Tuesday 24 April 2018

Land Rover (1948)

Land Rover Series I
Introduced April 1948

There’s a lot you could write about the iconic Land Rover, but we’ll try to keep it brief. After the Second World War, the chief designer of the Rover car company came up with an idea to build an off-road vehicle, inspired by the war-surplus Jeep that he kept on his farm. Designed with export markets in mind, the Land Rover used a great deal of aluminium in its bodywork as steel was rationed. With capable four wheel drive, a sturdy and reliable construction and the ability to be adapted to a huge number of tasks, the Land Rover became a huge success.

A boxy looking thing with no regard for aerodynamics, the Land Rover evolved very slowly over the 67 years that it was in production. The original Series I was followed by a larger Series II then Series IIA in 1958, Series III in 1971, then the Land Rover Ninety and One-Ten in 1983 which became the Defender in 1990, and this continued in production until 2016. Over the years the Land Rover became a bit smoother, a bit more comfortable and with better engines in each generation.

The design adapted well to military service, ending up in armed forces all other the world in a huge variety of guises. Emergency services, utility companies and just about anyone who needed a practical off-road vehicle also used them, as well as farmers and the general public.

Late model retro-themed Land Rover Defender
Increasingly the Defender became a popular (and expensive) leisure vehicle, again with a huge range of modifications and custom-built versions. But by 2016 the Defender was struggling to keep up with environmental and safety legislation and was finally put out to grass. Well, sort of… because in 2018 Land Rover came up with a Defender Works V8 which cost an eye-watering £150,000 or more.

Although Land Rovers are still popular for those jobs that other vehicles cannot manage, they are also high collectable. In the UK a Series I Land Rover in good condition will set you back around £30,000 or more, with similar prices for late model Defenders. Customised ones can cost £100,000 or more, but it is possible to finder older and more basic models for less than £10,000. In the US the Defender has become a cult classic which was only officially available for a few years in the 1990s. Prices there are buoyant, with a typical price for a mid-1990s model being $60,000 to $70,000.

The Land Rover is an example of a product that got it largely right first time, and although it evolved over the years it never really strayed far from that original idea. The Land Rover marque itself outlived the Rover Car Company (having been through several owners) and now there are six vehicles in the Land Rover stable, not including the Defender itself.  Somewhere along the line this niche vehicle adapted into the mainstream, with SUVs being a commonplace site of city streets. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your point of view, but there’s no doubt that the original Land Rover had a great deal of influence in today’s popularity of these cars.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Exidy Sorcerer (1978)

Launched April 1978

By 1978 the nascent microcomputer market was dominated by a combination of Apple, Commodore and Radio Shack. And although the Apple II, PET and TRS-80 were hugely more usable than previous generations, there was still room for improvement.

Exidy was a US-based video game manufacturer that looked at what was on the market, and decided they could do better. This led to the Exidy Sorcerer computer which was launched in April 1978 – a machine that was indeed better in many ways than the competition, but it turned out that this wasn’t enough to make it a success.

The Sorcerer was a Z80-based computer, and this meant that it could potentially run the industry standard CP/M operating system and Microsoft Basic. As well as using cassette tape, the Sorcerer could also load programs in from a cartridge (housed in an 8-track tape box) called a ROM-PAC. An optional S-100 expansion box gave the Sorcerer the ability to use industry-standard peripherals.

Out of the box, the Sorcerer was an all-on-one unit integrated into the keyboard with a composite video output, parallel and serial ports, cassette interface and expansion bus. The keyboard was a higher quality unit than most, and it came with a numeric keypad.

Exidy tried to make graphics a strong point, and the Sorcerer had a 512x240 screen resolution, but with some quirks. Firstly it was monochrome only (which was odd for a videogame company), but furthermore utilising the capabilities of the display had to be done through user-definable characters rather than the pixels being individually addressable directly. One other odd missing feature was sound, although many users managed to rig up something rudimentary using the parallel port.

The character set was a strong point – in addition to the standard ASCII characters, there were a set of characters that could be redefined by the user. This allowed a great deal of flexibility for games, and it also meant that the Sorcerer could support foreign languages.

Exidy understood the value of export markets for their video games, and they applied the same principles to the Sorcerer, shipping it worldwide. It turned out not to be a huge hit in the United States in the end, but was very popular in Australia and some parts of Europe – in part due the programmable character sets.

The Sorcerer had a relatively short life span, being produced from 1978 to 1980… except for the Netherlands where a firm called Compudata continued to build the Sorcerer under licence for years afterwards. By a twist of history, Compudata became Tulip in 1987 and it acquired the pioneering Commodore brand in 1997.

The Sorcerer is an interesting example of something that was good enough to become a major player, but didn’t quite succeed.  Today, the Exidy Sorcerer is a pretty rare find, with prices for a really good example being $1000 or more. Perhaps it won’t wow your geek friends as much as an Apple II, TRS-80 or PET… but you’ll know that you have something just a little bit more special.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Fiat Multipla (1998)

Introduced April 1998

The Fiat Multipla polarised opinions when it was first seen in 1998… and 20 years later it STILL polarises opinions. This weird-looking compact MPV didn’t look like anything else, both on the outside and the inside. When it first came out, people would stare at it… the strangely bulbous design looked rather fish-like and actually distracted from a rather brilliantly practical design.

Inside the Multipla featured six seats – three in the front and three in the back. This unusual layout meant that the Multipla was both wider and shorter than the saloon car it was based on… and a lot taller. Oh and a lot more weird looking, obviously.

It wasn’t the first car to bear the “Multipla” name, in the 1950s Fiat also produced a six-seat version of the diminutive Fiat 600. That was also a clever use of space, and like its 1990s descendant the original was also a very odd looking vehicle, with the 1950s version looking a bit like a mollusc. And it also looked like it was designed back-to-front.

The Multipla was incredibly practical, good to drive and had bags of space in the well-designed and rather funky interior. When launched in 1999 it got plenty of attention, but it sold only moderately well. The rival Opel / Vauxhall Zafira with rather more traditional styling consistently outsold the Multipla in Europe by a ratio of about five to one.

A redesign in 2004 gave the Multipla a more conservative front end, but the rest of the car kept its characteristic design. This lead to something that looked rather unbalanced, however it did result in a slight uptick in sales. Production ceased in 2010.

In the UK the Multipla was never a particularly common car, with a peak of 16,000 being on the road in 2007. By late 2017 nearly three-quarters of those cars were no longer on the road, but this relative rarity (especially of the original models) does mean that the remarkable design of twenty years ago does still seem fresh and very radical when you actually see one.

Electrical gremlins and a flimsy interior seem to be the main issues to look out for. And the door and window seals. And indeed a whole bunch of other mechanical issues, but the chances are if you love the car you won’t care. Prices for the original more funky model start at little over £1000. The Mutlipla adapts well to taking a wheelchair as well, so these are usually available.

Although the Multipla was a remarkable car which created a buzz, it was not the sales success that Fiat desperately needed. In 2007 though Fiat again resurrected an old nameplate, but this time the Fiat 500 was an enormous success which really did turn around the company’s fortunes.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Nescafé (1938)

Nescafé advertisement, circa 1938
Introduced April 1938

Coffee is a complicated thing, both in terms of the effort of making a cup and how different societies treat coffee as a drink. For example, there’s a sharp dividing line between countries that prefer instant coffee (which are mostly tea-drinking countries) and those that don’t. In the UK and Australia about three quarters of coffee consumed is instant, in the USA it is less than 10% and in Italy just 1%.

For drinkers of instant coffee, a landmark product was released in April 1938 – Nescafé. Instant coffee had been around for a few decades in various forms, with the most popular being G. Washington’s Instant Coffee, but early instant coffees were not very good.

In the 1930s, Brazilian coffee growers were having a hard time finding markets for all the coffee they were growing. They approach Swiss food manufacturers Nestlé who researched the problem over several year, but they weren’t able to create the product they wanted and gave up development in 1935. However, one of their scientists – Max Morgenthaler – continued to research the problem as a side project. In 1936 he cracked the problem, but it took two more years for the product to come to market.

To make Nescafé, Nestlé used a new process which involved drying liquid coffee mixed with soluble carbohydrates to gives a product that made a reasonable cup of coffee when hot water was added. Although it’s not the process that most instant coffees uses today, the original Nescafé was a significant step forward.

Nescafé advertisement circa 1956
Success came from a slightly unexpected direction. The US Army had recognised coffee as being important to the troops for years, and this new easy-to-use instant coffee was just the thing they were looking for. Nestlé set up factories in the United States to make the stuff, and it was shipped out to US troops worldwide in huge quantities. Where the British would still stop for a tea break in the middle of battle, the Americans were powered by large quantities of instant coffee.

Although it was the American Army who popularised the product, it was the British who took to it at home with them. And then the Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Turks and Russians… all countries where tea is popular.

In the 1960s, freeze dried instant coffee was developed which was a much better product, and other advances in quality and formulation followed. Despite the sharp split in popularity between different countries, sales of instant coffee are still growing strongly worldwide. And of course, Nescafé still has a very significant share of the market, which isn’t bad for a project they gave up on.

Image credits: [1] [2]
© Nestlé S.A.

Saturday 7 April 2018

HTC First (2013)

HTC Worst.. err, First
Launched April 2013

In 2013 HTC was firmly established as a leading maker of Android smartphones. At the same time, Facebook was experience a huge surge in popularity, signing up its billionth user a few months previously. Creating a product that combined a good quality Android handset with an unrivalled social networking experience should have been a huge success, but instead it ended up as a huge disaster.

The device in question was the HTC First, a decent and inexpensive midrange handset with an excellent 4.3” display and a rather pleasing minimalist design (or you might just call it “boring”). The software that made it different from other Androids was Facebook Home which replaced pretty much the entire Android experience with Facebook instead.

Facebook Home’s lock screen displayed notifications from the owner’s Facebook feed, and opening the phone would lead to an advanced Facebook app rather than Android. More immersive than the standard Facebook app, Home included features such as “Chat Heads” which meant that you could talk to a friend while using another app.

There were a few disadvantages – one of which was that Home relegated the usual Android interface and apps to a back burner. The HTC First also suffered from a poor camera and limited non-expandable internal memory. But overall the package looked like it would appeal to those consumers who were glued to Facebook all the time. More to the point, HTC had previously had a minor success with a couple of other Facebook-y phones, so it wasn’t a complete shot in the dark.

The HTC First and Facebook Home launched amid much publicity in April 2013. The plan was that AT&T in the US would get the device first, followed by selected other carriers worldwide. AT&T offered the first at $99.99 with a two-year contract, which was pretty decent value. Everybody seemed to be expecting the First to sell well. It didn’t.

AT&T found that the handset wasn’t shifting, so they dropped the price to 99 cents after a few weeks. But then it still didn’t shift, and after selling reportedly less than 15,000 units despite the price drop it was dropped by AT&T. Despite Facebook and HTC claiming that the worldwide rollout was “delayed”, the device was cancelled amid much blood-letting and both HTC and Facebook.

In short, the HTC First and Facebook Home were a disaster. What seemed like a good idea at the time just didn’t appeal to consumers, who even five years ago were worried about the privacy implications of a device running Facebook all the time. Even for die-hard Facebook fans the interface was just too much Facebook, too much of the time.

The First lasted for about a month, Facebook Home limped on until January 2014 when Facebook stopped updating it. In the long run the fiasco didn’t do Facebook a lot of harm, but it didn’t provide the turnaround in fortunes that HTC needed and in 2018 HTC divested part of its smartphone business to Google – but ask Motorola how Google’s previous adventure in that field turned out.

Product tour

You might guess that we're not monster fans of Facebook by the following product tour we made at the HTC First's launch.