Wednesday 25 September 2019

Xerox 914 (1959)

Xerox 914 plus contemporary advertising
Launched September 1959

Pretty much ever since human beings invented paper, they’ve wanted an easy way to copy what was written, printed or drawn on that paper. One Wednesday in September 1958 – about 2000 years after paper was invented – there was finally a solution.

The Xerox 914 was the fruit of a two-decade development of a dry copy processes called xerography, a technology that had been acquired by the Haloid Company of New York. Able to copy full-sized documents onto plain paper, the 914 was a significant technological advance over the slower, messier methods that had gone before.

Weighing nearly 300 kilograms and with a large footprint as well, the 914 was pretty big but still quite usable as a departmental copier. With an ability to copy 100,000 pages per month at 7 sheets per minute, the 914 is still pretty competitive by modern standards.

If you wanted to buy one it was phenomenally expensive at $27,500 (roughly equivalent to a quarter of a million dollars today) or apparently you could rent one for just $95 a month plus a charge for each copy made.

It has its problems though, notably paper jams could result in a small fire which later models of 914 dealt with by including a small fire extinguishers euphemistically called a “scorch guard”.  Despite this the Xerox 914 was a huge success, shipping 200,000 units until the end of production in 1976. Haloid even changed its name to Xerox after its best-known line of products.

A behemoth such as the Xerox 914 is hardly a collectable item, and given that probably most of them were rented you are probably unlikely to stumble across one. But perhaps there are still a few gathering dust in basements and store rooms…

Image credit: Xerox

Monday 23 September 2019

Apple Macintosh Portable (1989)

Apple Macintosh Portable
Launched September 1989

Launched five years after the original Macintosh, the Apple Macintosh Portable was the first truly portable Mac, a device that prioritised performance over everything else and ended up as a notable but rather heroic failure for Apple.

Here was an extremely elegant all-in-one device, although the sheer bulk of the thing and the hefty 7.2 kilogram weight pushed the definition of “portable” even thirty years ago. Once opened up the central feature was the 9.8” active matrix display – a very rare technology at the time – giving a pin-sharp and very usable 640 x 480 pixel monochrome display. Below was a decently-sized keyboard and a trackball that could be swapped around according to the user’s preferences.

Inside was a venerable Motorola 68000 processor running at 16MHz with up to 9GB of SRAM which made the Macintosh Portable a very fast Mac indeed for its day. Typically the Macintosh Portable would have a 40MB hard disk and possibly a modem. A 3.5” floppy disk drive was included as standard.

The Macintosh Portable could run on either AC power or the internal lead acid batteries which could give an astonishing 10 hours of runtime. These batteries were one of the main contributors to the size and weight of the thing, and indeed they were the Mac Portable’s biggest flaw.

Unlike a modern laptop, the battery was wired in series to the AC supply which meant that if the battery was discharged, the unit wouldn’t power up… even if connected to the mains. In the longer term it meant that Mac Portables with defective batteries couldn’t be used at all. Complicated workarounds exist to bypass or replace the batteries which have not been available as a replacement part for years.

It was an impressive piece of equipment, but the price was pretty eye-watering. A hard disk model cost about $7300 (equivalent to $15,000 or £12,000 today) and the original flat panel display on the M5120 model lacked a backlight which was fixed in the later M5126 at the expense of battery life.

It didn’t sell particularly well despite having a huge amount of press coverage, probably down to being just too expensive, just too bulky and just too flawed to make it desirable. The Macintosh Portable line spent just two years on the market before being replaced by the PowerBook 100 which was designed in partnership with Sony which was half the weight and one third of the price.

Although it was deemed a failure, the Macintosh Portable’s uncompromising design introduced advanced features that proved to be something to be aspired to. Today these Macs are rather rare and very collectable if in working condition, with typical prices starting at £1000. Even so, working around the battery issue is a major headache in any Mac Portable restoration and is best done by someone with the appropriate skill and lots of patience.

Image credit: Credit: BenoƮt Prieur - CC-BY-SA

Sunday 22 September 2019

Motorola 68000 (1979)

Launched September 1979

Motorola had been one of the early pioneers of microprocessors with the 8-bit Motorola 6800 launched in 1974. Launched a few years before there was really a big market for it, the 6800 was nonetheless successful and it inspired other 8-bit rivals such as the MOS Technology 6502 and Zilog Z80.

These rivals took a big chunk of the market that Motorola helped to create, but since Motorola were a forward-looking company they were looking ahead to devices that would be in a different and more powerful class to the 8-bit masses. Skipping the obvious step of making a purely 16-bit CPU, Motorola pressed ahead to create the (mostly) 32-bit Motorola 68000.

Motorola 68000

Introduced in September 1979, the 68000 was less like the cheap and cheerful 8-bit CPUs finding their way into home computers such as the PET and Apple II and was rather more like the powerful processors found in minicomputers such as the DEC VAX.

Although the 68000 started in high-end devices such as the Sun-1 workstation, it progressively got cheaper and found its way into a new generation of powerful home computers such as the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST and Commodore Amiga and even Apple laser printers. Games consoles soon took on the 68000 and eventually derivatives of it ended up as embedded systems which are still in use to this day (the NXP ColdFire for example).

During the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s the 68000 series of processors was the only real rival to Intel in terms of volume. By 1994 the line had really been upgraded as much as it could, and Motorola then teamed up with IBM and Apple to create the PowerPC processor which was used mostly in the Power Macintosh line until 2006.

Processors are a pretty niche thing to collect, but early examples of the 68000 are pretty common to find. Much more collectable – and usable – are the 1980s computer systems that use the 68000, especially those from Commodore and Atari.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Sharp 902 (2004)

Sharp 902
Launched September 2004

By 2004 3G networks were becoming quite widely rolled out with most major carriers offering pretty good 3G coverage. There weren’t a lot of handsets though, and few of them really offered anything other than the high-speed data connection itself.

Vodafone had something up its sleeve though because of their Japanese subsidiary Vodafone K.K. 3G networks had been available for a little while in Japan, and Japanese domestic phone makers had come up with several interesting handsets that were quite unlike those being designed in Europe and the United States.

Sharp was key player in Japan, and they partnered with Vodafone to make what was quite possibly the best phone of its time – the Sharp 902.

Essentially this was just a big 3G clamshell phone, however the 902 exceeded rivals in almost every specification. One key feature was the camera – the first two megapixel unit on the market, it also featured a 2X optical zoom (rather than a digital one). The camera had a multi-coloured LED flash and built-in image-to-text conversion as well.

Inside the 2.4” display panel featured Sharp’s continuous grain silicon (CG Silicon) technology in a 240 x 320 pixel screen that was so much clearer than rivals it simply knocked them out of the park. The screen itself could rotate 180 degrees, so you could flip it back to front if you wanted and use it that way round. Nothing else on the market in Europe could do that.

Add to this a full-sized SD/MMC card slot, video calling, Bluetooth, streaming media support, an MP3 player and a whole bunch of other features – in most respects the 902 made other 3G rivals look primitive. In addition to the standard model, a striking red Ferrari edition came out which boosted the profile of the phone further.
Sharp 902 Ferrari Edition

It should have been a game-changer, but it wasn’t. It turns out that the much-vaunted 2 megapixel camera really wasn’t as good as people were expecting, the user interface was nowhere as good as Nokia’s and the handset was a Vodafone exclusive and couldn’t be unlocked. And although the Sharp 902 was undoubtedly an attractive device to look at, perhaps it was a bit too Japanese for conservative European customers.

Most importantly, your average mobile customer in 2004 wasn’t really that interested in 3G anyway. Most web pages were not optimised for running on mobile phones, streaming content and downloads were expensive and the sort of social media apps we see today simply didn’t exist.

The Sharp 902 ended up as a niche success, but it wasn’t enough to make Sharp one of the big handset sellers in Europe. Less than two years later, Vodafone sold its Japanese operations to Softbank which effectively stopped the flow of Japanese 3G phones into Europe. Today the Sharp 902 is pretty uncommon to find with prices starting at around £20 or so with the rare Ferrari edition being very much more expensive.

Image credits: Sharp and Vodafone

Thursday 12 September 2019

Nokia 7260, 7270 and 7280 (2004)

Launched September 2004

Fifteen years ago we were in the golden age of mobile phone design. Although technologically limited compared to the powerful smartphones of today, manufacturers were not constrained by what they could design physically and all sorts of bold designs emerged as a result.

A trio of fashion phones, the Nokia 7260, 7270 and the 7280 certainly took boldness to a new level. Noted usually for their understated design, Nokia ripped up their rule book in this case and came up with something which was certainly a lot more eye-catching.

For most people the phone of choice would be the cheapest – the Nokia 7260. At the time we called the design “a complete mess” but in retrospect this bold art deco look is refreshing. Blending the keypad itself into the decoration, the 7260 also had a slightly asymmetric shape to set it apart from normal brick phones.

Underneath the startling exterior was a different story. A small screen, very basic camera and a couple of games were included with the only real concession to fun being the inbuilt FM radio. Even by 2004 standard this was a bit crude, with no music player or Bluetooth for example. Yet it sold in huge quantities, presumably based on looks alone.

Nokia 7260

One step up, the Nokia 7270 clamshell had a much better screen and slightly toned-down the looks. The 7270 featured changeable textile covers and was a more practical alternative although in the end it didn’t sell as well as the cheaper 7260.

Nokia 7270

But the phone that got everyone talking was the Nokia 7280. This “lipstick phone” didn’t have a conventional keypad at all but instead features an iPhone-style rotator. The little screen had a mirror finish, so you could preen yourself when not using it. Surprising it was taller than the 7260 but much narrower. The detailing was an intricate pattern of black and white, revealing a flash of red when the camera was expose. On of the details that owners liked most of all was the little fabric NOKIA label on the side.

Nokia 7280

Sorely lacking in practicality but making up for it in sheer “wow factor” the 7280 was surprisingly successful and many people used it as a second phone. Even fifteen years on, this phone would probably attract a lot of attention.

The 7280 is the most collectable with prices ranging between about £100 to £300 depending on condition. Prices for the 7270 and 7260 vary between about £50 to £250. So it’s quite possible that all three in really decent condition could set you back nearly a grand. Tempted?

Image credits: Nokia

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Motorola CLIQ / DEXT (2009)

Motorola CLIQ / DEXT
Announced September 2009

September 2009 marked the first anniversary of the launch of the first consumer Android phone, the T-Mobile G1 also known as the HTC Dream. The following 12 months had seen a handful of other devices from HTC and Samsung but there still wasn’t much choice on this supposedly open platform.

Motorola’s entry into the Android arena had been long anticipated. The struggling mobile maker had bet the barn on Google’s new operating system and had cancelled all the other varied smartphone platforms it was involved in.

As with some other early Android devices, the Motorola CLIQ or DEXT (depending on market) had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard but the relatively small 3.1” 320 x 480 pixel display was unimpressive compared to better-equipped rivals.

Android had improved a lot over the previous year, and Motorola had loaded a whole bunch of their MOTOBLUR social networking applications on top. It looked pretty decent overall, but it was also something of a red herring as Nokia also had the significantly better Motorola DROID under wraps which would be announced the following month.

It wasn’t a massive success, but the CLIQ / DEXT was the point where Motorola just about saved itself from oblivion. There were still going to be turbulent times ahead, but Motorola ended up raising the bar significantly in early Android phones. This isn’t a particularly collectable device, but it is quite rare with prices being around £40 or so.

Image credit: Motorola

Video: Motorola CLIQ / DEXT

Friday 6 September 2019

BlackBerry Passport (2014)

Launched September 2014

By 2014 the once-giant BlackBerry had more-or-less faded into insignificance following the disastrous launch of the Z10 and Q10 running the powerful but unpopular BlackBerry 10 operating system. A history of bad decisions by management had sidelined the company, but it turned out that they still had some fight in them.

The BlackBerry Passport is certainly one of the oddest-looking devices that we’ve seen in the past half-decade, but it was BlackBerry’s attempt to build a BlackBerry 10 device that would appeal to the corporate consumers that had stuck by it all these years. And although ultimately it wasn’t the success that BlackBerry hoped it would be, it had some novel features that set it apart from the devices we see today.

When the Z10 and Q10 were launched in January 2013 after an incredibly long time in development it soon became obvious that BlackBerry had made a huge strategic error. People who wanted an all-touch device such as the Z10 had defected to the iPhone or Android long before, but BlackBerry still prioritised the Z10 over the Q10 with its physical keyboard. And it was the Q10 that BlackBerry loyalists wanted. The upshot was that the Z10 flopped and BlackBerry ended up writing off a billion dollars to cover the fiasco.

BlackBerry ditched their top management and had a good rethink about the sort of device their customers wanted. And as a result, they came up with the rather brave BlackBerry Passport.

The Passport was like no other smartphone. Featuring a large 4.5” 1140 x 1140 pixel panel – which was square – and a three row physical keyboard on the bottom, the Passport had about the same footprint as.. well, a passport. Bigger than most other phones on the market, the solid construction also meant that it was pretty heavy too.

The unusual form factor was optimised for reading emails and documents rather than for playing games or web browsing. In this they had judged their core customer base pretty well, but the sheer bulk of the thing made it a little tricky to handle, the keyboard wasn’t like a classic BlackBerry and the whole thing felt a bit sluggish despite impressive hardware specifications.

The BlackBerry 10 operating system was much improved over earlier versions, and users could now download Android apps (albeit from Amazon and not Google) on top of BlackBerry’s class-leading enterprise software.

The Passport was well received, and sold pretty well – reportedly shipping hundreds of thousands of units in a relatively short time. But ultimately it was a bit too big, the operating system was unpopular and the device was simply too late to be the turnaround phone that BlackBerry needed.

The BlackBerry 10 OS made it into a couple of other smartphones before BlackBerry outsourced the manufacture of their smartphones and switched over to Android. Today the Passport represents an interesting part of the BlackBerry story and should be fairly collectable for those who like unusual devices. Typical prices for unlocked models seems to be between £50 to £100.

Image credit: BlackBerry

BlackBerry Passport - Video

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (2014)

Apple  iPhone 6 and 6 Plus
Launched September 2014

By 2014 the iPhone had been around for 7 years and although each generation of the device had added new features, increasingly the iPhone was lagging behind on screen size. 2013’s iPhone 5S was particularly weak in this respect, but the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launched the following year broke the mould of old iPhones and created a completely new one.

The standard iPhone 6 came with a 4.7” 750 x 1334 pixel display, a useful improvement over the 4.0” 620 x 1136 pixel panel in the older one. But it was the 6 Plus with a 5.5” full HD 1080 x 1920 pixel panel that propelled the iPhone into the era of the modern high-end smartphone. The iPhone also came with Apple Pay, kick-starting the concept of mobile payments.

The 6 Plus is perhaps the pinnacle of Apple’s iPhone design. The convenient front-mounted fingerprint sensor, the notchless screen and the 3.5mm audio jack are all the sorts of things that we miss. At this time Apple’s design was led by what customers wanted, not what designers wanted.

On the negative side, both iPhones were prone to bending and a widespread fault with the screen called “touch disease” proved an annoyance. There were other more minor faults and niggles too. Despite this, 220 million iPhone 6 devices were sold over its lifetime.

Perhaps not an iconic design, the iPhone 6 was one of those moments where a number of relatively small improvements all came together at once to make a truly satisfying product. Indeed, the same basic design is still available in today’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus for those who think the all-screen iPhone XS is going a bit far.

Image credit: Apple

Apple iPhone 6 and 6s video