Saturday 30 June 2018

Nokia 6600 (2003)

Nokia 6600
Launched June 2003

Although Apple might like you to think that they invented the smartphone, in truth they’d been around for a decade or so before the ubiquitous iPhone. One successful early example is the Nokia 6600, barely recognisable as a smartphone today… but it certainly ticked all the boxes fifteen years ago.

The Nokia 6600 took a lot of technologies that were quite new and put them all in a single high-end device. Firstly though this ran the Symbian operating system which meant that users could install native applications on it (using a PC and a cable). It came with a relatively large 2.2” 176 x 208 pixel display, had a highly noticeable VGA resolution camera on the back (capable of taking video clips), it came with a multimedia player, MMC expandable memory, Bluetooth and it supported GPRS data.

You could read email and browse the web (slowly) and Symbian at the time had all sorts of applications available for it. For the time, the Nokia 6600 was an advanced piece of kit, and it was quite successful in sales terms, shipping 2 million units. Today it is largely forgotten, but good examples start at just £30 or so for collectors.

Image credit: Nokia

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Porsche 356 (1948)

Porsche 356, circa 1950
Introduced June 1948

Just three years after the end of the Second World War, the (then) Austrian firm Porsche came up with a little two-sweater sports car called the Porsche 356. Arguably the first modern sports car, the 356 created a template for a lightweight but relatively powerful vehicle that many others copied.

Although sales were slow to begin with, after a few years this sleek sports car started to pick up sales and became available as a coupé, convertible or roadster. Various engines became available, with a typical unit being the 59 HP 4 cylinder 1.6 litre air-cooled engine. Not a lot by modern standards, but with an aerodynamic car weighing as little as 771 kg it didn’t need to be a fire-breathing monster.

The engine was in the back above the drive wheels, a configuration which gives the fun of driving a rear-wheel drive car with the advantage that most of the weight was above the drive wheels which led to better handling. The 356 found success in motor racing, but it was equally at home pottering around the restaurants of the Côte d'Azur instead.

The production run was from 1948 to 1965, with four models and a pretty slow evolution of specifications and design over that period. The Porsche 911 was introduced to replace it in 1963, but 356 production continued a little while after that.

76,000 356s were built, with around half still existing. Prices for a used one seem to range from around £70,000 to over £250,000 depending on condition and exact model, although it’s of note that Porsche will still look after the car for you. Several companies (such as Chesil) make modern reproductions at a fraction of the cost.

Image credit: Matthew P.L. Stevens via Flickr

Monday 25 June 2018

Space Invaders (1978)

Space Invaders (Midway version)
Launched June 1978

Forty years ago this month, Japan saw the launch of a simple little arcade game called Space Invaders. The premise was simple – five rows of pixelated aliens marched slowly across the screen while a laser cannon at the bottom tries to pick them off, accompanied with a basic four-note soundtrack and some sound effects. Simple it may have been, but Space Invaders became an enormous success.

The game came at a point when the technology was just becoming good enough to produce a compelling game. The Space Invaders machine itself ran an Intel 8080 CPU (a predecessor of the 8086) with a Texas Instruments chip producing the sounds (this in the same month as the launch of the Speak & Spell). A monochrome monitor in portrait mode gave a graphics resolution of 224 x 256 pixels, and in some versions of the game coloured strips across the screen gave the impression of a colour display when it wasn’t.

As with many classic games of the era, Space Invaders embraced the technical limitations of the hardware. The blocky aliens became a design icon, the simple but hypnotic soundtrack attracted curious onlookers. The fact that the very last invader raced across the screen in an adrenaline-fueled finale was simply a side-effect of the processor having less work to do.

The gameplay was simple enough but compelling, and Space Invaders machine soon started to rake in the money. A lot of money. A machine could pay for itself in a month or even less, and they soon started to pop up in all sort of places worldwide that hadn’t previously dabbled in arcade games, such as supermarkets.

There were two basic formats – creator Taito turned the game into a table-top format and cabinet with a joystick, while US licensee Midway used a cabinet with buttons replacing the joystick. Between them, the arcade versions raked in hundreds of millions of dollars of profit… and from then on there were adaptations for games consoles, home computers and a raft of sequels and spin-offs spanning generations.

Today prices for reconditioned original Space Invader machines can be £4000 or more. Alternatively for a few pounds you can buy an authentic reproduction of the original to play on your smartphone.

Image credit: Wally Gobetz via Flickr

Video: Reconditioned Taito Space Invaders machine

Thursday 21 June 2018

Science of Cambridge MK14 (1978)

Science of Cambridge MK14
Launched June 1978

Before the Sinclair ZX80 – and before Sinclair even was Sinclair – came the Science of Cambridge MK14. A low-cost kit computer, the MK14 was similar to the successful MOS KIM-1 and a number of other kits launched in the late 1970s.

Instead of going with the 6502 or Z80, Clive Sinclair’s firm instead decided to go with the esoteric National Semiconductor SC/MP INS8060 CPU. This 8-bit CPU never really became popular, except for finding a niche in embedded systems of the era. The MK14 had just 256 bytes of RAM, expandable to 2170 bytes. Input was a 20 key keypad, and output was via a calculator-style display although it was possible to output basic text and graphics to a VDU. The architecture of the MK14 also allowed easy modification and the addition of peripherals such as a cassette interface.

Even for four decades ago, the MK14 was very basic. But at just £30 (equivalent to around £240 today) it was also very cheap – much cheaper than anything similar on the market. Science of Cambridge went on to sell tens of thousands of these, providing enough money for Clive Sinclair to launch the ZX80 a couple of years later. But it also provided a launch pad for the career of Chris Curry, who went on to become one of the founders of Acorn Computers  who eventually went on to change the world.

Despite selling in the thousands, MK14s are rare today and one in working condition might set you back £800 or so. Alternatively you can play with a MK14 emulator for free.

Image credit: Alessandro Grussu via Flickr

Monday 18 June 2018

Apple iPhone 3G (2008)

Apple iPhone 3G (2008)
Launched June 2008

Launched ten years ago this month, the Apple iPhone 3G was Apple’s first smartphone.

But wait,” you say “obviously it wasn’t. The original iPhone was Apple’s first smartphone!

The original iPhone - launched in January 2007 – had plenty of potential and a lot of “wow” factor. But by modern standards, it wasn’t a smartphone at all. You couldn’t download applications to it, it didn’t have GPS or high-speed cellular data, it couldn’t record video and it only had one pretty basic camera on the back, so no selfies for YOU.

Added to that, the original iPhone was slow and very expensive and it didn’t sell in particularly big numbers. It really was a very elegant but extremely overpriced feature phone.

The iPhone 3G was a game-changer. Despite looking almost identical to the original and with a name that indicated that the main feature was 3G data support, the iPhone 3G was the first iPhone to come with the App Store through the new iPhone OS 2.0 operating system. Not only did this give the iPhone 3G a huge base of different apps to run, it also made adding those apps easy.

On top of that, the inclusion of 3G (and 3.5G) data meant that it was usable on the move. The new iPhone not only had GPS but also a mapping application and turn-by-turn navigation. It still couldn’t record video though and it only had the single basic camera, but it was faster and crucially cheaper too. It was a significant step in the right direction.

It was clearly a much better device than the original (even though that iPhone also got the App Store) and it was the iPhone 3G - not the original iPhone – that actually gave consumers what they wanted (apart from the ability to record video). The 3G was a proper smartphone in the modern sense, and it was this smartphone that drove nearly 7 million units worth of sales in the last quarter of 2008, finally giving Apple the sales breakthrough it was looking for.

Image credit: Apple, Inc

Saturday 16 June 2018

Texas Instruments Speak & Spell (1978)

Speak & Spell circa 1978
Launched June 1978

If you were a child of the late 1970s or early 1980s, then the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell was one of those “must have” toys that every child wanted, even if they didn’t get it. Designed as a fun way to learn spelling, it also came with different cartridges for word games and it was available in several different languages.

Originally introduced in June 1978, the Speak & Spell is possibly primarily remembered for the somewhat tinny synthesised voice, but the Speak & Spell was actually a marvel of innovation in a number of ways and it stayed in production in one form or another until the early 1990s.

What made the Speak & Spell work was TI’s new speech synthesiser chip, the TMC0280 (alternatively named the TMS5100). Using a system called linear predictivecoding, TI managed to create a speech synthesis IC that was practical to roll out in low-cost applications running on contemporary 1970s hardware.

Outside, the Speak & Spell was about the size of an A4 pad, although it was fairly heavy at 474 grams (a little over a pound). Early versions had raised keys and a vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) with a handy carrying handle on the top. Power was supplied by 4 C-cells or an A/C adapter. On the top was a carrying handle, and the whole thing was finished off in brightly coloured plastic.

It wasn’t the only product that TI made based on the same technology, the Speak & Read and Speak & Math also came in a similar package. Over the years the keyboard was replaced with a more childproof membrane keyboard which eventually changed from an alphabetic to QWERTY layout, the VFD display was replaced with an LCD and the handle moved from the top to the bottom to the top again. The last versions of the Speak & Spell were introduced in 1992.

Circuit Bent Speak & Spell
That really should have been the end of the story, but the Speak & Spell ended up having a weird afterlife. It turned out that the electronics in the device were easy to modify, and “circuit bent” versions appeared that could make new and interesting sounds, and the Speak & Spell found a home in electronic music in both modified and unmodified forms.

Prices vary depending on age and condition, but a good early one could set you back £100 or so. There are usually much cheaper, later ones too. Overall the Speak & Spell was a real technological marvel, and somehow we didn’t end up all speaking like robots. Whether or not it help to improve spelling overall is a matter for debbate.

Image credits:
Christian Riise Wagner via Flickr

Thursday 7 June 2018

Intel 8086 (1978)

Intel 8086
Launched June 1978

By the late 1970s, Intel had carved out a successful slice of the microprocessor market with the 8-bit Intel 8080 and Intel 8085, but rivals such as the Zilog Z80 and MOS 6502 were eating into that share. Intel had been trying to design a radical 16-bit CPU – the iAPX 432 – since 1975 but that was still nowhere near completion.

As a quicker way of getting a 16-bit processor to market, Intel took some of the features of the existing 8085 and greatly expanded on it, making it much more powerful while maintaining some level of backward capability. The new 8086 was developed by a small team in just two years - the iAPX 432 took six years and a much larger team.

In 1978 the 8086 was ready to hit the market, clocked at 5 MHz and priced at under $90 a unit. It soon found its way into professional and scientific computer systems, but it finally got a big break in 1981 when the IBM PC was launched with a cut-down version of the 8086 called the 8088 inside.

The IBM PC and its clones ensured the success of the 8086 and 8088, and several generations followed. In June 2018 – to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 8086 – Intel announced a special edition of their current processor called the Core i7-8086K which is a 64-bit CPU clocked at 5 GHz, with 6 CPU cores.

The 8086, its descendants and compatible processors from rivals sold in huge quantities… not bad for something that was a bit of a stopgap. The iAPX 432 turned out to be too much of a technological leap for any company to make in the 1970s and ended up as a disaster. In the end, the simpler solution to the 16-bit problem was the more effective one. There’s probably a lesson in that.