Wednesday 29 March 2017

Xerox 9700 (1977)

Launched 1977

Forty years ago we were seeing the start of a boom in personal computing.. but at the other end of the scale we were also seeing the dawn of digital imaging, in this case with laser printers.

The Xerox 9700 was launched in 1977, and although it lagged behind the IBM 3800, the Xerox was much closer to today's office laser printers than the IBM which was basically a very fast line printer. Capable of a maximum throughput of 120 pages per minute on cut sheet paper at up to 300 dpi, the Xerox 9700 could combine text and graphics in ways that hadn't previously been possible.

It was a big beast, which was understandable when you realise that it was basically three things joined together. Xerox took the guts of one of their own photocopiers and added a unit containing the laser and imaging system to it. Then they bolted a DEC PDP 11/34 to the whole thing to act as a controller. Sharp eyed readers may notice that in the picture the PDP 11 is being controlled by a Lear-Siegler ADM-3A.

Xerox 9700
It was huge and hardly cheap. Even in 1980 after it had been around for a while, the Xerox 9700 still started at $35,240 (worth about $100,000 today). It took about another decade for laser printers to hit the mass market with devices such as the Apple LaserWriter or HP LaserJet range.
Forty years later, Xerox still make printers including huge devices such as the Xerox Nuvera range which cost almost as much the 9700 did back in the day.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Apple iPad 3 (2012)

Apple iPad 3
Launched March 2012

It took a few attempts for Apple to get the iPad really right. As with the iPhone, it was the third generation of the device that really started to include all the features that customers wanted. It also introduced Apple's baffling way of naming the iPad that continues to this day.

Outwardly it was a black or white slabby thing that looked similar to previous generations, but this iPad was the first one to introduce the "retina display" seen in the iPhone 4. This meant that the resolution jumped to 1536 x 2048 pixels compared to just 768 x 1024 on previous generations. Apple had also realised that people actually took photos and videos with the iPad and fitted a decent 5 megapixel camera on the back rather than the pretty miserable 0.7 megapixel sensor on the iPad 2.

It was faster than the iPad 2 and the cellular version could support 4G LTE data. It was also thicker and heavier, but the price was the same as the iPad 2 when it launched. This improved version was a sales success - but it had the shortest lifespan of any iOS device, lasting just seven months until replaced by the iPad 4. As with most Apple products it received software updates over the years with the latest coming in August 2016.

Five years later and the current iPad is much the same, only lighter and faster than the iPad 3. But Apple actually dropped the generation of the iPad after the iPad 2 (the iPad 3 was never officially called that), and the 2017 iPad is also just called the "iPad" even though the previous models were the iPad Air and iPad Air 2. This is a bit confusing, as Apple insist on a generational name for each iPhone.

Because the iPad 3 is still very usable, prices for used models are quite strong with prices for a high-spec on being about €150 or so, compared to €400 for a base model of the current generation. It's not really a collectible device though nor can it run the latest version of iOS, however there are still probably millions of these in everyday use.

Image source: Apple

Monday 20 March 2017

HTC Advantage X7500 and Shift X9500 (2007)

HTC Advantage X7500
Announced March 2007

Even before the launch of the iPhone a decade ago, one company was pioneering smartphones with a vision years ahead of everyone else. That company was HTC. In March 2007, just a few months after the launch of Apple's iconic device, HTC came up with a rather different vision of what it thought the future should be.

The HTC Advantage X7500 (sold under many names including the T-Mobile Ameo) pushed the boundaries of what a smartphone could be. The 5" VGA resolution display was enormous for the time, there was a QWERTY keyboard that was detachable and a then very impressive 8GB of internal storage and an internal hard disk (yes, made of spinning metal). This was a Windows Mobile 5.0 device, and it also supported HSDPA and WiFi data, had GPS, a TV output, came with a 3 megapixel primary camera and VGA camera for video calling and had a microSD slot. Inside was a 624 MHz Intel Xscale processor with 128MB of RAM. In hardware terms it completely stomped over the iPhone, but it was two-and-a-half times the weight. It was quite an expensive device at about €850 SIM-free (€200 more than an unlocked iPhone) but it was pretty obviously a premium product.

It wasn't a huge sales success, but it is credited by some as helping to popularise big-screen smartphones. In 2008 HTC followed it up with the X7510 with more storage and Windows Mobile 6.0. Today you can pick up either model for around €50 to €70 for an unlocked version.

HTC Shift X9500
Launched the same month was the HTC Shift X9500. Sporting a 7" WVGA touchscreen, the Shift was actually an ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) with some clever tricks up it's sleeve but an eye-watering price-tag to match. The Shift could boot into either Windows Vista (which probably really, really counted against it in the long run) or an application called SnapVUE which was basically a specially-written mobile operating system. In order to accommodate these two OSes, the Shift required both an Intel x86 processor for Windows and an ARM11 CPU for SnapVUE. It came with a 40 or 60GB hard disk, a microSD slot, HSDPA and 3G data plus WiFi, a fingerprint reader and 1GB of RAM. Priced in the US at about $1500, when it finally did get to market in 2008 it was four times the price of a 7" Asus EEE PC.

It took a long time to come to market. It was not a sale success, but the 7" format ended up being a popular size for the tablets that were to come a few years later. But neither Windows Vista nor Windows Mobile 5.0 were ever really popular platforms, but eventually HTC switched its emphasis from Windows and produced the first Android smartphone. But that it another story.

Image source: HTC

Saturday 18 March 2017

Apple eMate 300 (1997)

Apple eMate 300
The history of Apple stretches back four decades. Sandwiched between the early successes of the 1970s to early 1980s and later dominance of the company in the twenty-first century, there was a long period during which Apple lost direction and at various points it seemed the company had no future.

One product from these years of doldrums was the MessagePad line, often simply known as the "Apple Newton" after the unique operating system. A tablet-sized device originally launched in 1993, the original MessagePad was an interesting idea, but it was too far ahead of the available technology to really be a success.

In March 1997 the most unusual addition to this range was launched - the eMate 300. Where previous MessagePads used a stylus and handwriting recognition, the eMate 300 was a different beast with a physical QWERTY keyboard housed in a colourful, oversized clamshell case. The eMate 300 was designed for use in schools, and the simple-to-use operating system and relatively inexpensive price tag (compared to other Apple products) along with the tough and rather funky green case reflected this. In many ways, the eMate 300 was a reflection of the original Mac when it came to being an all-in-one computing appliance.

The screen was a 6.8" 480 x 320 greyscale panel, a bit smaller than the display in an iPad mini but in a much bigger case. Users could store data on special flash memory cards, and there were various expansion capabilities including a PCMCIA slot. The CPU was a 25 MHz ARM 710 unit, perhaps foreshadowing the huge popularity of ARM processors in mobile devices today.

Although the eMate 300 was available for sale through educational channels only, some found their way into other applications. It was an interesting device, but it never reached its full potential and in February 1998 the recently-returned Steve Jobs killed the entire MessagePad / Newton product line.

The legacy of the MessagePad line is fairly obvious - the iPad and iPhone. The translucent case idea found critical acclaim with the original iMac, which helped to reverse Apple's declining fortunes. These days the eMate 300 is pretty much forgotten, due in part that it only really sold in educational circles and even those seemed to be in the United States only. These days there are quite a few eMate 300s available, with prices topping out at $150 or so for a good one.

Monday 13 March 2017

Ten years of "Google Phone" rumours

Just over ten years ago, Apple announced the first iPhone. But shortly after that rumours started to swirl that Google was working on a platform of its own. The then managing director of Google Iberia laid out plans to Spanish news site Noticias which presumably were meant to be a secret.

The general manager of Google Spain confirms that the company is working on the development of a mobile phone

14/03/07 - Estefanía Pérez
Isabel Aguilera, General Manager of Google in Spain and Portugal, has confirmed to that the company is working, "among others", in the development of a mobile phone. "A part of the time of our engineers we have dedicated to the investigation of a mobile phone to access information," Aguilera said.

Speculation about Google's possible entry into the area of ​​mobile phone design and sales came after the company recently posted a job advertisement seeking engineers and analysts in the telecommunications industry. In that same claim, Google specified that it is undergoing experimentation with various wireless communications systems.

In a conference on the integration of the Internet into business strategy, organized by the Association for the Progress of Mediterranean Area Management, Isabel Aguilera explained to that while 70% of engineers' time is spent "To develop our core business, that is, search and advertising," and 20% to develop "products that have enough to do with this core," it is true that 10% of that time is focused on development Of products "that at some point could have to do with our business."

Within this last area, Aguilera has indicated that "it has been investigated" in a mobile phone through which you can "access information", as well as "how to extend the information society in less developed economies ". In this sense, the Director General of Google in Spain and Portugal has pointed out that although "there may be products that may seem strange, they are all part of our innovation process."

At the moment, the search engine has 36 products and "18 others that are in the laboratory" and, therefore, undergoing experimentation, among which would be the mobile phone.

At the time we speculated over the possible features of a Google phone, and concluded that it would probably be a Linux-based phone with applications tightly integrated into Google services such as Gmail, Maps and Calendar once the user had logged in with their Google account. This seamless connectivity seemed pretty advanced for the time, but it is essentially what Google delivered.

We also speculated about possible partners, and in the end we thought the Nokia was the most likely.. but in the end they were one of the few major manufacturers not on board. It took another eight months for an official announcements to come out, naming the operating system as Android and the first handset (the T-Mobile G1) appeared in September 2008, a year and a half after the first rumours.

Almost immediately after Android came to market, it began to fragment with manufacturers doing their own thing. Google responded to this problem in 2010 with the first of a series of "Nexus" devices made with various partners, and in 2016 it went the whole way and launched a phone in it's own right, the Google Pixel.

T-Mobile G1 (2008)
In 2017 around nine out of ten new smartphones run Android, and almost all the rest are iPhones. Windows, BlackBerry and other platforms have been squeezed out almost completely, and profit margins have been squeezed too. Apple seems to be the only company consistently making any money, but as far as consumers are concerned Android has brought a huge variety of choice for people on all sorts of budgets and has helped to transform mobile computing completely.

Monday 6 March 2017

Nokia 6310i (2002)

Nokia 6310i (Silver)
Announced March 2002

There was some excitement last month over the supposed relaunch of the Nokia 3310. Although the 3310 was a popular consumer handset of the early noughties, business users had a similar love for the Nokia 6310i, launched in March 2002.

Quite a bit taller than most competing phones, most of the front of the device was taken up by an ergonomically-designed keypad with a 96 x 60 pixel monochrome display on the top with tasteful blue backlighting. The 6310i supported tri-band GSM, GPRS data, Java, infra-red connectivity and crucially it came with Bluetooth which made it ideal for business users.. in fact, Mercedes even supplied built-in cradles for this exact model of phone. The two most common colours where an attractive two-tone silver and a fairly foul black-and-gold.

Nokia 6310i (Black)

Like the 3310 it was robust and had an excellent battery life with over two weeks standby time and a maximum of six hours talktime. Snake and a couple of other games gave a nod towards non-work use, but it certainly couldn't play music and it didn't even come with a camera. Much more flexible than the 3310, it had some fairly useful personal information management tools built-in, and the inclusion of Java meant that new applications could be downloaded.

It was a hugely popular phone.. and this wasn't an accident. Nokia spent a great deal of time and effort researching what business customers wanted and they delivered exactly that. Even after the phone was discontinued in 2005 it was still in demand, and indeed today a "new old stock" or refurbished can range in price from between €150 to €400 or even more. Not bad for a fifteen year old phone that was not exactly rare.

Nokia could never quite repeat the success of the 6310i, although devices such as as the E50 came close in concept. And eventually the market moved on, within a few short years business users wanted email which led to the rapid growth of BlackBerry.

Image credit: Nokia

Apple Macintosh II and Macintosh SE (1987)

Apple Macintosh SE
Announced March 1987

Announced thirty years ago this month and three years after the original Mac, the Macintosh II and Macintosh SE both improved Apple's lineup, but in different ways.

The most obviously "Mac-like" one of the pair was the SE, which was actually the fifth classic Mac in the range (after the 128K, 512K and 512Ke and the Plus) and the first one to have an internal expansion slot ("SE" stood for "System Expansion"). As with the Mac Plus, the SE included an external SCSI port which was primarily used for mass storage devices. Inside was the familiar 68000 CPU clocked at 7.8MHz with 1MB of RAM as standard (upgradeable to 4MB) and there was an optional 20MB hard drive as well.

The Macintosh II was a very different proposition from the Classic Mac. The first colour Mac, the Mac II was also the first in the line to have the monitor and computer in separate boxes. Inside this was a 68020 CPU running at 16MHz with 1MB of RAM supplied as standard (expandable to 8MB). Monitors came in either 12" or 13" versions and could display up to 640 x 480 pixels in 256 colours, which was impressive for the time. The Mac II also had several internal expansion slots and could support a 40MB or 80MB hard disk in standard configurations.

Apple Macintosh II

Both devices were expensive, the SE starting at $2900 for a basic version with no hard drive, and the II coming in at a whopping $5500 or so. For the equivalent 2017 price you can basically double that.

The Mac II in particular was very much against the "computing appliance" idea that Steve Jobs championed with the original Mac, but he had been forced out of the company in 1985. At the time though, the Mac II didn't really have much competition apart from high-end workstations and probably the closest competition was the Commodore Amiga.  These two products heralded a period of strong revenue growth that came to an abrupt end in the mid 1990s, but despite that Apple became increasingly sidelined against IBM PC compatibles.

Today you can pick up Mac SEs of varying quality and specification for about €150 and upwards, the Macintosh II is a much rarer beast and is hard to put a price on.