Saturday 18 August 2018

ABC 80 (1978)

Released August 1978

1978 was still very early on in the microcomputer revolution which was arguably only a year into its stride. The year saw the launch of some less-well-known but interesting machines, including the Swedish ABC 80.

The ABC 80 was designed by Dataindustrier AB in partnership with Luxor, and it was sold throughout Scandinavia and other parts of Europe under the Luxor or Metric brands. The ABC 80 would come as a complete system including a modified TV for output and a cassette recorder for storing data, and along with comprehensive documentation the ABC 80 really did come with everything you needed to get started.

Dataindustrier were also involved in industrial control systems, and their expertise in this meant that the ABC 80 was fast, reliable and flexible system with an expansion bus that could be used for all sorts of peripherals. Inside was a 3MHz Zilog Z80 CPU, monochrome graphics (including a Teletext mode), 16 to 32Kb of RAM and a Texas Instruments SN76477 sound chip which was the same one found in Space Invaders machines.

The ABC 80 was quite a success in its home markets, in part because of the availability of programs in local languages, and it gave rise to the ABC 800 business computer in 1981 which met with limited success against the IBM PC.  In 1985 the ABC 1600 was launched, running a Unix-like operating system on a Motorola 68008 processor, but while this was technically interesting it wasn’t really a success either.

In the end, the influence of the ABC 80 was fairly indirect – giving Scandinavian youngsters their first taste of computing on something locally produced no doubt inspired a generation to take up technology careers later on. Finding one for sale in fully working condition is tricky, but prices in the range of 1500 to 2000 Swedish Krona seem typical, but there are many emulators also available for a variety of platforms if you don’t fancy sourcing the real thing.

Sunday 12 August 2018

Apple iMac G3 (1998)

Apple iMac G3 in Blueberry
Launched August 1998

The late 1990s was a desperate time for Apple. After losing nearly two billion dollars during 1996 and 1997, many people assumed that the company was doomed. Apple desktop and laptop computers had their fans, but they were struggling to compete against cheaper and ever-improving Windows PCs.

When Steve Jobs returned to run Apple in 1997 he trimmed down the product line – including canning the pioneering MessagePad – and launched a programme of reimaging Apple’s product line. The original Apple iMac (dibbed the iMac G3), launched in August 1998, is one of the more famous examples of this process.

When launched, the iMac came with an enormous amount of press coverage. It looked like nothing else on the market: simple and elegant with a shape a little like an egg, the casing was construction of translucent plastic with a large “Bondi Blue” panel on the top. The eye-catching looks were largely due to the work of Apple’s Jonathan Ive.

The iMac also ditched the floppy disk and legacy ports of earlier Macs and instead it came with a CD and USB ports. Mac purists may have recoiled at the technical changes, but in many ways the iMac was a very contemporary reworking of the original classic Mac from 1984. Only this time, the iMac sported a 15” 1024 x 768 display and a speedy 233 MHz PowerPC processor with 32MB of RAM.

The iMac was a significant sales success, but crucially it was a design success too. Even people who would never want to buy a Mac liked the way that it looked, and it helped to re-establish Apple’s coolness in the eyes of consumers. This was a significant help when it came to subsequent products such as the iPad, iPhone and iPad – devices that sold much more widely than the iMac itself. The iMac G3 was crucially to the process of Apple reinventing itself.

There were several revisions to the iMac in the four years it was in production, most obviously with different coloured cases. The iMac also became more powerful and a little sleeker along the way. Although the original operating system was MacOS 8, the iMacs can also run the more modern OS X operating system.

The remarkable looks of the iMac G3 - with the case wrapped around the shape of the CRT – would not last as this type of display technology was in its final generation. Subsequent iMacs would use flat panels instead, giving a very different design aesthetic.

As a footnote though, when some people saw the radical design of the iMac at launch it looked rather familiar. As we have noted previously, 22 years before the iMac there was another curvy design in brightly-coloured plastic – the Lear Siegler ADM-3A. Although it’s a different technology for a different time, there are certainly some uncanny similarities.

Image credits: Apple

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Digital (DEC) VT100 (1978)

Launched August 1978

Although the late 1970s saw the birth of the microcomputer revolution, most people in businesses and academia still used a big mainframe computer or minicomputer (such as a DEC VAX) connected to a dumb terminal, for example the DEC VT52 or Lear-Siegler ADM3A.

Early terminals were nothing more than glass teletypes – essentially replacing a box of fanfold paper with a screen. The next big advance was to make the cursor addressable, in other words to be able to place text wherever you wanted on the screen. And it was the VT52 (launched in 1975) which introduced a lot of these features to customers for the first time.

The Digital Equipment Corporation (known as DEC or just Digital for short) wanted to develop the dumb terminal further, and in August 1978 they launched the DEC VT100 which pushed the boundaries ever further with support for ANSI X3.64 codes which pretty much allowed you to do anything you liked text-wise, plus it came with some rudimentary block graphics which were very handy for designing on-screen forms.

This was sophisticated stuff for the late 1970s, and the key breakthrough here was the use of an Intel 8080 (or later the 8085) microprocessor to do the hard work. Depending on variant, the 12” display could show 80 x 24 characters or up to 132 x 24 characters for a top-of-the-range version. The relatively fast 19200 baud serial interface was enough to display a full screen of 80 column text in just a second. And unlike many earlier terminals, the keyboard was attached to the main unit with a curly cable, so you could move it about to whatever position you found comfortable.

As with the VT52, the VT100 came in quite a big case which could allow extra boards to be added, turning the platform into a graphics terminal (with the VT125) or even a full-blown microcomputer with the VT180. Printers could even be attached to the back of the terminal, so you could easily have your own printer rather than sharing with the rest of the office.

The V100 family was a significant success at the time, and it and its successors sold six million units worldwide, until finally going out of production in 2017 with the VT520. One of the reasons that the VT terminal survived so long against more capable PCs was the low running cost – there was very little to go wrong, no moving parts and VT terminals were immune to things like computer viruses. VT terminals are still in use worldwide in locations where these things are important, such as warehouses.

But perhaps more commonly these days, pretty much any terminal program emulates a VT100 by default, including the command line interface on Macs and Linux systems. Perhaps more importantly, the VT100 paved the way for modern computer applications. Connecting one to a modern computer system is a bit tricky as VT terminals primarily use a serial interface, but if you get your hands on a terminal server or media converter you might be able to make it run on Ethernet, if you are up for the challenge..

Image credit: Wolfgang Stief via Flickr