Wednesday 30 October 2019

Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev (1979)

Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev, 2019
Introduced October 1979

Today we are looking at the technological marvel of the Marks and Spencer Chicken Kiev. This may seem weirdly specific, but we’re not just talking about any Chicken Kiev… we are talking about a product that helped to change the way we eat.

Originally a French-inspired piece of Russian cuisine from the early 19th century the definitive recipe for the Chicken Kiev is thought to originate from the Continental Hotel in (unsurprisingly) the city of Kiev. This breadcrumb-coated chicken breast filled with garlic butter became popular throughout the former Russian empire and it eventually escaped to the west via the Yar restaurant in Chicago in the 1930s. From there it spread to other English-speaking countries and became a popular restaurant dish.

After the Second World War (which incidentally destroyed much of the Continental Hotel) the growing ownership of freezers in the US led to the growth of what would eventually be called the “TV Dinner”. Like many other things the idea of a pre-cooked frozen dinner crossed the Atlantic to the UK. But what these foods gained in convenience they tended to sacrifice in taste – and they certainly weren’t something that you would serve to guests.

By the late 1970s food technology was developing quickly. The decade had already given us the Pot Noodle a couple of years earlier, but British retailer Marks and Spencer was working on something altogether classier.

Young product developer Cathy Chapman was working with restaurateur John Docker to create a range of chilled (rather than frozen) meal based on popular restaurant choices. First out of the gate was the Chicken Kiev, modelled closely after the restaurant version including having a little bone sticking out of it.

Despite misgivings from M&S management, the Chicken Kiev was a huge success. Priced at £1.99 per portion in 1979 (nearly £10 today) it certainly wasn’t cheap, but it did have the advantage of being a very tasty and somewhat technically complicated dish that you could prepare in your own home with virtually no culinary skills whatsoever. For extra sophistication, you could wash it down with a bottle of Hirondelle.

The humble M&S Chicken Kiev marked a change in the way food was packaged and sold, and the concept soon spread to other western supermarkets. Today it’s possible to create a quite sophisticated meal even if you can’t reliably boil an egg. This change in food technology certainly broadened our horizons, but tended to come at a cost – these prepackaged foods are often designed for taste rather than healthy eating, and in their wake they tend to leave a lot of packaging which needs to be dealt with too.

You are unlikely to come across any 40-year-old vintage Chicken Kievs – and if you do, give them a wide berth – but food packaging itself it a niche collectable. Marks and Spencer sell a few different versions of Chicken Kiev today at different price points. The ones pictured were £3 for two, which is a lot cheaper than they were in 1979. I ate them for my tea. Very nice they were too.

Image credit: Shritwod via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday 20 October 2019

PalmOne Treo 650 (2004)

PalmOne Treo 650
Announced October 2004

The history of the mobile phone market is a bit like the history of the world itself, with empires rising and falling and new superpowers emerging and sweeping the old orders away.

One of these old orders was Palm – which due to its Byzantine history was at the time called PalmOne. Palm pretty much owned the PDA market in the 1990s with the Palm Pilot, but they’d missed out on the emergent “wireless PDA” (or as we would call it “smartphone”) market in the early noughties. This led to Palm buying out a company called Handspring, who made wireless PDAs based on Palm’s own operating system – this enabled Palm to get into the market in 2003 with the Handspring Treo 600, followed by the improved PalmOne Treo 650 in 2004.

It seems a bit alien compared to a modern smartphone with the large keyboard and relatively small screen, plus a stick-out antenna which was old-fashioned even in 2004. The 2.4” 320 x 320 pixel TFT touchscreen display was very advanced for its time, and Palm OS 5.4 was a highly usable and sophisticated software platform which included good support for corporate email too.

Bluetooth, expandable memory and a decent multimedia player rounded off the specification, but unlike modern smartphones there was no high-speed data (it was GSM-only) and no GPS. Still, it was competitive for the time.

It was a valiant effort by Palm - but RIM, HTC and Nokia were all established in the “wireless PDA” market by the time Palm came along. Ultimately the Treo sold well to fans of existing Palm Pilots, but it only had limited success outside its existing market base. The Palm OS platform refused to go down without a fight, and it soldiered on for another three years with the Palm Centro being the last of the line.

Prices for the Treo 650 and 600 vary a lot, with decent ones starting at £50 and going up to £200 for ones in mint condition. If you collect interesting old phones you should probably have at least one running Palm OS, and the Treo 650 is certainly a good candidate.

Image credit: Palm

Tuesday 15 October 2019

BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2 (2009)

Announced October 2009

Although 2009 had seen the rise and rise of Android and Apple smartphones, it’s easy to forget that they were still only quite small players in that market. When it came to smartphones that were actually used as smartphones – because many of Nokia’s Symbian devices were only used as feature phones by owners – then the company to beat was Research In Motion and their line of BlackBerry devices.

The killer application on the BlackBerry platform was messaging – no other smartphone had quite the capabilities when it came to email or instant message, and for this reason BlackBerry devices were extremely popular. So when RIM announced two significant devices in October 2009 they were at the top of their game.

BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is one of the best classic BlackBerry devices ever. A useful evolution over the Bold 9000 launched the previous year, the 9700 had everything a smartphone should have, including 3.5G data, WiFi, GPS, a decent camera and good multimedia support. This classic BlackBerry had a physical QWERTY keyboard that fans loved plus the useful addition of a very usable small trackpad which made the whole user experience much better.

Both corporate and private users bought the 9700 in significant quantities, and it did seem that sticking to the classic BlackBerry formula was working well for RIM in the face of their upstart rivals.

Where the Bold 9700 built on success, the BlackBerry Storm2 was a follow-on to failure. The original BlackBerry Storm – released in 2008 – was a disaster. Poorly conceived and implements, the Storm was critically panned and unsurprisingly didn’t sell. The Storm2 fixed many of the problems of the original, including re-engineering the touchscreen display, including WiFi, fixing the software and fitting a better camera. As a result, the Storm2 was at least usable… but the specification was a year out of date when it hit the market and it was only a modest success.

In the end, the success of the Bold 9700 masked the disappointing sales of the Storm2. Although this didn’t look like a bad result, the problem was that RIM didn’t have a next-generation product that could complete with the new generation of smartphones coming out. It would take more than three years to produce a real successor to the classic BlackBerry platform, and that was a catastrophe that made even the original Storm look small in comparison.

Image Credits: RIM / BlackBerry

Videos: BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2


Wednesday 9 October 2019

Poqet PC (1989)

Poqet PC Plus
Introduced October 1989

By the end of the 1980s it was just possible to squeeze a fully-specified personal computer into something the size of a book. Atari had done just that with the Portfolio launched in mid-1989, but that made quite a lot of compromises along the way. In October the same year, Poqet Computer Corporation launched their Poqet PC, a tiny computer which was the closest thing yet to a PC you could fit in your pocket.

A little bit heavier than the Atari, the Poqet PC had a much better specification. The screen was capable of displaying full MDA or CGA-compatible graphics, inside was 512KB or 640KB of RAM with a 7MHz 80C88 processor, there were two PCMCIA slots and the Pocket PC ran MS-DOS 3.3. Two AA batteries were enough to power the Poqet PC for weeks due to some very clever power management.

Although it wasn’t a powerful system per se, it was a pretty capable PC/XT compatible system, similar to those desktop that were still selling well in the late 1980s. At this point, most PCs ran plain old DOS programs as Windows had not yet broken through into the market.

Although it was undoubtedly a better system than the Portfolio, it was also hugely more expensive. The Atari cost around $400, the Poqet was $2000 (around $4000 today). Still, it was a niche success for people who needed full PC compatibility in an ultraportable form factor.

Poqet ended up being bought by Fujitsu who stuck with the Poqet brand for a while before folding it into their own notebook line. Today, Poqet PCs are quite collectable with prices ranging between £300 and £800 depending on features and condition.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday 6 October 2019

Sharp MZ-80K (1979)

Sharp MZ-80K
Introduced October 1979

By 1979 the fledgling microcomputer market was already up and running, with the Commodore PET, Apple II and TRS-80 Model I leading the way in most markets.

Although US-based computer makers had gained the lion's share of the market, they were concerned about the rising Japanese competition. Leading the way was Sharp, who in 1979 launched the MZ-80K personal computer to a worldwide audience, having been available in kit form in Japan for about a year.

A smart-looking all-in-one unit, the MZ-80K was pitched at the upper end of the market, but it was probably the most capable computer of that particular era. Based on Sharp's own LH0080A CPU (which was Z80 compatible) there was also a large software library available. A combination of reliable Japanese technology, good packaging and relative ease of use made the MZ-80K a popular computer for its time.

There were some odd features though - most microcomputers of the time would boot up into BASIC from a ROM, the MZ-80K just started up into a simple bootloader where you could load whatever programming language you wanted from tape or floppy, which took more time but gave more flexibility.The biggest detraction was probably the keyboard, which was somehow even worse than the one on the original PET. Made up of a large grid of keys with the return key for some reason down at the bottom near the space bar and a surprising number of buttons just for the MZ-80K's rather primitive graphics.
Sharp MZ-80K keyboard detail

The improved MZ-80A followed with a more conventional keyboard, and variants of the MZ line were sold by Sharp until the mid 1980s at which point the bottom fell out of the market for 8-bit machines.

Today the MZ-80K and its descendants are pretty collectable, although the original RIFA capacitors need to be checked and replaced before using it, as they are quite likely to explode. Typical prices for a restored version in good condition are around £400 or so.

Image credits:
Wolfgang Stief via Wikimedia Commons
Marcin Wichary via Flickr

Friday 4 October 2019

Motorola DROID / Milestone (2009)

Motorola DROID
Launched October 2009

By October 2009 the Android operating system had been around for just over a year, and devices were beginning to get more common. However, version one of Android had quite a few rough edges both in terms of the user interface and the hardware it could support.

But Google and Motorola were working on a significant improvement, and the Motorola DROID was the world’s first Android 2.0 handset to market exclusively on the Verizon CDMA network, followed rapidly by a worldwide GSM version called the Motorola Milestone. A huge improvement over every rival Android smartphone, the DROID / Milestone showed the Motorola was a force to be reckoned with.

Compared with the rival iPhone 3GS, the Motorola had a much better screen and camera, turn-by-turn navigation, expandable memory, support for Adobe Flash and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard which was certainly useful but did add to the bulk.

The DROID / Milestone was almost definitely the most capable smartphone of any type on the market at the time. But in terms of sales, the device only made a modest impact. In the US the DROID was exclusive to the Verizon network, and went head-to-head with the iPhone on AT&T… in other words, to use the DROID you either had to be an existing Verizon customer or you had to switch networks.

Elsewhere in the world, Motorola had a more serious problem. Years of decline and unappealing handsets meant that many carriers no longer had a relationship with Motorola to speak of – this meant that Moto had an uphill struggle to get any carriers at all to pick it up. As a result most of the worldwide sales were for SIM-free units – a niche market at best, given a price tag of about €500.

Motorola Milestone
Although it was a major critical and design success, it was only a modest sales success. But it was enough to (just about) save Motorola who just two years previously looked doomed. There would still be turbulent times ahead for Moto.

Today the Motorola Milestone (A853) is a very rare thing to find, the Motorola DROID (A855) is much more common and is very cheap. As far as Motorola smartphones go, this is probably one of the most collectable and technologically it is certainly one of the most significant early Android devices.

Image credits: Motorola and Retromobe

Motorola DROID video