Friday 21 December 2018

2018: things that didn’t quite make the cut

We’ve covered a range of stuff this year, as far back as 1888 and through to 1928, 1938, 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013 (phew!). But quite a few things also had anniversaries this year. Here are some that we didn’t get to cover.

If you like spicy food, then there’s a good chance that you own some Tabasco sauce. The tabasco peppers the sauce contains originally came from the Mexican state of the same name, but the Tabasco branded sauce you typically see comes from Louisiana where both it and the McIlhenny Company were created in 1868.

One thing that you could put a dash of Tabasco in would be a Cup Noodle. Introduced by Nissin into Japan in 1958, the Cup Noodle eventually spread throughout the world, inspiring other very similar brands such as Pot Noodle in the UK.

Tabasco Sauce (1868), Cup Noodle (1958), Pepsi Cola (1898)
If you were looking for a beverage to wash your spicy Cup Noodle down with, Pepsi-Cola was invented in 1898 or you could try some Vimto, invented in Manchester in 1908 and popular with members of temperance societies who didn’t drink alcohol. Vimto also because a hit in many Muslim countries for the same reason.

1958 saw a peculiarly American take on a Scandinavian favourite with the launch of Swedish Fish. A brightly-coloured remake of the salty liquorice original, Swedish Fish remain popular in the United States today, although they contain no actual fish. Similarly, Jelly Babies contain no actual babies, but are also squishy and brightly coloured. Bassetts launched their well-known take on Jelly Babies in 1918.

Vimto (1908), Swedish Fish (1958), Jelly Babies (1918)

Back in Sweden, 1978 saw the launch of perhaps the most recognisable SAAB automobile, the SAAB 900. Spending 15 years in product, the 900 was an understated yet rather desirable car that showed Swedish engineering at its finest… and most quirky. One thing that drivers of the SAAB 900 would find interrupting their otherwise enjoyable journey were traffic lights, first introduced in London in December 1868. This gas-powered traffic light was short-lived however, as it exploded the following month. It took another half century or so for the idea to gain popularity… but my goodness, it did.

More entertaining than traffic lights, the LP record was launched by Columbia Records in 1948. Starting a familiar pattern of trying to squeeze more entertainment into a physical format, technologies such as the LaserDisc, CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays really just followed the LP’s lead.

SAAB 900 (1978), Traffic Light (1868), LP Record (1948)
1918 saw the creation of the electronic flip-flop, a bistable circuit that can be used to save a 0 or a 1, and is therefore an important step into creating modern computing.  Three-quarters of a century later this led to the not exactly awe-inspiring Atari Jaguar and Amstrad Mega PC consoles, plus the Apple MessagePad PDA. But apparently there was a lot of other stuff along the way too.

Flip-Flop (1918) plus Atari Jaguar, Amstrad Mega PC, Apple MessagePad (1993)

In the online world, the process of connecting computers together to share information was given a boost by the invention of the modem in 1958, allowing computers to communicate over plain old telephone lines. 30 years later this allowed many Internet-connected computer users to talk to each other using Internet Relay Chat, and 5 years after THAT - in 1993 -  these technologies had grown into the nascent World-Wide Web and the world’s first recognisable search engine was born… no, not Google but something called JumpStation.

Modem (not actually a 1958 model), Jumpstation (1993), Internet Relay Chat (1988)

What can we look forward to next year? We see the anniversaries of such diverse products as TiVO, the Intel 486, Sinclair ZX80, Lunar Lander and... err, the Toyota Crown S130. Not all breakthroughs are as obvious as you would think. In the meantime, enjoy a mince pie - first introduced into Europe in the 13th Century.

Image credits:
g4ll4is via Flickr
Rainer Zenz via Wikimedia Commons
Qirille via Wikimedia Commons
Wapster via Flickr
Swedennewyork via Flickr
Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr 
Huynh Phuc via Wikimedia Commons 
Raysonho via Wikimedia Commons
Sheila Scarborough via Flickr
Turbojet via Wikimedia Commons
Evan-Amos via Wikimdia Commons
Association WDA via Flickr
MKFI via Wikimedia Commons
Frederik Ramm: Recherchieren und Publizieren im World Wide Web
Darkbear via Wikimedia Commons

Friday 14 December 2018

Simon (1978)

Launched 1978

Forty years ago the microprocessor revolution was bringing affordable and usable computers into homes, businesses and schools. But at the same time we were seeing the first practical and engaging electronic toys.

Launched in late 1978, Milton Bradley’s Simon game was an electronic version of the playground game “Simon Says” - only here the Simon itself had four brightly-colour plastic buttons that lit up with an accompanying musical note, and players had to copy the ever-more-complex sequences.

The concept of the Simon was based in part on Atari’s 1974 arcade game “Touch-Me”. Where that was a coin-operated monster, the Simon itself was a handheld device and was an elegant piece of industrial design.

Inside was a customised version of the Texas Instruments TMS 1000 chip that was also the heart of the TI Speak & Spell. It was simple to use and fun to play, and massively popular. Unfortunately the bulbs used to light it up had a habit of failing and would sometimes need replacing, and then of course there was the issue of batteries...

The Simon was a significant sales success and variants of it are still on sale today, although these days under the “Hasbro” brand, or alternatively original versions are pretty commonly available and cost around the same as a new one.

Image credit: Conrad Longmore via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 12 December 2018

LaserDisc (1978)

Either a LaserDisc or a CD being held by a very tiny person
Introduced December 1978

You might think that movies on disc started with DVDs in the late 1990s, but in fact the idea was first explored commercially in 1978 with the LaserDisc, sold at the time as the MCA DiscoVision. Although it was only ever a niche product appealing to people who like their movies very much, the LaserDisc paved the way for CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays.

Unlike modern digital discs, the LaserDisc stored video tracks in an analogue format, in the same way that VHS tapes did. Compared to modern methods, this is relatively inefficient and in order to fit a meaningful amount of video on video onto them, they were made in a 12” format (much like an LP record). Depending on which format the disc was, it could store up to 60 minutes of video on each side, although with many players you would physically need to flip the disc over after the hour was up.

The main competition at the time was VHS. Although VHS tapes were smaller and easier to handle, LaserDisc had nearly twice the horizontal resolution and (if handled carefully) a much greater lifespan. As with a modern DVD, it was possible to skip through parts of the film without having to wait for (seemingly) ever as the tape rewound or fast forwarded. Theoretically, LaserDiscs should have been cheaper than VHS tapes too, but in the end VHS could leverage the economy of scale to bring the price down.

Market penetration was not huge – by the late 1990s 2% of US households had one, but the format stayed around until 2001 when DVDs finally got good enough to replace LaserDiscs in quality terms, but even then the differences were marginal and it wasn’t until the introduction of Blu-ray that the quality of LaserDisc was definitely beaten.

Because of its analogue nature, the quality of playback varied depending on the quality of the device. Today, a good quality player can cost hundreds of pounds, or even £1000 plus if it comes with movies. And although these technological relics are somewhat impractical,  for collectors of esoteric entertainment equipment they may well make a worthwhile addition.

Image credit: Windell Oskay via Flickr

Saturday 8 December 2018

Doug Engelbart's Mother of All Demos (1968)

9th December 1968

Video conferencing, the computer mouse, hypertext and windowing systems, collaborative working, computer graphics, networks of computers… it all sounds very contemporary. But we are not talking about now – it is San Francisco in December 1968, and THIS is The Mother of All Demos.

Presented by Doug Engelbart, a pioneer of early computing and frankly a genius, this technology demonstration combined almost all the elements of modern computing decades before they hit the mainstream. Back in the 1960s, computers were seen primarily as number crunchers, but Engelbart and his team at the Stanford Research Institute were more interested in how humans could interact with computers and use them to extend their own capabilities.

Using a combination of modems, microwave links, video cameras, projectors and start-of-the-art computer equipment, Engelbart and his team wowed the thousand people or so watching his 90 minute presentation. And although the technology was being pushed to its limits, many of the audience were inspired to take the concepts and improve on them, including many other people who became pioneers in the early computing industry. Several of the ideas were picked up in the Xerox Alto five years later, and that in turn inspired the Mac and Windows operating systems.

The name “The Mother of All Demos” came much later of course, applied to the talk in the 1990s when the true extent of its influence had become apparent (and named after Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of All Battles” earlier that same decade). In retrospect, this was an under-rated but highly significant 90 minutes that helped to shape the future of technology, and that even 50 years later is still relevant. Although it took a while, from the late 1980s onwards Engelbart received many honours, including one from Bill Clinton. He died in 2013 aged 88.

The talk was recorded for posterity, and there are several versions available including an interactive and annotated one or a YouTube playlist showing the highlights, or a 17 minute version below.

Thursday 6 December 2018

Kogan Agora and Agora Pro (2008)

Announced December 2008

When Android was launched in 2007 there was great anticipation about what the first handset would look like, and in September 2008 we saw the launch of the world’s first Android smartphone – the T-Mobile G1.

Although the G1 was OK, you needed to be a T-Mobile customer to get it in most regions and it lacked the polish and elegance of the iPhone 3G. There was a lot of excitement over what Android phone would come next, but it nobody expected it to come from Kogan.

If you don’t live in Australia there is a good chance you haven’t heard of Kogan. Founded in 2006 but twenty-something entrepreneur Ruslan Kogan, the company at first was involved in selling electronics such as TV sets. Over the years Kogan’s retail offerings have expanded and started to include financial products, travel services and it became an internet service provider. All of this expansion was no doubt made a little easier by the absence of Amazon until November 2017, allowing Kogan to grow massively. But back in 2008 while a relatively small company, it decided to branch out into the smartphone market.

Unlike most electronics retailers, Kogan worked closely with the east Asian manufacturers of their products to come up with new products. To this end they announced the closely related Kogan Agora and Agora Pro Android smartphones in December 2008.

Kogan Agora Pro. A camera! WiFi! GPS!
The standard Agora had a 2.5” 320 x 240 pixel touchscreen display, 3.5G support and… errr… well, not much more it turns out because the Agora was strictly a misery-spec smartphone, but then it did only cost AU$299 or about £175. If you wanted essentials such as WiFi, GPS and a camera you’d need to fork out AU$399.

The BlackBerryesque design of the Agora didn’t seem that odd back in 2008, both because of the prevalence of BlackBerry handsets themselves, and the fact that there had only been one Android handset to date – the G1 – and that too had a physical keyboard. In truth though the need for a physical keyboard was a limitation of early versions of Android, as Google’s prototype (and touchscreen-less) Sooner handset demonstrated.

It might seem obvious to us today that the Agora wasn’t going to have the appeal that the big-screen G1 did, and indeed Kogan got cold feet shortly before the launch and effectively cancelled the product. There was an outcry at the time and accusations that it had all been a publicity stunt, but the Agora does seem to be under-powered in retrospect.

Other manufacturers tried a similar format, the Samsung Galaxy Pro and HTC ChaCha being examples. None of these have been particular popular, although BlackBerry persists with physical keyboards today.

The Agora never made it to be the second Android phone to market, instead it was a keyboardless version of the G1 known as the HTC Magic. A few months later though, Samsung debuted the I7500 Galaxy which brought forth an enormous family of hundreds of other Galaxy handsets. The flop with the Agora didn’t do Kogan much harm in the end either, and they use the Agora name today for their current crop of smartphones.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Nokia 3200 and 7200 (2003)

Launched November 2003

These days all phones tend to look rather similar, but in the early noughties Nokia came up with some interesting ideas to come up with something different. Unlike some of the more unusable ideas, the Nokia 3200 and 7200 were much more conventional –and usable - devices.

Nokia 3200

Nokia had pioneered the idea of Xpress-on covers where you could change the look of your phone by changing the panels, indeed you can still do that today. The Nokia 3200 took it further – it was a phone where you could design your own covers and make your handset truly unique.

The secret was the transparent case, underneath this you could fit covers you printed out yourself with any design you wanted, or you could use one of small selection of pre-printed covers. The phone itself was a rather basic 2G affair but it did come with a built-in flashlight. And of course the Nokia of 2003 gave you a weird keypad too which could be a bit tricky to use.

Adding something like this to a modern smartphone would be possible but perhaps tricky, and indeed one of the criticisms of the 3200 was the flimsy-feeling case.

Nokia 7200

Rather more upmarket but still visually unique was the Nokia 7200. This was Nokia’s first clamshell phone, and instead of going for something bland and silver they came up with something much more imaginative.

The key fashion feature of the 7200 was the fabric Xpress-on covers. These came with a matching bag and also matching themes on the phone itself. A sort of retro-futuristic design overall made the 7200 look very different from the competition.

From both a tactile and design point of view, fabric seems like an obvious choice for a smartphone cover. Sadly it seems not to be a choice that modern manufacturers are willing to offer.

Both the Nokia 3200 and 7200 are pretty commonly available second-hand with prices for the 3200 starting at £30 or so and the 7200 starting at about £60. Although neither phone changed the world, their design is certainly an antithesis to modern blandness.

Image credits: Nokia

Saturday 17 November 2018

BlackBerry Storm 9500 (2008)

Launched November 2008

By late 2008 it was nearly two years after the launch of the original iPhone, but there was still everything to play for in the newly popular smartphone market. Nokia had launched the 5800 XpressMusic, Google had partnered with HTC to make the T-Mobile G1 and even Windows phones were showing some useful developments. But nothing could quite manage the polish and attention to detail that Apple had.

So when RIM started working on a touchscreen device there was much anticipation that their expertise would come up with something class leading. When the BlackBerry Storm 9500 was announced in a blaze of publicity and it was dubbed an “iPhone Killer”.

On paper it looked pretty good. The screen was a bit smaller than the iPhone but had a higher resolution, the camera looked promising, it had GPS support, a removable battery and expandable memory but for some baffling reason there was no WiFi. Expectations about the software were very high, RIM having gained a reputation for making an effective platform for both businesses and consumers.

In reality the BlackBerry Storm was a disaster. One of the main problems was the screen – instead of making a simple touchscreen, RIM had tried to reproduce the feel of a traditional keypad using a system called SurePress, which simulated having to press down on the screen to do something. It was awful, in particular when used with the virtual keyboard. But it didn’t stop there, the entire user interface was a badly-implemented rehash of traditional BlackBerries and it lacked the ease-of-use that Apple was offering. Despite the proven strengths of RIM’s software offerings, the user experience was pretty abysmal.

But there was more – the camera should have been better than the iPhone but really only produced fuzzy approximations of real life, the lack of WiFi turned out to be a big deal, it was slow and had limited memory, and it was much chunkier than the iPhone to carry about.

In short, it was a disaster. Famously, Stephen Fry gave it a withering review while at the same time praising the BlackBerry Bold 9000, concluding that “the Storm could teach an industrial vacuum pump how to suck”. While other reviewers were perhaps less eloquent, the feelings were very widespread. And although initial sales were not bad, word quickly got around and it was widely recognised for the lemon it was.

RIM took on board the criticisms and fixed at least some of the problems with the Storm2 launched a year later. The Storm2 added WiFi and improved the user interface and tricky SurePress display, but the Storm’s reputation preceded it, and because the Storm2 was basically a bugfix the specifications were looking rather out-of-date in late 2009.

In 2010, BlackBerry tried again with the Torch which combined both the touchscreen and a slide-out physical keyboard. It was a moderate success, and quite popular with existing BlackBerry customers but it didn’t win anyone else over. In 2013, RIM tried again with the all-touch BlackBerry Z10 which ended up as an even bigger disaster than the Bold. Overall, you could say that RIM didn’t have much luck with touchscreen devices.

If you like to collect high-profile failures, the BlackBerry Storm is easy to come by and inexpensive with prices starting at £30 or so for good ones, and up to £90 for “new old stock” with the marginally more useful Storm2 coming in at a little more.

Image credits: RIM / BlackBerry

Monday 12 November 2018

Nokia 6810 and 6820 (2003)

"Ta-dah!" - the Nokia 6280 shows off its party trick
Launched November 2003

A pair of handsets from Nokia’s “weird phase” in 2003, the Nokia 6800 series of devices attempted to make messaging easier by adding a large keyboard, while at the same time keeping the size and weight down to that of a standard mobile phone.

Both phones were derived from the original Nokia 6800 launched the previous year and copied the novel unfolding keyboard that it had pioneered. Cleverly hidden underneath the numeric keypad was a QWERTY keyboard which opened up by a hinge halfway up the screen. This led to the unusual layout of having half the keyboard on each side of the display.

The Nokia 6810 was a straight upgrade of the previous year’s phone, but adding Bluetooth in addition to the FM radio the 6800 had. The Nokia 6820 came with a basic CIF camera and a more compact keyboard which meant that the phone was more compact than the 6810. The 6820 was sold more to consumers, the 6810 was marketed at businesses – especially for email.

The 6810 and 6820 were certainly a triumph of industrial design and they certainly had the “wow factor” when opened up. However, the keyboard arrangement forced you to use two hands (unlike a contemporary BlackBerry) and the whole thing definitely looked rather strange.

They were a niche success in the end, and although sales were quite low these funny little handsets did have their fans. Two years later, Nokia tried the same format again with the Nokia E70. This was a much better phone all around, but it still failed to break the mould in the way Nokia would have hoped.

These handsets are quite collectable today, with prices starting at around £40 or so and going to up a couple of hundred for ones in perfect condition. They’re an interesting glimpse into what might have been, and are certainly testament to Nokia’s efforts in coming up with new ideas… even if you really wouldn’t want to be seen using one in the street.

Image credit: Nokia

Thursday 8 November 2018

Dial W for Weird: The Strange First Days of 3

Back in the early days of 3G handsets, it seemed that nobody really knew what the next-generation of mobile phones would look like. Companies such as Siemens came up with some wild-looking concepts which never made it to production. We take a look back to some of the early phones available on the fledgling 3 network in the UK, when handsets were scarce and phones were... weird.

Motorola A920 and A925

Motorola A920 and A925
Motorola was also a key player in early 3G handsets, with the A920 and A925 perhaps being somewhat recognisable precursors of today’s smartphones. In addition to 3G support, the A920 and A925 had a 2.8” touchscreen display, ran the Symbian operating system with the UIQ touch interface, and had GPS support and the single swivelling camera could be used for basic photography and video calling. Although the screen was relatively large for its day, the huge bulk of the handset dwarfed it and made it look relatively small.

The differences between the A920 and A925 are mostly cosmetic – the A920 launched first with all the design charm of 1960s East German tractor factory. After working frantically together, Motorola and 3 came up with the A925 which had the design charm of a 1980s East German tractor factory. This was progress of sorts.

NEC E808

Perhaps the most striking phone in 3’s early line-up was the NEC E808, which was one of those visionary devices that demonstrated that neither carriers nor manufacturers really knew what consumers wanted.

Rather beautifully engineered in black and chrome, the E808 had a full QWERTY keyboard and a relatively large 2.8” display along with both front and rear-facing cameras. It looked like a tiny laptop computer, but the reality was a bit disappointing. The large display only had a resolution of 162 x 132 pixels, and because 3 had a “walled garden” approach to the internet in most regions, you couldn’t actually browse the web. You could use the keyboard for text messages and emails, but the phone was too limited to do much else. You could make video calls on it though – this was a big thing for 3G networks – but in reality, hardly anybody did.

NEC E808 and E808Y
It didn’t take too long for NEC to come out with a more sober version of the E808 called the E808Y which transformed the elegant but enormous clamshell into something that looked rather more BlackBerryesque. Essentially though the hardware was unchanged other than its looks, and again it promised rather more than it could deliver.

Nokia 7600

But if you thought that the E808 misjudged the market... there was Nokia. Their mainstream 3G phone was the batshit-crazy Nokia 7600 which so fundamentally missed the needs of potential customers that it ended up being a high-profile disaster. The insane keyboard, tiny screen and lack of video calling just made it rather pointless.

Nokia 7600
Customers of that era would obviously want a Nokia, but they didn’t want THIS Nokia. There was another 3G Nokia handset available, the 6650. But you couldn’t have that. Oh no, that would be TOO easy. Even with heavy discounting, consumers stayed away from the 7600 in droves.

NEC E616 / E616V

NEC E616

Admittedly these weren’t the only phones, but the NEC E606 and Motorola A830 were like the last kids to be picked for the team, and they were never going to win 3 any medals. By late 2003 there was finally a less awful handset in 3’s line-up, the NEC E616.

The E616 looked rather nice, although like all 3G phones at the time it was a bit large. Two separate front and back facing cameras delivered on the promise of video calling without having to swivel a camera around, there was expandable memory and a decent media player and the 2.2” screen may not have been very good but the 176 x 240 pixel resolution was better than most. The E616 did have a pretty rubbish main camera though at just 352 x 240 pixels, but this was rapidly replaced with the E616V which boasted 640 x 480 pixels.

It took a long time for 3G phones to be the standard – a big problem for 3G-only networks such as 3. The market took about 5 years to fundamentally shift away from 2G with the rise of the Android platform helping to drive high-speed data use. Today most these curious relics of early 3G telephony are still fairly easy to find and not expensive.

Image credits: NEC, Motorola, Symbian, Nokia, TimSE via Wikimedia Commons, Conrad Longmore via Wikipedia, Retromobe

Friday 26 October 2018

Motorola MPx200 (2003)

Motorola MPx200
Launched October 2003

Fifteen years ago we started to see the first widely-available smartphones. Built on Symbian or Windows technologies, these devices came in all shapes and sizes and although some are recognisable precursors of the phones we use today, many concepts anded up as dead ends.

Motorola added another alternative form factor to the market with the Motorola MPx200, a Windows-based clamshell phone which looked for all the world like a normal feature phone until you powered it on.

Although it seems odd to have a clamshell smartphone, it made a lot of sense. In particular, clamshell phones of the time had more space to play with inside. The MPx200 came with a relatively large 2.2” 176 x 220 pixel panel as a result, and the keypad was nicely spaced and not cramped.

The main selling point was Windows, and this was both a strength and weakness for the MPx200. Managing to squeeze much of the functionality of a PDA into a compact unit with wireless connectivity, Motorola came up with something that could potentially be very versatile… and perhaps it had the potential to be very popular.

But the MPx200 was deeply flawed. Firstly, the Windows Smartphone 2002 operating system was already out of date with most rivals using the improved 2003 version. It also lacked Bluetooth, something that was rapidly becoming an essential component of any business phone. Added to that, the device was slow and not very reliable. There was also no camera, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for a business phone but was off-putting for individual consumers.

Despite its flaws, it was quite a successful device in terms of sales. But as with many Motorola products of that era, the MPx200 promised more that it delivered. In mid-2004, Motorola replaced the MPx200 with the much improved MPx220 which wasn’t particularly successful. Perhaps if Motorola had waited until they got the formula right then they might have had more success. For collectors of esoteric smartphones, the MPx200 isn’t too hard to find and is fairly inexpensive but the MPx220 is rather more difficult to locate and tends to be a bit pricier.

Image credit: Motorola

Thursday 25 October 2018

Apple Macintosh TV (1993)

Apple Macintosh TV
Launched October 1993

Some inventions seem obvious from a technical point of view, but often they fail to understand how real-world customers use products. Take the Apple Macintosh TV, a clever bit of technology which was launched 25 years ago this month as an example.

Apple had partnered with Sony to put Trinitron CRTs into their Macintosh line since the later 1980s, and their contemporary LC500 series of computers contained a 14” Trinitron display. So, somebody somewhere must have thought that it would be a good idea to allow the Trinitron display to be used as a normal TV as well as a computer monitor.

The Macintosh TV included an integrated TV tuner card and a both an antenna port and a composite video-in port, so it could be used with over-the-air and compatible cable and/or satellite systems. Technical limitations of the early 90s hardware meant that you couldn’t display the TV picture in a window, it would only work in full screen mode. However, you could capture video stills and save them to the computer.

But perhaps the best thing about the Macintosh TV was the colour. Standard Macs were a “Platinum” colour, but the Macintosh TV was all black, including a black keyboard and mouse. It looked much cooler than a standard Mac, but sadly it was just a little bit slower and less expandable.

It was also expensive ($2100) compared to other similar Macs which rather eroded any cost savings by not having a TV. But perhaps the biggest problem was the whole concept – just because a computer has a display, it does not mean that people want to watch TV on it. TVs and computers tend to be in very different parts of the house for different functions, and although it might fit well into a college dorm room or teenager’s bedroom, the price-tag would prove a major hurdle.

During the year-and-a-half it was on the market, the Macintosh TV shipped just 10,000 units, seemingly limited to North America. These days they are a pretty rare find, with typical prices being about $700 or so.

Image credit: Ben Boldt via Wikimedia Commons

Citroën 2CV (1948) and Smart ForTwo (1998)

Here are two cars, fifty years apart that oddly enough seem to have more in common than you would think.

Citroën 2CV

One of the all-time classics of automotive design, work on the 2CV started before the Second World War. The design criteria were a product of the age – a low cost and versatile car that could transports four people plus 50 kilos of goods at 50 kilometres per hour across bumpy roads, and also that the car should be tall enough for the occupants to travel to church while wearing their hats. Work on prototypes known as TPVs continued with various novel cost-saving designs involved. By August 1939, Citroën were ready to go into production with a pilot run of 250 cars which were to be called the Deux Chevaux (French for "two horsepower") or simply the "2CV".

2CV and 2CV-derived Citroën Acadiane van

War broke out on the 3rd September 1939 and the launch was cancelled as France geared for conflict. But by June 1940 France had fallen to the Nazis, and then the story takes a strange twist. Citroën were worried that the prototypes might fall into enemy hands, so most of the prototypes were destroyed with a few hidden away.

Despite the Nazis trying to steal Citroën’s tooling, work on the car carried on in secret (there is a parallel with the Morris Minor here) and the designs evolved to meet what they thought would be post-war requirements. The car looked in doubt again with the post-war French government wanting Citroën to concentrate on another market segment altogether.

But – eventually – in October 1948 the 2CV came to market. To say it was basic would be an understatement. There was no lock on the ignition or the door, no fuel gage, there was a speedometer you couldn’t see at night, no real boot, no heater, a single tail-light and it was only available in grey. The car needed to be started with a cranking handle. Despite this, the demand for the car was huge and a waiting list developed that was five years long.

Inside the original was a tiny 375 cc generating 9 horsepower, and to save money and weight the entire roof was made of fabric that could be rolled back to make it a convertible. The elegant yet simple design inside and out owed more than a passing nod to the Bauhaus school of design. And despite the apparently basic specification, the engineering behind it all was rather innovative.

Over the years the car was improved with better (although still tiny) engines and luxuries such as indicators, a starter motor plus all the other things that were missing from the 1948 model. A huge number of variants and derivatives followed, and the 2CV moved from being a basic car for farmers to being a slightly less basic car for people who wanted to make a lifestyle statement.

It was hardly a fast car. The most powerful production engine gave an output of just 33 horsepower. Idiosyncrasies in the air-cooled design meant that cars came with both a summer and winter front grille, the latter being more insulated and helping the engine to warm up. Until the end of production, the 2CV could still be started with the supplied cranking handle which could also be used to remove the wheels. The soft suspension made handling somewhat comedic.

The car rolled alarmingly going around a corner, and the minimalist seating didn’t offer much support to stop you sliding off. More worryingly, the lightweight 1940s design didn’t offer much in the way of crash protection.

Production of the 2CV came to an end in 1990, but over that that its uniqueness always gave the car a distinctive appeal. Excluding all the variants, over 3.8 million 2CVs were manufactured. Today a 2CV in good condition can set you back more than £10,000 in the UK.

Smart ForTwo (1998)

Where the 2CV can trace back its styling to the influences of the Bauhaus, the car that because the Smart FourTwo was originally proposed by funky Swiss watch company Swatch. Founder Nicolas Hayek wanted to make a fun, small car with an electric powertrain and after searching around for a partner he eventually reached an agreement with Mercedes-Benz.

Mercedes had prototyped a two-seater city car in 1981 called the NAFA, and although that never reached production it gave Mercedes an insight into what would be needed. A proposal was drawn up and the new car was called the “smart” (in lowercase) which stood for “Swatch Mercedes ART”.

Things soon fell apart though, and Swatch was disappointed that Mercedes wanted to put in a small petrol engine rather than something more forward-looking, and during development they dropped out leaving Mercedes to go it alone.

What was eventually produced was quite radical though – a tall but short two-seater car with a little rear-mounted two cylinder engine to drive it. Although the original Smart (originally called the City-Coupé) was aimed at city-dwellers rather than farmers, the cars had some similar concepts… not least of which was that the ForTwo was built in France.

A pair of customised Smart FourTwos
Like the 2CV, the Smart had plenty of headroom inside. People who expect the tiny car to be cramped are usually pleasantly surprised by the amount of space. The high driving position and good all-round visibility makes it feel more like an SUV or van, and it’s easy to think that you are driving something much bigger until you glance behind you and remember there is no back row of seats… in effect you are driving half a car.

The Smart could originally be had as a cabriolet or a coupé with a hard-top. The fabric top of the convertible version again had echoes of the 2CV, and it was the cheapest soft-top car on the market.

Both cars featured a very small petrol engine. In the case of the Smart it was a three cylinder 600 cc unit with a turbocharger 45 horsepower or upwards. Over the years, this two became more powerful and the BRABUS version has a 100 horsepower engine. Although the light weight and capable engines made the Smart fun to drive, its ability to go around corners at speed was not only comically bad but also rather frightening.

The poor handling was a black mark in what was otherwise a remarkably safe little car. The body was created around a reinforced safety cage (called the Tridion cell by Mercedes) which offered very good all-around protection for a little car. The Tridion cell is typically a different colour from the rest of the car. Airbags and electronic stability also improved the overall safety. The original version had a somewhat vague automatic gearbox which could be changed to a rather better sequential one at the push of a button.

In the original car, the brightly-coloured plastic panels were easy to remove and some owners engaged in “panel swaps” where they could change the look of their car by exchanging panels with someone else. Some owners went further with their alterations too, and a healthy modding community grew up.

Today the Smart ForTwo is in its third generation, but has never had the success that the 2CV did. Various companion models came along, including an interesting but problematic Roadster that was around for a few years, two completely different four-seat “ForFour” models along with some more esoteric versions of the ForTwo itself.

The little Smart car ended up being something of a design icon of its own, where the 2CV was originally meant to be utilitarian before it acquire a counter-cultural vibe about it, the ForTwo was more a symbol of young fun-seeking city-dwellers. Whether or not the Smart will still be thought of that way in another half century is to be seen…

Image credits: Conrad Longmore and Classic Fan via Flickr

Thursday 18 October 2018

Nokia 3660 (2003)

Launched October 2003

Sometimes Nokia’s weird designs are too weird even for Nokia. The Nokia 3650 (launched in 2002) is a case in point. The 3650 was a very early Symbian smartphone and it ticked all the boxes for an early-noughties Nokia device. Smartphone OS. Tick. Candy bar format. Tick. Biggish screen. Tick. Camera. Tick. Expandable memory. Tick. Weird design. Tick.
Nokia 3650 (left) and 3660 (not on the left)

The Nokia 3650’s design is made up of sweeping lines and curves and at some point, somebody though it must have been a good idea to extend those curves to the keypad. Why make it square? Let’s make it round! A behold, the Nokia 3650 was launched with a rotary keypad.

Instead of being arranged in a grid, the number keys were set out in a circle. Nokia immediately polarised opinion on this, with many people thinking it was just plain stupid but also a significant number who liked it and thought it was easier to use.

Sure it was edgy and radical, and Nokia always did like to push the limits of design. But this was meant to be the launch of mainstream device that was going to carve out some market share for Symbian. But instead Nokia launched thousands of flame wars instead.

So, a year later Nokia reworked the 3650 and came up with the 3660 instead. Gone was the rotary-style keypad and in its place was something a bit more like a traditional grid, but still maintaining the circular shape of its predecessor. More mainstream, yes, but other than the keypad the only other improvement was a 65k colour screen over the 4096 colours in the old one.

Despite managing to annoy both factions in the keypad debate, both the Nokia 3650 and 3660 were successful enough to help cement Symbian as the market leader in smartphone platforms. It took a while for Nokia to stop messing around with keypads though, as the weird-looking Nokia 7610 proves.

Today the Nokia 3650 is very collectable, with typical prices for a good one being £100 or so. The 3660’s more sober design makes it a bit less interesting and these are very much cheaper.

Image credits: Nokia

Monday 15 October 2018

Nokia N-Gage (2003)

Nokia N-Gage (2003)
Launched October 2003

During late 2003, Nokia was going through a weird phase with the remarkable looking but rather unusable 7600 and 7700 phones, respectively trying to bring 3G and smartphone features to the masses, and failing. Nokia obviously thought that you don’t make progress by being normal, and in that spirit they also launched the legendary Nokia N-Gage.

Legendary….? OK, perhaps we need to qualify that. Handheld gaming had been booming ever since the launch of the Nintendo Game Boy in 1990. Consoles were getting better over the years, but Nokia’s idea was that a mobile phone might make a really great gaming platform, which seems kind of obvious to us today.

It wasn’t just the idea of converged devices that we are all familiar with these days, where the smartphone in our pocket can do everything we need. Adding cellular networking to the gaming platform meant that you could compete against people anywhere in the world, and the N-Gage also used Bluetooth which meant that you could play against people in the same room with ease. Add to that the popular Symbian operating system that already had a load of applications available, it seemed that Nokia could probably do no wrong.

The N-Gage was one of the most anticipated product launches of late 2003, with all sorts of interesting rumours about what might be launched. Nokia had been working with Sega too, which added to the buzz. What was launched... well, what was launched was not really what was expected.

Like the 7700, the N-Gage was a taco-shaped side-talking device. It was a “wide” rather than “tall” device, designed to be used in both hands. But from here in, the N-Gage was pretty poorly thought out.

Let’s start with the screen – a 2.1” 176 x 208 pixel panel which was quite unsuited to gaming. Then there were the game cartridges themselves, which you had to partly disassemble the phone to swap. There were a reasonable number of games available, but the hardware limitations were rather off-putting. It was fairly expensive too at launch.

Overall, it wasn’t very good as a gaming platform and it wasn’t very good as a mobile phone. Even so, Nokia managed to shift 3 million of these things. Presumably a lot of them ended up in the back of drawers pretty quickly.

Nokia N-Gage QD (2004)
In 2004, Nokia addressed some of the problems with the phone with the improved N-Gage QD, but by this time the N-Gage brand itself had become a bit toxic. Perhaps if the QD was the device Nokia originally went to market with then it might have succeeded.

Despite high hopes, the N-Gage failed to change the world and by 2007 Nokia acknowledged that the attempt had failed, and instead they tried to roll the N-Gage gaming into other smartphones, but this also didn’t succeed.

Today the N-Gage is quite collectable in either the original or QD forms. Prices typically start at £50 or so, but if games are included in the package then they can command prices of several hundred pounds

Image credits: Nokia

Saturday 13 October 2018

O2 XDA II / Qtek 2020 / HTC Himalaya (2003)

HTC Himalaya badged as Qtek 2020
Launched October 2003

Fifteen years ago smartphones were still in their infancy, and typically they would look rather like a traditional phone with a bigger screen. It turned out that this type of device was an evolutionary dead-end and instead the modern smartphone is actually descended from a concept called the “wireless PDA”.

Long extinct these days, a PDA was basically an early smartphone-like device that you had to sync with a computer to get data, rather than being a standalone computer in its own right. Early devices such as the Palm Pilot proved a hit, but really they were just glorified electronic calendars.

HTC had been making PDAs for some time, for example the successful Compaq (later HP) iPAQ range. It seemed like a natural progression to make these limited early PDAs rather more flexible by adding cellular data so that potentially they could be used when away from your desk.

Their first attempt at a wireless PDA was the unlovely HTC Wallaby which met with limited success. A year later they released the HTC Himalaya which was an improved version. Back in those days, HTC did not sell products under their own name, so you were likely to see the Himalaya badged as the O2 XDA II, Qtek 2020, Vodafone VPA, T-Mobile MDA II, Orange SPV 1000 or Dopod 696. Confusing, eh?

The key feature of the Himalaya was the very large (for the time) 3.5” 240 x 320 pixel touchscreen display on the front. Although the same size as the iPhone launched several years later, this one was a somewhat lower resolution and the older resistive touchscreen technology was more suited to a stylus than a finger. It was also a fair bit more bulky than the more iconic iPhone, but the Himalaya is a recognisably modern smartphone in its layout.

HTC Himalaya as O2 XDA II
Limited to 2G only and lacking WiFi, the Himalaya lacked the high-speed data that we take for granted these days. Loading applications onto the phone was a little clunky as you basically had to transfer them from a PC, and the Windows Mobile operating system of the day was rather limited and not all that easy to use. But there can be no mistaking that the HTC Himalaya is one of the direct ancestors of the modern smartphone we all know today.

HTC stuck with it, and following generations got better and better. After pioneering Windows smartphones, HTC followed up five years later with the world’s first Android phone, the HTC Dream. For collectors, the HTC Himalaya (under any of its various names) is quite an uncommon find, but is relatively inexpensive.

Image credits: O2 and Qtek/HTC

Thursday 11 October 2018

Sendo X (2003)

Sendo X in docking station
Launched October 2003

If you’ve heard of Sendo at all, it might be because you have an ancient pay-as-you-go phone stuffed in the back on a drawer somewhere. But for a brief moment in the early noughties it seemed the Sendo might have the keys to the future of the entire smartphone market in its pocket…

Sendo was founded in Birmingham in the UK in 1998, and although it’s main market was indeed cheap prepay mobiles, they were a bit more sophisticated than its rivals. Instead of just hawking a device around carriers, they offered a customisable platform so that carriers could essentially design their own phone. Somewhere along the way this flexible approach caught the attention of Microsoft who were looking at developing their own mobile phone platform.

The result of this collaboration was the Sendo Z100, a device which was meant to be the world’s first Windows smartphone – although bear in mind that a “smartphone” of that era wasn’t quite what we would regard as a smartphone TODAY, instead the modern smartphone is descended from the “wireless PDA”, but I digress… the Z100 looked like a candy-bar phone with a larger-than-normal screen, but underneath it was running a version of Windows CE that had been adapted (not very well) for phone use. It had taken Sendo some time to get the phone ready for product but just before launch it was cancelled, in November 2002.

Bitter recriminations then took place between Sendo and Microsoft, with Microsoft claiming that Sendo was insolvent and Sendo accusing Microsoft of stealing its intellectual property and handing it to HTC (who in turn created the Orange SPV). This particular fight went on for years with Microsoft eventually making an out-of-court settlement. Needless to say, Sendo abandoned the idea of launching a Windows phone but were still keen on the smartphone idea in general, so they set about building one using the Symbian operating system instead.

Sendo X: better than a Nokia?
Launched in October 2003 – almost a year after the cancellation of the Z100 – Sendo launched the tersely-named “X”. A 2G-only smartphone, it had a 2.2” 170 x 220 pixel display and a traditional numeric keypad. Inside it ran Symbian S60 and it had support for email, web browsing plus of course you could add compatible Symbian applications as you went along.

The problem was that Sendo were competing directly against Nokia, and although the X was arguably better that Nokia’s contemporary offerings it turned out that most people would sooner stick with Nokia. Still, the Sendo X was a niche success and it encourage Sendo to come up with an improved model, the Sendo X2.

The X2 was due for launch in 2005, but Sendo’s financial woes caught up with it again and in the summer of 2005 the company folded. There was a ray of light though when Motorola acquired Sendo’s R&D, and the fruits of this deal led to Motorola’s RIZR range. Sadly Motorola ended up with problems of its own, and within a few years their attempts at making a success of Symbian faded too.

Had things worked out differently, perhaps Sendo would have been in the role that HTC found itself in during the noughties, and have become a true pioneer in shaping the future mobile industry. But it wasn’t to be. These days the Sendo X is a very rare find, but not terribly expensive.

Image credits: Sendo

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Nokia 7700 (2003)

Nokia 7700. Looks weird from the front.
Launched October 2003

We’ve argued in the past that the modern smartphone era started with the launch of the original iPhone in 2007. But it could have happened much earlier than that. Back in 2003 – 15 years ago this month – Nokia launched something that could have been equally ground-breaking.

The Nokia 7700 is today one of the rarest and most elusive Nokia phones you can try to find. In many ways it was a genius design which was far ahead of its time, in others it was deeply flawed and destined for failure. The era of the modern smartphone could have started here. It didn’t.

2003 was part of a golden era of mobile phone design. Colour displays and cameras were becoming accepted as the norm, but manufacturers were pushing ahead with smartphone concepts and tinkering with form factors to find new design paradigms. The 7700 was part of this drive.

If you look at the technical specifications, the 7700 covers familiar ground. A 3.5” 640 x 320 pixel stylus-driven touch display was married with a new version of the Symbian OS called Series 90. A multimedia player, document viewer, email client and a full web browser are all the sorts of things you would see today, and there was an FM radio too.

And it looks weird from the back as well.
But then you look at the thing, and realise that the Nokia 7700 doesn’t really look like any other smartphone you have ever seen. Exquisitely designed in a sort-of-Taco shape, the 7700 was a slice of retro-futurism which completely ignored contemporary design conventions… or indeed common sense.

Although Nokia certainly had a whole bunch of technology to throw at this, they didn’t really understand what a smartphone could be. Lacking either 3G or WiFi connectivity, the 7700 was limited to plain old GSM, Bluetooth and a cable for getting data on board.

Nokia’s main idea for entertainment was the embedded FM radio which had added RDS so you could display data alongside the audio sequence, a concept they called “visual radio”. Hardly stirring stuff, and it didn’t really fulfil the potential of this sophisticated device.

The lack of 3G was bizarre, in a time when 3G phones were just starting to become widely available. WiFi wouldn’t have been a stretch either, and the Nokia 7700’s rather bulky case could certainly have squeezed in some new features. Nokia had already launched a couple of 3G devices including the equally “Dial W-for-WeirdNokia 7600 and the WiFi-enabled Nokia 9500 wasn’t far behind, so Nokia certainly could have included those technologies if it had wanted to.

It was also short of RAM and the processor was rather underpowered. The 7700 wasn’t really designed as a phone, more as something you would put on your desk. And if you DID want to do something mundane such as TALK on it, you’d find that the speaker and microphone were on the bottom and not the front or back. This idea had also been used on a few other Nokia’s and earned the nickname of Sidetalking.

It's a smartphone Jim, but not as we know it.
Nonetheless, the Nokia 7700 was one of the most exciting phone launches of the year and Nokia fans were eager to see what they could do. But then Nokia cancelled it.

Perhaps wisely judging that the 7700 could end up as a costly disaster, they went away and redesigned it. Shrinking the case down, adding more memory, a faster processor and a better camera they came up with the Nokia 7710 a year later. Although the 7710 did reach the market, it still didn’t fix the underlying problems of being a bit too far ahead of its time while still lacking high-speed data.

The relative failure of the 7710 led Nokia to a serious strategic mistake – it stopped trying to develop touchscreen smartphones altogether. When Apple did finally show the world how to make one, it took Nokia a very long time to come up with their first truly successful touchscreen device, the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic which was launched five years after the 7700.

Although the launch of the 7700 was cancelled, a unknown number of prototypes and pre-production models were made. Some of these were sent out as technology samplers to partners and the media, some ended up the hands of Nokia engineers. Just occasionally one of these very rare handsets comes to market, with prices ranging between £500 to £5000 or more depending on conditions and packaging.

In hindsight it’s clear that if Nokia had stuck with the formula in the 7700 and 7710 then they would probably have gotten it right. In the end a lack of perseverance squandered Nokia’s potential technological lead and in the end it was usurpers like Apple and Google that stole Nokia’s crown.

Image credits: Retromobe [1] [2] and Nokia [3]

Monday 8 October 2018

Motorola AURA (2008)

Launched October 2008

Imagine that you are a major mobile phone manufacturer whose sales are on the slide and you are desperately in need of something to give you a boost. Perhaps you’ll carefully research the market, put together some focus groups and come out with the next-generation “must have” device which will transform your business.

Or – as in the case of Motorola – you could simply go nuts.

Launched at a very low ebb in Motorola’s fortunes, the Motorola AURA was absolutely not what the market was looking for, but still it managed to be a stunningly unique and extremely clever piece of engineering while still being utterly pointless.

Motorola AURA

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the AURA was the circular screen. No, not a square screen with some parts masked off, but a perfectly circular 1.55” display with a diameter of 480 pixels covered by a sapphire crystal lens. Built around this extraordinary display was a metal Swiss-engineered rotating mechanism housing a phone that looked like nothing else that was on the market.

Although it was utterly amazing to look at, the clever innovation didn’t extent to the phone itself. Underneath it was a pretty standard 2G feature phone with a few bells and whistles. Perhaps it’s just as well… browsing the web or watching a video on that circular screen would have been a challenge. However, a pretty decent 2GB of memory meant that the AURA was capable at music playback.

The original R1 version was announced in October 2008 with a price tag of $2000. Various special editions followed over the next year including the “Celestial” edition to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and a Diamond edition with gold plating and diamonds around the screen, costing an eye-watering $5700.

The AURA didn’t turn around Motorola’s fortunes, but it came during a period of relative inactivity as the company struggled to find a new direction (which it did a year later with its first Android phone). However, the AURA did become a collectable classic – and also a minefield for fakes – with prices starting at around £1000 and going up to £6000 and perhaps even more.

Image credit: Motorola

Saturday 6 October 2018

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic (2008)

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic
Launched October 2008

Apple changed the world’s attitude to mobile phones with the launch of the original iPhone in January 2007, leaving rivals struggling to come up with something of their own. It took Google until September 2008 to come up with their first Android device, and market leaders Nokia took just a little longer.

The Nokia 5800 XpressMusic was Nokia’s answer to Apple. Taking their existing Symbian S60 software platform and stretching it almost as far as it would go, Nokia created something that was both new and familiar at the same time.

The clunky name reflected the fact that Nokia were trying to be a content company and “XpressMusic” was their downloadable music service. The 5000 series was Nokia’s mid-range “active” series where it joined the likes of the 5310.

This wasn’t Nokia’s first attempt at a touchscreen smartphone, but their attempts at creating a new platform with the 7700 and 7710 running the new Series 90 OS had failed and Nokia had given up trying to create a touchscreen smartphone. It turned out that this was a mistake, and the iPhone led to the fairly hurried adaptation of the existing S60 platform to include touch support.

On the front was a 3.2” 360 x 640 pixel touchscreen display with a middle-of-the-road 3.2 megapixel camera on the back. This was a 3.5G capable device with WiFi, 3.5G support, GPS and expandable memory. The €279 price tag made it good value too. 

It wasn’t a bad smartphone – anyone who was familiar with S60 would quickly get used to it, and that was a pretty decently-sized market. But the problem was that it was just an existing OS with touch supported added on top, whereas the iPhone’s OS was designed from scratch for a touchscreen device. Where the Nokia gave you buttons to press on the screen, the iPhone gave swipes and gestures.

The somewhat clunky Nokia interface could be used with a finger, but was really designed for a stylus and for practical purposes that meant an older style resistive touchscreen rather than the slicker capacitive touchscreen in the iPhone. And of course Android had borrowed many of the concepts from the iPhone too, so although the 5800’s interface was not bad at launch, subsequent models struggled to compete.

Although the clunky interface and cheap touchscreen would be worked on in subsequent models, there was a more intractable problem – the operating system itself. Symbian had been designed for mobile devices and could trace its history back more than a decade to PDAs such as the Psion Series 5. Designed to run efficiently on limited hardware resources it was certainly fast and efficient… but the iPhone’s iOS and Google’s Android took advantage of more powerful hardware and both of those used slimmed-down derivatives of the powerful Unix operating system. This made the two newer OSes much more forward-looking and easier to develop for, where Symbian was trickier to work with and really became outclassed by its newer rivals.

Still, the Nokia was a sales success shipping over 8 million units, and for a while it looked as if Nokia had done enough to see off the challenges of their upstart rivals. It’s a landmark Nokia device and therefore interesting enough for collectors, with prices for good ones being less than £40.

Image credit: Nokia