Wednesday 19 April 2017

Hewlett-Packard HP-01 (1977)

HP HP-01
Launched 1977

Wearable technology is nothing new. Forty years ago we saw the first digital watches, but even then some companies thought that the little computer on your wrist could do so much more. One such company was Hewlett-Packard, who decided to combine the functions of one of their famous line of calculators with a digital watch to come up with something quite unique.

The HP-01 was what Hewlett-Packard called a "wrist instrument". Along the top were nine seven-segment LED displays, underneath were 28 keys. Four keys were raised (Date, Alarm, Memory and Time) so they could be pressed with a finger, two semi-recessed keys (Read/Recall/Reset and Stopwatch) plus 22 recessed keys that you pressed with the supplied stylus which was either a mini one hidden in the wristband or the end of a specially-designed pen.

Inside were three batteries, two to power the display and one to power the tiny logic board. These batteries could be changed by a jeweller, or HP sold a special kit so that the user could change them. The watch itself was either housed in a steel or gold casing.

It was much more than a digital watch with a calculator added on, because the HP-01 treated the time and date as just another data type. Rather like a modern spreadsheet application, you can take the time and perform mathematical functions on it.. but the HP-01 does it in real time. As an example, if you are making an expensive long-distance phone call then the HP-01 can be programmed to tell you how much it is costing in real time. The HP-01 was also cleverly future-proofed with a "21" button allowing dates to be programmed for the 21st century.

HP-01 ad, 1978. Click to enlarge.
The HP-01 was certainly clever, but it was also a product desperately seeking a market. One pitch was aimed at lawyers:
Truly, with HP-01, you have a professional instrument capable of meeting a broad spectrum of your professional needs. It can handle everthing from remembering dates on the court calendar to calculating your time costs.

It can remind you of an important call up to four days in the future. And then tell you the number to call.

It can compute how much interest your money will earn or convert the time spent with clients into accurate calculations of fees.

In short, the professional applications are virtually unlimited.
With prices starting at $650 for the base model (more than $2500 today) the HP-01 was quite expensive. It was also bulky and rather tricky to use and despite its unique qualities, it was not a success. HP did experiment with an upgraded version, but in 1979 they threw in the towel and production of the HP-01 ceased. The HP-01 was Hewlett-Packard's first and last digital watch.

Today the HP-01 is a fairly rare device, with prices starting just shy of €1000 for one in a reasonable condition up to several thousand euro for really good models. Of course, any type of contemporary smartwatch is several orders of magnitude more powerful... but even those devices are still solutions looking for a problem.

Monday 17 April 2017

Nokia 8800 Sirocco Gold (2007)

Nokia 8800 Sirocco Gold
Launched April 2007

A decade ago there were two approaches to making a high-end phone. You could either make a high-end smartphone with all the features that you could squeeze in, or you could take an existing phone and bling it up a bit. Nokia took the latter approach with the Nokia 8800 Siricco Gold.

The Nokia 8800 was always a high-end handset. The original 2005 version was launched at a price of around €800, and the 2006 "Sirocco" update was even more expensive. In 2007, a gold edition of the Sirocco was announced costing an eye-watering €1000 plus tax.

The most obvious feature was the 18 carat gold plating on top of the sliding metal case. The 8800 had always been a good looking handset, but not necessarily a very practical one. It wasn't a smartphone, instead this was a Series 40 feature phone lacking even 3G support. The scratch-resistant 1.7" 208 x 208 pixel display was pretty good for a feature phone, it had a two megapixel camera, Bluetooth and an FM radio. Although it could play MP3s, the storage capacity was just 128MB and there was no memory slot. On top of that it had some special ringtones, a charging stand and it came in a nice box.

Gold-plated phones polarise opinion. Some people think that they are elegant and attractive, others think they are tacky and rather gauche. Regardless, the 8800 was a carefully engineered product which would turn heads even in the plain stainless steel form.

OK, so it had a shiny yellow coating, the screen had sapphire glass and it was very carefully engineered... but underneath it was just a cheap and cheerful Series 40 feature phone with a very high price tag. So, almost inevitably there were forgeries..

There were three main ways to faking the 8800 Sirocco Gold. One was to start with the normal 8800 Sirocco and plate it in yellow metal. The second was to take another cheaper model of Nokia phone and to install the internal components and screen into a fake 8800 housing. Some even just fabricated a clone of the whole phone with a rip-off version of the OS. The last two techniques had been used for make fake 8800s ever since they came out.

Even today, the 8800 Sirocco Gold is a minefield for collectors with many fakes still in circulation. Prices on eBay vary wildly from less than €50 to over €1500 depending on condition, and it isn't easy on an auction site to tell a real one from a fake.

The 8800 wasn't the only massively expensive Nokia feature phone, as pretty much the entire Nokia-owned Vertu range pulled off the same trick but were even more exquisitely engineered and expensive. The 8800 Arte and 8800 Carbon Arte followed in late 2007 and 2008, and the similar 8600 Luna followed in May 2007. Even though there remains a market for low-tech high-end phones, most people these days would probably sooner have a good smartphone for the money instead.

Image source: Nokia

Monday 10 April 2017

IBM PS/2 (1987)

Launched April 1987

In 1981 IBM launched its first mass-market microcomputer, the IBM PC. The upgraded XT followed in 1983 and in 1984 the significantly more advanced 286-based AT hit the market. Based mostly on off-the-shelf components, the IBM PC became a huge success.. but it didn't take long for upstart competitors to make computer that were either faster or cheaper than IBM's (often both).

With the PC, IBM had created a monster but they began to realize that they no longer controlled the monster. IBM's response was to try to create a new monster that it could control more easily. As a result they developed the IBM PS/2 and the OS/2 operating system. Neither succeeded.

IBM PS/2 range

There were technical limitations with the IBM PC. Essentially based on software and hardware rooted in the 1970s, IBM was looking forward to the 1990s. The idea with the PS/2 was to introduce multitasking, plug-and-play expansion cards, better memory management and of course more powerful processors. Obviously, these were things that customers wanted too - but IBM decided that customers didn't need much in the way of backwards compatibility, and customers decided that... well, they did actually... and they stayed away in droves.

It's easy to criticise IBM for wanting to push things forward even if customers were resistant, but the place IBM was in during the late 1980s was not the same place as Apple in the late 2010s. Companies such as Compaq could offer something better than the IBM PC while still being compatible, where the PS/2 wasn't. In changing direction, IBM lost what little control it still had over the PC marketplace.

The OS/2 operating system was late as well. Originally developed by both IBM and Microsoft the idea was to create a next-generation version of Windows based on the OS/2 core. However, the first really usable version of OS/2 appeared a year after the PS/2 leaving early versions of the hardware running IBM's version of MS-DOS (called PC-DOS). It took until the mid-1990s for OS/2 to become rather good with the launch of OS/2 Warp, but by that time it was competing against both Windows 95 and Windows NT.

The PS/2 soldiered on into the 1990s and it was accompanied by some desperate efforts by IBM to regain market share, such at the PC compatible PS/1, Aptiva, NetVista and ThinkCentre ranges. It took IBM nearly two decades to throw in the towel, divesting the PC business to Lenovo in 2005.

Oddly enough though, the PS/2 was hugely influential in other ways. The PS/2 introduced VGA graphics and the 15 pin D-type cable still seen today (just about), it helped popularise the 3.5" floppy drive and memory on 72-pin SIMM modules, and it created the mini-DIN connection for mice and keyboards commonly known as a PS/2 connector. All of these features ended up in the products of rivals. Not least the PS/2 range was nice to look at, giving a welcome boost to standards of industrial design.