its European operations to PSA (Peugeot Citroën). Although thousands were exported to the UK, as of 2017 there are only three left on the road. You would be hard pressed to find one for sale anywhere in the world, but they do occasionally come up for a few thousand euros each.

Many of the ideas of the Rancho were incorporated into Matra’s next production car – the Espace. Although the Espace was originally designed for PSA, it ended up as a Renault and because the world’s first purpose-built MPV (unlike the van-derived Rancho). The Espace was a huge success for Matra, but eventually Renault took the production in house. This move stripped Matra of a successful product, and with a final swansong of the Avantime they ceased car production in 2003.

These days compact crossovers with rugged looks, lots of space but limited off-road capabilities are very common, but you are more likely to see the Matra name on one of the electric bikes they currently manufacture... or perhaps the wrong end of a guided missile. Like many automotive innovators, Matra missed out on the market it helped to create.

Image credits:

Sunday 19 November 2017

Apple Newton MessagePad 2100 (1997)

Apple Newton MessagePad 2100
Launched November 1997

More than a decade before the launch of the iPad and iPhone, Apple had another range of handheld computing devices called the Newton series. Launched originally in 1993 to a press fanfare but mixed reviews, the Newton range was improved over its lifespan up to the final device in the range – the Apple Newton MessagePad 2100.

Not too dissimilar in footprint to an iPad Mini, but much thicker and heavier, the MessagePad 2100 sported a 6.1” monochrome LCD display with a 480 x 320 pixel resolution and a stylus. Inside is a 162 MHz ARM processor with 4MB of RAM and 4 MB of flash storage. Connectivity was through infra-red or an Apple LocalTalk connection with two PCMCIA expansion slots that could be used for things like modems or network cards. Software available included a word processor, e-book reader, web browser and email client.

It sounds like a modern tablet, but really it wasn’t anything close. There was no kind of cellular or mobile data (GPRS and EVDO would come a couple of years later, as would generally available WiFi) so connecting to the internet would typically involve a cable and the horrors of a dial-up modem. To a large extent the MessagePad was just an electronic personal organizer rather than the sort of device we’d see today.

The MessagePad struggled against the market-leading Palm Pilot and early shortcomings had tarnished its reputation in the public eye. Despite a great deal of goodwill from Apple fans of the late 1990s, the Newton range wasn’t the success that Apple were looking for. The entire platform was axed by Apple’s new CEO, a certain Steve Jobs.

Fans of the Newton platform argue that it was killed off just as it was getting into its stride, and that Jobs may have been partly motivated by revenge against the people who ousted him in 1985 from the company he founded.

It took another decade or so to get to the technology level that allowed the iPhone and iPad, and although the Newton range was certainly influential it was a dead-end platform, as was the rival Palm Pilot. But not all PDAs of this era went the same way, and Psion’s Series 5 (also launched in 1997) helped to give birth to the Symbian OS that eventually became the dominant smartphone platform... for a while

MessagePads of most varieties are still popular collectors’ items, with prices for the 2100 varying between about €50 to €400 or more, depending on condition and accessories.

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Sunday 12 November 2017

Amazon Kindle (2007)

Launched November 2007

Ten years ago this month, Amazon started a surprise revolution with the launch of the original Amazon Kindle e-book reader. Launched at a time when single-purpose devices were beginning to converge into smartphones, the Kindle created a niche for that type of product that it still dominates today.

These days we are used to having our cameras, handheld games consoles, music players, GPS navigation, web browsers, email clients and telephones all in one smartphone. And while you certainly can read e-books on your mobile device, dedicated readers such as the Kindle still sell very well.

Probably the most significant element that the Kindle brought was the large 6” electronic ink display. Lightweight and with a very low power drain, the display operated best in bright light where other devices would struggle. A Kindle would run for weeks on a single charge, and the 250MB storage of the original was good for a couple of hundred books.

It wasn’t the first consumer product with an electronic ink display (that was the 2006 Motorola FONE F3), and it wasn’t the first e-reader such a display either (that was the Sony PRS-500 also from 2006) but Amazon’s unique selling proposition was that they could sell you the book from their own catalogue and it would be delivered instantly to your Kindle without any waiting around.

When launched, the Kindle sold out almost instantly and it took another five months for stock to become generally available. This initial success seemed a bit of a surprise, given that the original Kindle cost a staggering $400 and there were only a limited number of titles available. Oh yes... the original Kindle was also a bit weird looking too.

The original Kindle was only available in the US, but the second generation device launched in the US in February 2009 started shipping in worldwide markets in October of that year. The third generation devices hit the market in 2010 by which time Amazon had a major hit on its hands. These later models tend to be available in both WiFi and 3G variants.

Subsequent models lost the keyboard, came with better displays of varying sizes and capabilities but the basic principle has remained the same. In 2011 a range of more conventional Android-based tablets were launched called the Amazon Kindle Fire (later shorted to just Amazon Fire) – these were a significant success for Amazon, but an attempt to make a smartphone to follow this up flopped.

In the US one of the quirky first generation devices will cost you about $40 used, a new basic Kindle costs around $80 (£60 / €70) with the popular Paperwhite model coming in at $120 (£110 / €130). And although not every digital e-book is cheaper than its paper rivals, book lovers have certainly found that they don’t have to worry about the never-ending battle for shelf space, which is a little victory in itself.

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Tuesday 7 November 2017

Android (2007)

Announced 2007

January 2007 saw the launch of that smartphone from Apple, but while that was helping to usher in a new epoch of smartphone the competition wasn’t exactly sitting around doing nothing. Partly in response to Apple, and partly seeing an opportunity to grab a slice of the smartphone ecosystem itself, Google and its partners announced the Open Handset Alliance and the Android operating system in November 2007.

Although Android is a Unix-like operating system just like Apple’s iOS, it is designed to be more open and less tightly controlled. Any manufacturer with a compatible device can be loaded with a free open-source version of Android, with additional features that can be licensed from Google. Applications can be downloaded from Google Play or indeed any other application store, and applications are permitted on Android that simply are not allowed by Apple (for example, programming languages).

Philosophically, Android had a similar approach to Symbian (led by Nokia), which could also run on a variety of different devices with no restrictions on the types of applications available. In the end, Android proved that it could do it better, and since Nokia didn’t pursue Android at the time it ended up being side-lined.

T-Mobile G1 (2008)
Today, Android has a market share of around 85% for new handset sales, with Apple accounting for almost all the rest. This has come at the cost of fragmentation though, and while Apple have made only about 40 different iOS devices over ten years, Samsung on its own has made nearly 400 different devices which are all different (and often have limited support). On top of that, different manufacturers like to put different add-ons on top which can make it confusing to move from phone to phone.

It took a long time for the Open Handset Alliance to bear fruit, with the first Android device being the T-Mobile G1 (also known as the HTC Dream) in September 2008. The first Samsung Galaxy handset was launched nearly a year and a half later.

Despite millions of handsets being sold, the website of the Open Handset Alliance has not been updated since 2011. Android however has gone from strength to strength despite its problems. Ten years ago Symbian was the biggest selling OS… will Android still be the biggest in another ten years time?

Image credits: T-Mobile and Open Handset Alliance

Thursday 2 November 2017

Jaffa Cakes (1927)

Cake.. or biscuit?
Introduced 1927

Ninety years ago, McVities introduced a triumph of miniaturisation – a biscuit-sized cake they named the Jaffa Cake. A tiny sponge cake coated with chocolate with a layer of orange jam, the Jaffa Cake because a British teatime icon.

The name wasn’t trademarked, which led to other manufacturers coming up with “Jaffa Cakes” of various qualities being sold by other companies worldwide, but in the UK at least the name is still very strongly associated with McVities. And there are all sorts of variants with different fillings and chocolate, but the traditional version uses dark chocolate.

The Jaffa Cake itself was at the heart of a legal battle between the UK’s Customs and Excise department and United Biscuits, who own McVities. The Revenue contended that the Jaffa Cake was actually a biscuit (primarily due to its size and the fact it is sold on the biscuit aisle of shops), UB said that it was a cake due to its texture and the fact that when stale it goes hard, and a biscuit does the opposite. In the end it retained its status as a cake, even though a wholly unscientific recent poll indicates that many people think it is a biscuit.

There is quite a market around Jaffa Cake collectables such as mugs and toys, but if you want a packet of McVities Jaffa Cakes to eat then they are about £1 for a pack of 10.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Jerusalem Virus (1987)

Not a screenshot of the actual virus
Discovered October 1987

Thirty years ago we saw a maturing of the personal computer market, but this was also joined by the rise of the phenomenon of malware. 1987 brought not only the Stoned virus, but also the infamous Jerusalem virus… discovered in Jerusalem in October 1987.

Where Stoned wasn’t deliberately destructive (but was accidentally, due to bugs), the Jerusalem virus was. On each Friday 13th (except for 1987), the virus would try to delete any program run on the DOS PCs it infected. It was an executable file infector, adding its code to the applications themselves.

Of course, this would be a trivial thing to recover from if you had the original installation diskettes, but in those days it was extremely common for software installed on a PC to be a copy of a copy of a copy, and many people didn’t have the disks. And of course, the act of copying software itself helped the virus spread from infected PCs to other PCs via infected programs on the floppy disks.

Back in 1987 anti-virus software was also in its infancy, with products such as McAfee VirusScan being early entrants into that market. Few people had anti-virus software, and given the high levels of piracy of applications it took some years for the first wave of computer viruses to be brought under control.

Later variants of the Jerusalem virus were created, but eventually they all vanished completely. File infecting viruses do still exist these days, but are still quite rare and old DOS viruses such as Jerusalem won’t even run on Windows. However, thirty years of PC malware evolution have led to things that are much, much nastier than the Jerusalem virus.

Saturday 21 October 2017

Dictaphone (1907)

Original Dictaphone, early 20th century
Created 1907

One hundred and ten years ago we were beginning to see the first signs of office automation. That year brought us not only the Photostat machine but also saw the creation of the Dictaphone Company.

For millennials, Dictaphone made machines that you could dictate speech to, typically so that it could be typed up by a personal assistant. The word “Dictaphone” became generic, although the trademark was actually created by a spin-off of Columbia Records.

Although the type of machine most often called a “Dictaphone” will tend to be a mini cassette recorder, back in 1907 Dictaphone machines used a waxed cylinder which was by then almost obsolete, having been out-competed by vinyl discs. The big advantage of a waxed cylinder over a disc was that it could be re-used, assuming you had a special machine to shave the top layer of wax off.

Of course these days we expect that even leaders of nations do their own typing, but back in the early 20th Century those leaders (usually men) would delegate such tasks to their secretaries (usually women). Thankfully in the early 20th such sexist archetypes are a thing of the past.

The original Dictaphone machines were huge, but technology (especially cassette tapes) made them smaller and smaller. So small that eventually the brand vanished after a series of takeovers and divestments. Today the Dictaphone where it is largely relegated to speech-to-text systems aimed at corporations and hospitals, and is owned by speech applications specialists Nuance Communications.
Post-war Dictaphone advertisement

You can still buy dictating machines, some even call themselves “Dictaphones” because somewhere along the way the trademark became genericised (as with the Photostat) but you can’t actually buy new Dictaphone Dictaphones. Original early twentieth-century machines belong in a museum, but post war models are often available for collectors of office ephemera for less than €200 or so.

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Wednesday 18 October 2017

NSU Ro80 (1967)

Launched October 1967

Sometimes leaps forward in automotive technology come from unexpected directions. In October 1967 the rather niche German manufacturer NSU was the one to shock people with the launch of the radical Ro80 saloon.

In the post-year wars, NSU had followed other European manufacturers in making small family cars before branching out into sports cars, including the NSU Spider which was the world’s first production car powered by a Wankel rotary engine. The Spider was a conventional-looking two-seater though, and it didn’t even hint as to what was to come.

When launched, the Ro80 was quite unlike anything else on the market. Like the Spider, it came wth a Wankel rotary engine, in this case capable of producing 115 PS in a car weighing less than 1300 kg.  But that was hidden beneath the remarkable exterior, which is what grabbed everyone’s attention.

The wedge-shaped design gave the Ro80 very slippery aerodynamics, and the huge glasshouse on top gave excellent visibility. It also featured front-wheel drive, an automatic clutch, all-round independent suspension and all-round disc brakes, with rack and pinion power steering. In terms of features, the Ro80 was very much ahead of its time.

The heart of the car was the Wankel rotary engine – it was very smooth, compact and light which reduced the overall weight of the car and allowed a more aerodynamic design. But it was also hugely unreliable with critical design flaws… and those flaws killed off NSU.

NSU had worked with Mazda to develop rotary engines for cars, but where NSU had poorly designed apex seals Mazda did not. Mazda went on to produce a range of reliable Wankel-powered cars up to 2012, ending with the Mazda RX8. NSU on the other hand went bankrupt and was bought up by Volkswagen who folded NSU into their new Audi brand.

Later “Audi” Ro80s were more reliable, but the damage was done.  An attempt to make a version of the Ro80 with a more conventional engine (called the K70) but this was not very successful. Production of the Ro80 ended in 1977, but the Neckarsulm assembly plant moved to building Audi models which it still does today.

The Ro80 was considered a disaster at the time, but the design and feature set were hugely influential, especially on Audi who incorporated many of the design themes that it set. The brilliant designer Claus Luthe worked for the VW/Audi group for a while and then moved to BMW where he created classic designs such as the E30 revision of the 3-series. Tragically he was convicted of killing his own son in 1990 and was jailed for manslaughter. He died in 2008.

Today the NSU Ro80 is a very rare car, with only a few dozen on the road in the UK and an overall production run of about 37,000 worldwide. Typical prices seem to be around £10000 for one in working order, but of course that engine is hardly worry-free. Perhaps this is one to be admired at a car show or museum, rather than something to own...

Monday 16 October 2017

ASUS Eee PC 701 (2007)

ASUS Eee PC (2007)
Launched October 2007

Ten years ago we were seeing a big leap forward in the capabilities of smartphones, which was great if you wanted to see the world through a tiny little screen. If you wanted something larger, the choice was usually some sort of expensive laptop. Tablets as we know them today didn’t yet exist, with Nokia’s niche Internet Tablet only coming in with a 4.1” screen.

In October 2007, Taiwanese manufacturer ASUS came up with their solution to the smartphone/laptop gap with the ASUS Eee PC 701. A tiny laptop with a 7” 800 x 480 display, the eee 701 also came with a 4GB solid state hard disk, 512MB of memory and a 900 MHz Intel Celeron processor. It also had a built in WiFi adaptor, Ethernet port, sound and a microphone, three USB 2.0 ports, an MMC/SD card reader and one available PCI Express Mini Card inside (another one was used by the WiFi adapter). The operating system was either Xandros Linux, although Windows XP became available later.

All of these features came for a very low price of £169 in the UK, which was a good deal cheaper than the Nokia 810 and probably a lot more practical. It was a very small device, about the size of a hardback book… which of course led to quite a cramped keyboard. Also, it wasn’t the most powerful machine in the world but Xandros ran just fine on it (or you could install another version of Linux if you wanted).

The Eee was dubbed a “netbook” – primarily designed to accessing the web and email rather than games or heavily-computational apps – and it became a huge success.  In the UK, the Eee was sold through Research Machines who had launched the equally ground-breaking 380Z thirty years earlier.

Despite selling in large numbers, the Eee and rival netbooks struggled against the iPad and Android tablets that came out a few years later, eventually dropping out of production. However, ASUS still make similar devices based on Google’s Chromebook specifications which are equally inexpensive.

These days, pre-owned Eee PC 701 machines can be had for around £30 to £50, although you might struggle to find a contemporary operating system to run on them.

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Sunday 15 October 2017

Digital VAX-11/780 (1977)

VAX 11/780
Launched October 1977

1977 was a significant year for technology, with the launch of several different brands of microcomputer, games consoles, laser printers and even smart watches. Some new launches seemed less ground-breaking but were perhaps just as important, and the Digital VAX was one such product.

Digital Equipment Corporation (usually shorted to “Digital” or “DEC”) had been a disruptive pioneer in the “small” minicomputer market from the 1950s onwards, best known for their PDP range including the popular 16-bit PDP-11 which was instrumental in the development of Unix.

Time marches on, and by the late 1970s the PDP range was looking tired. So, in October 1977 DEC launched the first of their VAX range, the VAX-11/780. Somewhat backward compatible with the PDP-11, the VAX introduced a 32-bit architecture and virtual memory addressing.

The VAX was designed to be easy to program, and along with it was launched the new VAX-11/VMS operating system which was thoroughly up-to-date in a 1970s sort of way. DEC also had its own version of Unix called ULTRIX and eventually BSD Unix became available too. This made the VAX-11 range the computer of choice for many corporations and universities.

The “minicomputer” name given to this type of machine is unfamiliar today, and given the huge bulk of the VAX-11/780 it seems ridiculous. However, the VAX was “mini” compared to the vast mainframes that IBM offered, and all you would need for an 11/780 was a suitably air-conditioned room with a three-phase power supply rather than a dedicated building. Later VAX-11 models could run off a standard plug. Having that much power and flexibility in a relatively compact computer added to the appeal.

Crucially, these were multi-user computer systems. Dozens or even hundreds of people could connect to a single VAX, and those VAXes could be networked together. Files could be shared securely and applications could be run, typically using a dumb terminal such as a VT52.

The preferred operating system for VAXes was VMS, and this too was a significant step forward. An extremely stable OS, VMS became the choice of businesses that didn’t want downtime. Because DEC controlled both the hardware and software, it made it much easier to make sure everything worked together. Potentially you could run a VAX/VMS system for years without downtime unless you wanted to upgrade the OS or run a standalone backup.

VMS became a significant inspiration for Microsoft’s Windows NT platform, used by every modern version of Windows. This is no coincidence, as Dave Cutler was a technical lead on both OSes (later moving to help develop Microsoft’s Azure platform). In the smaller systems market, NT is the only effective opposition to Unix-derived systems such as Linux, Android and iOS.

The VAX line was very popular, and over the years the range expanded to include small MicroVAX systems all the way up to supercomputers. Hugely popular at first, the VAX suffered as the minicomputer market decline in the face of business PCs, which eventually led to DEC being taken over by Compaq, who in run were taken over by HP. Although the last VAX computer was built in 2005, the operating system (now called OpenVMS) was ported to DEC’s Alpha platform, then Intel Itanium with a port to x86 in the works. HP still promote OpenVMS for running mission critical applications.

The VAX-11/780 is hardly a collectable item today due to its sheer size, and most second-hand bits of VAX hardware are probably bought by people keeping ancient installations running. But you don’t have to look far to see the influence of VMS – the architecture of any modern Windows PC is certainly a nod in that direction.

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Tuesday 10 October 2017

Research Machines 380Z (1977)

Research Machines 380Z
Launched October 1977

1977 was the dawn of the microcomputer revolution, with the stateside launch of the Commodore PET, Apple II and TRS-80 plus the 8-bit Atari VCS games console. But the US didn’t have it all to themselves, and in October 1977 the UK saw the launch of the Research Machines 380Z (or RM or RML 380Z for short).

Aimed primarily at the education market rather than home or business users, the 380Z was a massive beast even for 1977. Built like a tank, the enormous metal case was designed to be rack-mountable, but the external keyboard was also a big metallic lump too.

The name itself should give a clue that the 380Z was based around the Z80 CPU. The enormous case it came in reflected the wealth of expansion options beyond that – floppy disks, hard disks, video cards, interface cards and memory modules could be slotted in, make the 380Z a hugely powerful computer. In fact, the 380Z didn’t even have a motherboard as all components were on a card, which made it easy to modify or repair.

Although originally housed in a light blue case, the 380Z quickly evolved into the imposing black case that became very common in schools. Even when rivals such as the BBC or ZX Spectrum started to appear, the 380Z remained a serious computer for serious work – one that could do things that other (and it has to be said – cheaper) computers could not. The 380Z could run the business-standard CP/M operating system, but it wasn’t really marketed as a business computer. Just to prove its scientific and educational leanings, the computer was actually stylised as the 380Ƶ with a stroke on the "Z" to make it looks less like a "2".

Fully-loaded, the 380Z would cost over £3200 (almost the price of two basic Ford Fiestas) with the very basic models coming in at just under £1000 (about half the price of the aforementioned Fiesta). It was certainly an expensive system, but Research Machines also eventually created the diskless LINK 480Z which could use the 380Z as a file server, which was extremely advanced for the time.

Having found a profitable niche, RM went on to produce the Nimbus range of somewhat-PC compatibles, and after that it concentrated on PCs sold to the education market. RM finally dropped out of the hardware business in 2014 but it still exists today as a service provider to education.

These days 380Zs are a rare find on the second hand market, if you can find one they seem to be a few hundred pounds each. Due to the robust nature of their construction, there’s a very good chance that it will still work though.

Sunday 8 October 2017

Nokia N810 (2007)

Launched October 2007

Back in 2007, Nokia was happy designing elegant but technically limited feature phones, and although they did have a flagship smartphone with the N95, rivals Apple were stealing the show with their own way of doing things.

But away from Nokia’s mobile phone division, another project had been working on a series of what they called “Internet Tablets”, launching the 770 in 2005 then the improved N800 in early 2007. The Nokia N810 was the third-generation device, launched in October 2007 and it started to show some real promise.

Although the N810 looks very much like a modern smartphone, this wasn’t a phone at all. A tiny Linux computer with WiFi and an then impressive 4.1” 800 x 480 pixel display it certainly shared a lot a characteristics with a modern mobile, but this had no cellular connectivity and was being sold as a rival to small form factor computers.

Running the Maemo operating system, the N810 was running a version of Linux developed especially for touchscreen devices. The 128MB of RAM and 400MHz processor isn’t much by today’s standards, but it was equivalent to what was in the first-generation iPhone. Unlike the original iPhone, you could download applications onto the N810 (or even compile your own).

It appealed to a very different type of customer than the iPhone – N810 users had a tendency to be established Linux users, gadget freaks or technologists. This relatively small community did help to drive things forward, but progress was slow. It took another two years to evolve the Maemo platform into a smartphone with the Nokia N900 which ultimately was not the commercial success it needed to be.

I’ve written about Maemo many times, but I’ll say it again – Maemo was Nokia’s best hope to move away from the restrictions of Symbian and come up with a smart device good enough for the second decade of the twenty-first century. Fundamentally, Maemo was every bit as capable as Android or iOS because it was based on essentially the same Unix-derived platform. With enough resources behind it, there was a good chance that it would have succeeded but in the end Nokia missed a vital opportunity and suffered for it.

Today the N810 is an interesting relic of what could have been, with prices today ranging from about €50 to several hundred depending on condition, although it isn’t a particularly common device.

Saturday 7 October 2017

Samsung / Bang & Olufsen Serenta (2007)

Launched October 2007

One of the oddest looking – and possibly coolest – mobile phones ever, the Serenata was a joint effort between Samsung and Bang & Olufsen, and it created a handset that was quite unlike almost anything else.

B&O and Samsung had been here before, with the radical and exceptionally expensive Serene launched in 2005. The Serene was clever in many ways, but it had some severe technical limitations. The Serenata (launched two years later) was probably the phone that the Serene should always have been, but the market had moved on since then.

The Serenata copied the Serene by having the display on the bottom (so it didn’t get greasy when making a phone call), but here there was a rotary control for the phone – very much like the iPod. Where the Serene surprisingly lacked music playback features, the Serenata was a proper digital media player with 4GB of storage. 3G data was added, but the Serenata did not come with a camera.

Because this as a B&O device, it came with a variety of stylish accessories. It was also extremely expensive at €800, and despite all the cleverness the launch of the iPhone had changed the expectations of consumers. For all its stylish and esoteric charm, the Serenata’s features looked dated compared to what Apple was doing.

Although both the Serenata and Serene caused a stir when launched, neither were a sales success. A year after the launch of the Serenate, B&O shuttered their phone business along with several other product lines. But, as with many other rare and unusual phones the Serenata remains quite collectible with good examples selling for around €400 to €500.

Saturday 30 September 2017

Photostat Machine (1907)

Launched 1907

Ever since humans invented writing, there has been a need to duplicate what has been written. From monks toiling away duplicating manuscripts through the printing press in the 15th century and to the invention of reliable carbon paper in the late 1800s, this had always been something of an effort.

As the industrial revolution drove economies forward, being able to copy legal agreements, contracts, drawings and notes became more of an issue. Although all sorts of technologies existed for making multiple copies of something when they were being prepared (for example, carbon sheets in a typewriter or using a duplicating machine) if you wanted to copy an existing document then you were out of luck, and in all probability it would need to be copied by hand which was really just the same thing those monks had been doing.

The development of photography in the 19th century brought new technologies to bear, and in 1907 the first Photostat machine was launched. Simply put, the Photostat was a type of camera, but instead of projecting the image of whatever was wanted onto a film, it projected it via a lens and prism onto photosensitive paper.

The catch was that this process produced a negative image of whatever was being copied, which was fixed by inserting the first copy back into the Photostat and producing a negative of the negative (i.e positive) version.

These days we are used to digital photocopiers producing near-perfect copies of whatever we want, but the quality from a Photostat machine was not great. And if you copied a copy... well, it would become unreadable pretty quickly. Nonetheless it meant that if you had the original document, then you could produce readable, accurate and relatively inexpensive copies in a few minutes.

The machines were not cheap, coming in at about $500 in 1911 (around $10,000 today) with costs-per-page being about 6¢ (around $1 today). They were also bulky and required a trained operator to use them, but they were a huge improvement over what went before.

The commercialisation of xerography in the 1950s killed off the Photostat for good and formed the basis of almost all modern copiers and laser printers. But that is a story for another day.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday 21 September 2017

SPAM (1937)

SPAM in a can
Launched 1937

Way before email spam, text message spam, search engine spam and almost any other kind of spam you could think of was the tinned meat SPAM, launched in 1937.

A technological marvel of its time, SPAM was precooked and shelf stable, meaning that it didn’t require refrigeration. The cuboid tin meant that it was easy to ship in bulk, and SPAM ended up being a worldwide success. But what is it exactly?

The meaning of the word “SPAM” is a trade secret, but is possibly some combination of “Pork” (the main ingredient) and “hAM” (which comes ways down the list). Hormel foods used the unpopular pork shoulder cut and added starch, water, salt, ham, sugar, flavourings and other additives to create a food that people either seem to love or hate.

SPAM found a particular niche during the Second World War with millions of tins being shipped out to allied troops and civilians. Today, over 400 million cans of SPAM are sold each year, which is almost enough to circle the earth. Hugely popular in US territories in the Pacific and Puerto Rico, SPAM has also found a niche elsewhere in the Pacific Rim and also the United Kingdom. The product is sold in 44 counties worldwide in 15 different varieties.

SPAM varieties
For real SPAM lovers there is even a SPAM museum. But not everyone is a SPAM fan, and in the classic form it is quite high in sodium and fat, however low-fat and reduced sodium varieties are also available plus many other types. There’s a version of SPAM made from turkey, one with bacon, various spicy versions, smoked SPAM, cheesy SPAM, garlic SPAM and even teriyaki SPAM to use in sashimi. If you don’t want it sliced, you can have it in a spread too.

For good or bad, SPAM helped to change the way that food ended up with consumers. In some parts of the world, SPAM fundamentally changed diets… also for good or bad. Increasingly consumers began to demand more and more convenience when it came to foodstuffs, and SPAM helped to pioneer that change.

Saturday 16 September 2017

Pot Noodle (1977)

Pot Noodles in the wild, 2017
Introduced 1977

A familiar snack food for students and bedsit dwellers, the Pot Noodle range was launched in the UK in 1977 and quickly became a popular and somewhat notorious product.

Instant noodles were invented in Japan in the 1950s with the Nissin Chikin Ramen. The same company then imported instant noodles in a cup in the the US in the early 1970s. This phenomenon had been spotted by Golden Wonder, who then introduced a version of it into the UK in 1977.

Preparation is simple enough. Boil a kettle, pour it in, wait a few minutes and stir. Sometimes there is a sauce packet to add. There's a tendency for the noodles to be high in fat and salt, and of course you shouldn't eat them all the time… nonetheless, the Pot Noodle did really open up new culinary adventures if all you had was a kettle.

Advertisements over the years ranged from the tame to the highly controversial, but they helped to make the Pot Noodle a rather laddish cult product. Although Golden Wonder sold the brand off years ago, they are still available today and retail for around £1 per pot. Although vintage Pot Noodles aren't really a thing, there's a lively trade in collectable spinning forks and matching mugs to go with your secret noodle obsession if you so desire.

Thursday 14 September 2017

Atari VCS / 2600 (1977)

Launched September 1977

1977 was the dawn of home computing, with the Apple II, Commodore PET and TRS-80 Model I all being launched within months of each other. But another early computing pioneer also found success in the same year, and that was Atari.

Launched in September 1977, the Atari Video Computer System (“VCS”) was an early second generation console that came after the 1970s wave of single purpose games machines that could typically play Pong and nothing else. Based around a cut-down version of the 6502 CPU called the 6507, the Atari VCS was designed from the start to be a highly flexible system that could play a wide variety of games.

Atari VCS "Heavy Sixer" (1977)

One key thing that made the VCS easy to use was the cartridge system. Instead of struggling to load a game from tape or splashing out on a very expensive floppy disk drive, the VCS loaded in games from cartridges instead. Although it wasn’t the first cartridge console on the market, the VCS was the first one to be a real success.

Games included the ubiquitous Pong, Space Invaders, Breakout, Pitfall, Centipede, Defender and later on a poorly received version of Pac-Man and the infamous E.T. Despite the VCS’s fairly crude colour graphics and sound and the relatively high price of the cartridges themselves, the VCS and many of its games went on to sell in huge numbers.

Atari 2600 ad (1982)
Priced at just $199 at launch, including a game and two joysticks, the VCS represented impressive value for money. Cartridges were relatively expensive, typically coming in at $20 or more. However the cartridges were easy to use… and crucially for Atari, almost impossible to pirate.

The original VCS models were made in Sunnyvale, California and are known as “heavy sixers” because they have six switches on the top and a more solid construction than the later “light sixers” built in Hong Kong. Further revisions followed, with the fake wood panel surviving until 1982, but the VCS name was changed to 2600 in 1980. In one form or another, the VCS / 2600 remained in production until 1992, giving the console a staggering 15 year run with almost unchanged hardware, selling 30 million units in the US alone.

Despite ending production, the VCS / 2600 remained popular, and in 2004 a modern interpretation was made called the Atari Flashback which is currently in its eighth generation. A top-of-the-range Flashback with an HDMI connector and a huge number of games costs around €170, an original 2600 console can cost from next to nothing up to several hundred euro depending on exact model, condition and bundled games with consoles quite commonly available.

In 1983 a crash in the video games market led to Atari being sold by its then parent company, Warner Communications, and it split into two. On part of it was bought by Jack Tramiel (who founded rivals Commodore) and which later went on to make home computers including the Atari ST. The company’s name and assets have changed hands many times over the years, but “Atari” still exists as a gaming brand today.

Image credits:

Saturday 9 September 2017

Nokia Lumia 920 (2012)

Nokia Lumia 920
Announced September 2012

By September 2012, Nokia had been in the Windows Phone business for just under a year, starting off with the Lumia 800 in October 2011 and then the bigger Lumia 900 in February 2012. Neither device was really successful, despite having their charms and the goodwill of an army of Nokia fans.

Although Windows Phone 7 and 8 had been well-received by critics, customers were not so keen and there was a general shortage of good applications. Well, Nokia was stuck with that problem whatever they did... but the other problem that the Lumia 800 and 900 had was that the technical specifications really weren’t up to much either.

The Nokia Lumia 920 addressed the hardware at least – here was a phone that made no compromises when it came to features and it could easily hold its own against the flagship devices of rivals.

Firstly there was the look of the thing – elegantly minimalist and housed in a variety of brightly-coloured thermoplastics, the physical design actually complemented the minimalist design of the operating system very well. A big, bright 4.5” 768 x 1280 pixel display dwarfed that of the iPhone and on the back was an optical image stabilised 8.7 megapixel PureView camera with Carl Zeiss optics, capable of full HD video capture. The camera itself caused quite a stir due to its advanced capabilities.

Mmmm... yellow.
Added to this was wireless charging, support for 4G LTE data, a 1.5GHz dual-core CPU with 1GB of RAM and 32 GB of flash storage and all the other features any high-end smartphone from the time would have. At 185 grams in weight the Lumia 920 was quite heavy, but it gave the whole thing a feeling of quality.

Windows Phone 8 was easy to use, integrated well with companies running on a Microsoft platform and Nokia threw in some useful apps of its own such as turn-by-turn navigation and a free music service. However, beyond that apps looked a bit scarce – not least because Windows 8 was built around a different core from Windows 7 meaning most apps had to be reworked.

In hardware terms Nokia had finally come up with a device that needed no excuses making for it, and which was just as good as, or better than the competition in most major respects. It was a relative success for Nokia and was the best-selling Lumia device to date. Even so, Nokia only managed to shift 4.4 million Lumia handsets in Q4 2012 while Apple shipped 47.8 million iPhones of all models in the same period. Despite giving it their best shot, the Lumia 920 was ultimately not the breakthrough device that Nokia desperately needed.

Thursday 7 September 2017

Apple iPhone 5 (2012)

Apple iPhone 5 (White/Silver)
Announced September 2012

Half a decade after the original iPhone, Apple announced the iPhone 5. The sixth version of this highly popular device, the 5 was an evolution of the second-generation iPhone 4 and 4S phones.

The launch of the 5 came when Apple’s competitors were beginning to pull ahead of Apple in terms of specifications, particularly when it came to screen size. For example, the rival Samsung Galaxy S III had a 4.8” display that completely dwarfed the 3.5” panel on the iPhone 4S. Indeed, even low-end rivals had bigger displays and it was becoming clear that a lot of customers wanted exactly that.

Of course the obvious solution was to make the phone bigger, but there was resistance from Apple management (reportedly Steve Jobs) in following Samsung’s lead with larger devices with each generation. Instead a design compromise was made, and the iPhone 5 fitted in a larger 4.0” screen by making the device taller. Adding 9mm to the height gave an extra half inch on the display (and yes, that IS a horrible mix of metric and imperial units).

The advantage was primarily that the iPhone 5 felt pretty similar in the hand, but because Apple also changed the connector on the bottom at the same time, you couldn’t easily dock the 5 in peripherals designed to hold the 4 and 4S.

A switch in materials from steel to aluminium made the iPhone 5 much lighter, and of course the 5 was faster than its predecessors and heralded a new version of the iOS operating system too. On the downside, the new Apple Maps application included with the phone was truly terrible and the paint on the devices was prone to scuffing and chipping.

Apple iPhone 5 (Black/Slate)
Perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the iPhone 5 was a massive success, although it only had a run of one year before being replaced with the popular iPhone 5S and the unpopular iPhone 5C. The 5S continued in production until 2016, and Apple recognised that many customers very much enjoyed the more compact design of the 5 over their newer and larger smartphones, launching the iPhone SE in 2016 with an almost identical form factor.

Software support for the iPhone 5 (and almost identical iPhone 5C) ended in July this year, so their usefulness is somewhat limited. Prices are currently around €100 for a unit in good condition, or alternatively the equally compact but much more capable iPhone SE starts at around €480.

Image credit: Apple