Monday 21 August 2017

Stoned Virus (1987)

Stoned virus  hexcode
Created 1987

Computer viruses and other malware have been around for a long time, with early reports going back as far as 1982 with "Elk Cloner". However, one of the first really widespread viruses made an appearance thirty years ago - the Stoned virus.

Stoned first appeared in New Zealand in 1987 and spread on IBM PC compatibles via floppy disks. Now, it's quite possible that you have never used a PC with a floppy disk as they largely vanished from new PCs in the early 2000s, but on an early PC the floppy disk would be the A: drive (and if you had a second floppy, it would be the B: drive).

PCs would boot from the floppy first, even if they had a hard disk and because people would tend to leave floppy disks in the drive when they powered off the machine, this gave the virus an opportunity to spread. The PC would attempt to boot from the infected floppy and appear to fail - at which point most people just removed the floppy and pressed a key to boot from the hard disk. Unknown to them, the Stoned virus was then in memory and it would write itself to the hard disk when the machine booted up. One on the hard disk, Stoned would then try to infect all floppy disks put into the machine, and if an infected floppy was taken away and put in another PC then the process would begin again.
Ancient IBM PC of some description

The PC would sometimes display messages such as “Your PC is Now Stoned!” and “Legalize Marijuana” on boot up, and it would tend to corrupt anything other than basic 360Kb floppies. Other than that, it spread quietly.

And because the most common way to share files in those days was to swap floppy disks, spread it did. Not quickly at first, but like a zombie apocalypse eventually almost every PC in an organisation could become infected. And of course, any contemporary anti-virus product would stop it… but in those days many organisations didn’t take malware seriously or thought that security products were too expensive.

The virus continued to infect machines for years, but even though anti-virus software could stop the PC becoming infected then millions of floppy disks with it on meant that it would keep trying to come back. Eventually of course floppies fell out of fashion and then vanished altogether – and it’s quite likely that those decades-old disks have now degraded to the point of unreadability.

It wasn’t the last time that a virus used similar techniques to spread. The Conficker worm from 2008 could spread through USB devices and is still a problem nearly a decade later. Even more ancient malware such as the 2003 SQL Slammer worm still flares up from time to time. Of course, malware is not a gadget… but it seems to be an unwelcome companion to technological advances.

Image credits: Wikipedia and Luke Jones via Flickr

Saturday 19 August 2017

Samsung Galaxy Camera (2012)

Samsung Galaxy Camera
Launched August 2012

Smartphone cameras can be fantastic, making it easy to fix images on the fly, edit or filter them and then share them with others. The one thing that they really can't do well is zoom. Sure, you can zoom in on something digitally but the results tend to be poor and grainy... and smartphones tend to have pretty poor flash capabilities too. On the other hand, digital cameras can do a lot of clever things with zoom lenses and usually have bigger sensors leading to better images, but the software tends to be limited and often rather difficult to use.

So instead of trying to choose… why not have both? The Samsung Galaxy Camera (announced in August 2012) tried to do just that. Essentially, one side was a Samsung Galaxy S III and the other side was a compact Samsung digital camera with a 16 megapixel camera with a 21X zoom lens with a big 23mm aperture on it, all designed to give superior pictures over a smartphone.

Surely Samsung would be on to a winner with this? Well, there were a couple of problems. Firstly, this was a bulky device at more than 300 grams in weight and about 35mm thick where the lens was. So, a bit big for a phone… but apparently it was a bit so-so as a camera as well.

Despite the unique charms of the device, it never really sold well. However, Samsung stuck with the idea and launched the smaller Galaxy S4 Zoom and the high-end Galaxy NX in 2013, and both the Galaxy Camera 2 (without any cellular connectivity) and the phone-based Galaxy K Zoom in 2014. Other manufacturers tried the same thing, for example the Panasonic Lumix Smart Camera CM1. All met with similarly cool responses from consumers.

If you don’t mind being stuck with Android 4 then you can pick one of these interesting devices up for a typical price of around €160. There’s not currently anything quite like it on the market, so if you are prepared to put up with its limitations then it could still be fun.

Image credit: Samsung

Friday 11 August 2017

GPO Type 746 (1967)

GPO Type 746
Introduced 1967

Back in the stone ages... well, at least the 1960s... if you wanted to talk to someone a fair distance away there used to be a device called a telephone. And if you were living in the UK in the 60s, 70s or even 1980s then you probably had a GPO Type 746 in your house. Launched in 1967, the type 746 turned up absolutely everywhere.

Moulded in a variety of coloured plastics (grey! cream! black! two-tone green! and many - OK, a few - more) the Type 746 was introduced to a market apparently craving US-style telephones with... err... their curly cords. A simple enough design, the 746 was also nicely curved which gave it a friendly look. The loud mechanical bell could certainly give you a fright though.

Entirely electromechanical, telephone numbers were called using a rotary dial that basically made clicks down the line. One click for "1", two for "2" up to ten clicks for "0". Dialling a typical long-distance phone number would involve fifty to sixty clicks. If you got it wrong... you had to redial the whole thing. If the exchange connected you to the wrong number (a common occurrence)... you had to redial the whole thing. If the other number was engaged... you had to redial the whole thing. If you couldn't hear the person on the other end... I think you get the picture by now.

A telephone table was very sophisticated in those days
Telephone calls used to be expensive, so sometimes people would fit a lock into the rotary dial to stop unauthorised use. However, it was possible to bypass this by pressing the switch on the cradle down and up in rapid succession, for example clicking the switch ten times would dial the first "0" of a long-distance call, which you could then follow by the others.

As well as talking to people there were information services. Sort of. The speaking clock is still around today, but you could also listen to the latest records on Dial-a-Disc ("16") in case you didn't have a radio and wanted to PAY to listed to a cruddy tinny sounding song. If the cricket was on then Dial-a-Disc dropped off the air and you could listen to that instead. You could dial the operator on 100. If you dialled 192 you would get free directory enquiries, to help you find the number you needed. If you wanted to speak to someone local you would use a thing called a telephone directory, which was printed on processed wood pulp. Those were the days.

Most people didn't actually own their Type 746, but instead rented one from the GPO who provided the telephone service. Colours seemed to be a pot luck. The natural home for the telephone itself would be a small table in the hallway, as having one in the living room was often considered a bit gauche.

Mmm.. two-tone grey
Of course things got better with features such as push-button dialling, last number redial and even secrecy buttons. These days landlines remain an essential medium for elderly relatives, tech support scammers and telemarketers to get hold of you and in most cases not much else. Since almost all ADSL broadband connections also include a phone, which is probably the only reason a lot of people keep a landline.

There are lots of Type 746s available today, and a good one will cost you around £40 to £50 or so, but you’ll need to check that it has been converted for modern BT connections first. And you might not want to throw away your push-button model even if you do want to indulge in a bit of retro tech.

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Nokia and the pursuit of elegance

2007 was a key year for the mobile phone industry, when big-screen smartphones really started to capture the public imagination. However, over at Nokia this point hadn't really struck home and they continued to do what they had always been good at - making phones look interesting instead.

A number of product were launched in August 2007, but headlining the releases were the first two handsets of Nokia's "Prism" range - the 7900 and 7500. Both these phones featured a repeated triangular pattern across the front and back, and the same theme was carried on in the user interface itself. In most respects these were pretty conventional feature phones, with the 7500 being a standard GSM affair. However, the Nokia 7900 Prism was also an early example of OLED display technologies, and this supported 3G as well.

Nokia 7500 Prism (left) and 7900 Prism (right)

Moving away from the polarising design of the Prisms, the Nokia 6555 was an extremely elegant clamshell phone with a smooth and glossy outer case which maybe owed a little bit in design to the RAZR. This too was a 3G device, although the small 2.0" screen and 1.3 megapixel camera were a bit disappointing.

Nokia 6555
Where the 7-series phones tended to be fashion phones and the 6-series were "classic" phones, the 5-series were designed to be more fun to use. The Nokia 5310 XpressMusic had a similar technical specification to the 7500, but it was designed as a music player and could take an 8GB memory card. The 5610 XpressMusic added a slightly bigger screen and 3G support in a sliding body that still looked very much like a Nokia. Both these devices are good examples of the understated elegance that was always a characteristic of Nokia design.
Nokia 5310 XpressMusic (left) and 5610 XpressMusic (right)
All five of these devices were pretty much perfect examples of feature phones of the time. Indeed, Nokia still make devices that are pretty similar to this today. Of course, it's much harder to experiment with handset design when a modern smartphone is basically all touchscreen on one side, but it does sometimes seem that modern smartphone manufacturers don't try very hard.

Sunday 6 August 2017

TRS-80 Model I (1977)

TRS-80 Model I
Launched August 1977

1977 saw three key products launched that helped to bring microcomputers into homes and businesses. These were the Commodore PET, Apple II and the TRS-80 which was launched in August 1977.

The TRS-80 (later called the TRS-80 Model I) was sold worldwide through Tandy and Radio Shack stores, and used a Zilog Z80 processor - this gave the computer its "TRS-80" moniker. Designed relatively quickly, the TRS-80 was both versatile and troublesome which gave rise to a nickname of "Trash-80". Despite the problems, the TRS-80 was a significant commercial success and several other products were released under the "TRS-80" name over the years.

Back in 1977, Radio Shack owned over 3000 stores in the US with hundreds more worldwide either using the "Radio Shack" name or the "Tandy" name of its parent company. Inspired by the success of the Altair 8800 launched in 1974 and with a desire to sell higher-ticket items, Radio Shack engineers quickly designed an expandable fully-assembled computer with prices at launch as low as $500 (compared to $1300 for the Apple II).

TRS-80 with Expansion Interface
The original TRS-80 had its problems. Firstly, the ability to display lowercase characters was deleted in order to save a few dollars of the price, the supplied monitors were of questionable quality, the keyboards suffered from keybounce (where multiple characters get entered for one keypress), the cassette tape interface was unreliable, the floppy disk system was full of bugs, connectors ended up suffering from corrosion and the expansion interface would tend to make the whole computer reboot. The implementation of BASIC was also pretty crude and the operating system was somewhat primitive. The graphics were also crude, there was no support for colour and there was no sound.

Despite these the TRS-80 had the advantage that you could not only rock up to a Radio Shack store and buy one, but if it went wrong you could take it back to the same store and they would fix it. This was a huge advantage over Apple and Commodore who had to build up a distribution network through partners. The design was steadily improved and problems fixed by Tandy themselves, and a range of aftermarket accessories and replacements became available to fix some of the design defects.

Peripherals continued to become available, including hard disks and printers and joysticks and third party suppliers made a wide range of software available for the TRS-80 (even if Tandy didn't publicise the fact very well). Various operating systems were available too, some through Tandy and several more through third parties, giving the TRS-80 an appeal to tinkerers are well as the home and small business users it was aimed at.

TRS-80 Model III
The first major revision of the TRS-80 came in 1980 with the Model III (the Model II was something different) which moved everything into one box with better hardware and software overall. In 1983 the Model 4 was launched with further enhancements and the ability to run CP/M. There was also a transportable version launched the same year, the TRS-80 4P, and the final model released was the 4D in 1985 – this model remained available until 1991.

The Model I and its successors sold well in North America and Germany, but not so well in other markets such as the UK. Although the TRS-80 name found its way onto many other computers of varying success, these were all largely incompatible as they had very different architectures. Over the next few years Tandy’s microcomputer business continued to grow and they manufactured a variety of systems for other companies as well as their own. However, in 1993 Tandy quit making computers and sold its assets to AST.

Tandy and Radio Shack continued going, but a slow decline had set in. In 2015 Tandy/Radio Shack declared bankruptcy, followed by a buyout and another bankruptcy in 2017. At present a few stores are left trading, but the once great Tandy/Radio Shack empire is just a faint echo of what it once was.

These days if you are after any model of TRS-80 will will probably have to import one from the US (remember in Europe you'll need a transformer else you will blow the power supply). Prices go up to about $500 or so depending on model and specifications.