Sunday 25 June 2017

Raytheon Radarange - the world's first microwave oven (1947)

Raytheon Radarange on board NS Savannah
Introduced 1947

During the second world war, a Raytheon engineer named Percy Spencer accidentally discovered the certain types of radar could heat food, by melting a candy bar in his pocket while standing in front of a radar set he was working on. A fortuitous accident perhaps, because it not only demonstrated the culinary potential of this type of electromagnetic radiation, but it possibly also taught Mr Spencer not to stand right next to this sort of equipment.

With the war being on, the exploitation of this particular discovery would  have to wait, but in 1947 Raytheon shipped thee world's first commercial microwave oven called the Radarange. At almost six feet tall and a third of a ton and a price tag equivalent to over $50,000 today it certainly wasn't for everyone but did find its way into some commercial operations.

It took twenty years for the microwave oven to start to make headway into to domestic market. Sold under the "Amana" name (a Raytheon subsidiary) the countertop Radarange was a similar size to ones today and sold for the equivalent of $4000.

Late 1960s domestic Amana Radarange
 Over the next decades the microwave oven became more efficient, added more features and most importantly it became much cheaper. Today a basic microwave oven will cost less than $100 in the US, and in most western households they are almost universal.

It took until the 1980s for the microwave-ready meal to start to appear, but when that happened the entire process of preparing a meal changed in many households. In most households the microwave oven is used for at least one thing a day. For better or for worse, this particular gadget - introduced seventy years ago - eventually ended up making a huge impact in the kitchen. You might even own one yourself.

Thursday 22 June 2017

Psion Series 5 (1997)

Psion Series 5 (1997)
Launched June 1997

Psion were an early pioneer in handheld computing, launching the Psion Organiser range in the mid-1980s and then following it up with more sophisticated devices. This lead to the Psion Series 5, launched in 1997. which was quite possibly the best device that Psion even made.

The technology of the late 1990s looks primitive compared to today, but the Series 5 certainly managed to squeeze a lot into a tiny form factor. Looking a bit like a pencil case from the outside, the Series 5 opened up to reveal a basic 5.6" 640 x 240 monochrome touchscreen (about the same size as a high-end smartphone of today), but the clever part was the keyboard. Opening the case made the keyboard slide forward, which counter-balanced the touchscreen and made it easier to type. These relatively large keys had a good amount of travel and it was feasible to touch-type on it.

The operating system was EPOC32, which in time became Symbian. Inside was an 18MHZ ARM processor with 4 or 8MB of RAM at launch, defending on configuration. Data could be stored on CompactFlash cards and the Series 5 could communicate via infra-red which was all the rage at the time. Power was provided by two AA batteries which could keep the Series 5 going for up to 35 hours and a button cell provided back-up for the memory.

Psion Series 5
The built-in applications were another strong point, with a competent suite that was compatible with industry standards of the time. A range of other applications were available too, making the Series 5 a very popular tool for gadget-savvy professionals and consumers alike. The high-end version was priced at £500 including tax (equivalent to about £860 today).

In 1999 the upgraded 5mx came out with slightly better hardware and software, including a web browser. A simplified version of the Series 5 called the Revo also came out in the same year. Despite some quirks and bugs, and the odd bit of fragile hardware it seemed that Psion was ready to conquer the world. But it didn't happen.

In 2001 with a very strong position in the handheld computing market and a number of promising devices in the pipeline, Psion suddenly killed off its consumer electronics division. Instead, Psion decided to concentrate on industrial and business handheld devices through its newly-acquired Teklogix division. In the turmoil that followed, many engineers and designers departed the company to new ventures, but perhaps most importantly the EPOC operating system was spun off to become Symbian, the operating system that dominated the smartphone market for years afterwards.
Psion Series 5 screenshot

Among the killed-off products were early smartphones, music players and satellite navigation devices. All of these were to boom a few years later, but they must have seen like a high-risk proposition at the time. A more complete picture of the turmoil at Psion at this time can be found in this long story published a decade ago by The Register.

Psion's move was maybe good business sense but it was also a huge loss to see this pioneering and successful British company suddenly deciding to play it safe. As it was, Psion continued as an independent entity until 2012 when it was bought out by Motorola Solutions, and in 2014 that division was in turn was bought by Zebra Technologies.

Even now the Psion Series 5 still has fans, and software and accessories are still available - there are even companies and people who will service them and fix common faults (typically the screen cable breaking). On the second-hand market the 5mx in good condition will typically cost more than £100 / €115 up to several hundred pounds for one in "as new" condition. The original Series 5 is a bit cheaper, the rarer 5mx Pro a little more expensive. It's still quite a usable device today, especially if you prefer a real keyboard to work from.

Image credits: Psion and Pinot Dita via Flickr

Friday 16 June 2017

O2 Cocoon (2007)

Announced June 2007

What would have happened if there was never an iPhone, and smartphones remained an expensive niche? Perhaps the interesting design of the O2 Cocoon gives us a few clues as to how design might have evolved.

Designed by a company called Syntes Studio in Sweden, the Cocoon was basically just a 3G feature phone at its heart. But it was the physical design of the Cocoon that set it apart. The phone had a curved case that gave it the "Cocoon" name, and that case could be mounted sideways into a docking station turning it into a music player or clock. A hidden display on the outside of the phone gave some basic readouts. The musical abilities were enhanced by an FM radio and a microSD slot for storing music.

Although the Cocoon wasn't as radical as the radical B&O Serene launched a couple of years earlier, there seemed to be some similar ideas at play. But unlike the exclusive and expensive Serene, the Cocoon was an inexpensive device that anyone could get from their O2 Store. The phone went on to be a modest success, but the market was changing and the iPhone launched in Europe just a few months after the Cocoon did.

These days Cocoons are hard to come by, but not expensive. As an interesting piece of Swedish design it is perhaps worth adding to your collection of esoteric devices.

Tuesday 13 June 2017

Microsoft Surface RT (2012)

Microsoft Surface RT (2012)
Announced June 2012

Sometimes product lines take a while to become a success. The Microsoft Surface range of hybrid tablets is one such example. Sitting in the gap between traditional tablets and laptops, the original Surface (later renamed as the Surface RT) was a very elegant and modern looking device running a version of Microsoft's then new Windows 8 operating system (called Windows RT).

Unlike most Windows systems, the original Surface ran on an ARM processor rather than an Intel compatible one. This put the Surface more on the tablet side of the fence - the slightly later Surface Pro had an Intel CPU and was just on the laptop side of the fence.

The Surface was originally pitched against the iPad, but one key difference was the detachable keyboard that the Surface could use. Another one was the kickstand to keep it upright. Of course, this was a Windows device.. And more to the point, it was a Windows RT device which meant that it could only use applications from the Windows Store. And it turned out that there weren't many of them to choose from..

The Surface came with both front and rear cameras, and you could plug USB devices into it which is impossible in most other tablets. It was also very stylishly designed, and the clip-on keyboard was another unique selling proposition. Windows RT was theoretically more capable that iOS or Android, but in the event it never got to shine.

Despite some promising features, the original Surface was not a success… and neither was the Windows RT operating system. Sales were sluggish and Microsoft ended up writing off nearly a billion dollars worth of unsold inventory. Windows RT was just too restrictive for many, and after about six months there were no new devices from any manufacturer launched.

However, Microsoft stuck with it. One key change in later versions was the switch to an Intel architecture, a move upmarket to something more laptop-like and a full version of Windows. After five years of trying, the current range of Surface devices are something of a success at the premium end of the market.

The Surface was not Microsoft's first foray into the hardware market - it has been producing mice, keyboard and consoles for years - but it was their first product of its type. It may well have been instrumental in persuading Microsoft that they could "do" hardware which the disastrous 2014 takeover of Nokia proved otherwise.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Acorn Archimedes (1987)

Acorn Archimedes A310 (1987)
Released June 1987

We've covered a few of the landmark devices in early personal computing such as the PET, Apple II from the 1970s, and the Atari ST and Amiga from the 1980s. But one of the most important computers to be launched in the mid 1980s is one that you may not even have heard of.

Released in June 1987, the Acorn Archimedes was a revolutionary computer in many ways… but the true revolution was what powered it. Thirty years ago, the Archimedes was the first consumer product to feature the ARM processor.

Today the ARM processor core is found in almost all smartphones, devices such as the Raspberry Pi and embedded systems in domestic appliances, cars and many more applications. Billions of devices with ARM processors have shipped worldwide in the past few decades, making it arguably the most popular processor platform in the world.

The ARM's debut was in a funny little computer made by Acorn Computer in the UK.  Acorn had some success selling their range of 8-bit BBC Microcomputers in Europe, especially to schools. Based on the popular 6502 processor from the 1970s, the BBC Micro had pushed the boundaries of what could be done with this technology and it was time to move on.

BBC A3000 (1989)
Acorn engineers Roger (now Sophie) Wilson and Steve Furber had been impressed by the speed and simplicity of the 6502, but they were also influenced strongly by research coming out of California into Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture which sought to make processors faster by making them simpler, which went against the trend of adding complexity.

To use an analogy - if you want to make a car faster you could either create a bigger engine with turbochargers and all sorts of electronic and mechanical trickery, or you could simplify the car and make it smaller and lighter. RISC architecture took the latter approach, and by making the design simpler they could make the processor very fast indeed. Colin Chapman of Lotus Cars famously said "simplify, then add lightness" which is exactly what the RISC processor did.

When the Archimedes hit the market, it wasn't the first RISC-based computer. But it was the first one aimed at consumers and schools, and it came at a time when most rivals such as the Amiga, ST and Apple Mac were running some sort of version of the older Motorola 68000 CPU. Where computers such as the Amiga were powerful because of the addition of coprocessors and other speed-enhancing technologies, the Archimedes was fast in its own right.

The 1987-era ARM was a 32 bit CPU running at 8MHz, in the Archimedes it would typically be paired with 1MB of RAM. Graphics and sound were pretty good for the time, and it could theoretically do everything that any other microcomputer of the era could do. One major problem was that the OS wasn't really ready at launch, with a simple GUI called "Arthur" giving way to the more capable RiscOS in 1989. Some models of the Archimedes were official "BBC Microcomputers" and had red function keys, the others were grey.
Acorn RiscPC (1994)

The Archimedes sold well into markets where Acorn already had a foothold with the 8-bit BBC. Educational markets in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand were a mainstay but the platform also appealed to hobbyists, computer scientists and others who wanted fast, cheap computing. Or those who wanted to play Zarch.

Over the next few years upgrades and variants came out, typically with faster CPUs but also with other performance additions. In 1994 the Archimedes was replaced by the RiscPC, but by then Acorn was coming to the end of its life.

In the end, two things killed Acorn. By the mid-1990s, IBM PC compatibles ruled the roost (unless you used a Macintosh). Sales were dwindling, but development costs were still high. It's quite possible that Acorn could have found its niche as a workstation manufacturer, but there was another problem..

..that problem was the company now called ARM Holdings. ARM Holdings (then ARM Ltd) was a venture between Acorn, VLSI Technology (who made the silicon, now part of NXP Semiconductors) and - perhaps surprisingly - Apple. Apple were interested in the ARM processor to power its MessagePad line, and although that device is considered a failure it did demonstrate the usefulness of the ARM CPU in mobile devices. On top of that, the small size of the ARM CPU core meant that it was ideal for embedded systems too.

RiscOS 4 OS (2001)
ARM Holdings didn't make the processors itself, but licenced the technology to others. During the 1990s the company had grown very quickly and was becoming quite valuable. As it happens, Acorn still owned a very large stake in ARM.. and the problem was that the stake was actually worth more than Acorn itself. So, anyone who bought out Acorn would instantly own an even more valuable set of stocks in ARM. And that is exactly what happened.

In the end, Acorn was broken up and the technologies were sold on to other companies where they either faded from view or ended up in odd places such as set-top boxes. However, the ARM processor was a huge success.

These days there is still a lively community around these devices, and Archimedes and RiscPC machines (and their variants) are pretty commonly available. You can even run a version of RiscOS on the ARM-based Raspberry Pi which kind of completes the circle. RiscOS Virtual Machines are available too.

In the end, the Archimedes is often an overlooked device. But the ARM processor it used was massively influential, and it's quite possible that RISC architecture would never have been so widespread without it. Today ARM Holdings is owned by Softbank of Japan and turns over around a billion pounds every year. Not a bad legacy for a little computer company.

Image credits:

Monday 5 June 2017

Apple II (1977)

Apple II (1977)
Released June 1977

Think of great Apple products. There’s the iPod, iPad and the iPhone which were all launched between 2001 and 2010, the original Apple Mac which was launched in 1984... and before that was the Apple II, launched in 1977.

Like all those other devices, the Apple II really represented a paradigm shift. It was one of the very first professionally designed, pre-built and fully-features microcomputers that just anybody with enough money could go out to buy.

Just one year previously, Apple had launched the Apple I. Technologically similar to the Apple II, Apple’s original computer didn’t even come with basic things such as a keyboard or case. The Apple II took those underpinnings, including the 6502 CPU, and created a computer “appliance” rather than a hobbyist kit.

As with the Apple I, Steve Wozniak designed the internals which Steve Jobs took on marketing and responsibility for industrial design. Jobs gave the task of designing the look of the Apple II to Jerry Manock, a fairly unsung hero of Apple design who was responsible for many of their early products.

Manock’s design of the system and many of its peripherals gave the Apple II a coherent and professional look. But inside, Wozniak had used several clever tricks to develop a machine that outclassed its early 8-bit opposition in many ways, in particular with rudimentary colour and sound. Added to that, the Apple II had impressive expansion capabilities including a variety of add-on cards that could eventually give SCSI, parallel and serial interfaces, and there were games paddles, disk drives and more. Peculiarly the Apple II was hindered by only being able to display uppercase characters.

VisiCalc (1979)
The introductory price in the US was just shy of $1300, which over $5000 in today’s prices. That seems like a lot, but you can easily spend that much money on a high-end Mac even today. The Apple II was a huge success, even at those prices, and in one form or another it continued on sale until 1993. It also helped to create the microcomputer software industry, including VisiCalc – the first electronic spreadsheet for personal computers.

The Apple II went through several fairly minor revisions during its 16 year lifespan. One reason for this unusual longevity was the II’s success in schools in the United States, where a wide range of software took advantage of the II’s colour capabilities.

For collectors, there are usually quite a range of Apple IIs available second-hand. Prices range from few hundred dollars for a basic system up to several thousand for rarer versions, including the original “Revision 0” units. Alternatively, software emulators are available for most platforms and are much cheaper.

Along with the Commodore PET and the Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80, the Apple II helped to introduce many households and businesses to computing and in doing so they changed the world forever.