Friday 24 January 2020

Apple iPad (2010)

Apple iPad (2010)
Launched January 2010

At the start of 2010, the Apple iPhone had been on the market for two-and-a-half years and a bit of a slow start it was becoming rather popular, along with its rival Android platform.

But although modern smartphones were easy to use for some tasks, their small screens could be a pain. Go bigger and you might end up spending a lot of money on a notebook computer which would take ages to boot up.

There were other solutions, and as ever it was Nokia who were exploring them. The elegant Nokia Booklet 3G took and inexpensive small notebook design and added seamless 3G connectivity along with the advantages of a 10.1” display. And five years previously, Nokia had introduced something called an “Internet Tablet” with a relatively large 4.1” display running a version of Linux.

Nokia had all the technologies it needed to take the next step in personal computing, but it hadn’t put them together in the right way. However, in January 2010 Apple put together all the available technologies to come up with a product that people hadn’t realised that they actually wanted until that point – the Apple iPad.

Rumours had been flying around for a while about some tablet-based computer, but there were few solid details. In fact, the smart money seemed to be convinced that the device was going to be called the Apple iSlate (a trademark that Apple actually owned). But overall Apple's veil of secrecy about the new device held.

The iPad was as easy to use as the iPhone but had a 9.7” display, was just 13mm thick and weighed only around 700 grams. Priced at between $499 for the basic 16GB WiFi-only version to $829 for a 64GB one with 3G they weren’t exactly cheap, but they were still good value compared to a lot of laptops.

Of course, the iPad lacked a keyboard or mouse (but it didn’t take long for Bluetooth keyboards to come out), however the main flaw with the iPad was that it didn’t support multitasking, so you couldn’t run multiple apps at once. This was eventually fixed in iOS 4.2 launched in November 2010, but to begin with it was certainly a handicap.

Regardless of the flaws it may have had, the iPad launched in a blaze of publicity and it was a massive hit – selling 15 million units before the launch of the iPad 2. Unusually for Apple, it had only a short lifespan for software updates with the last OS upgrade coming out in May 2012.

Several generations later and the iPad is still a strong seller, however sales peaked in about 2013 and have been in decline ever since. Part of this apparent decline is probably due to smartphones becoming more capable – the iPhone 11 Pro Max has a 6.5” display for example – and also people replace tablets less often. Despite many competitors coming along (and mostly failing) Apple still has more than a third of the market it essentially created.

Image credits: Apple

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Google Nexus One (2010)

Nexus One
Introduced January 2010

By the start of 2010 the Android platform had been around for fifteen months but some cracks were beginning to appear in Google’s strategy to revolutionise the smartphone industry. Part of the problem was that manufacturers were trying to customise the OS rather too much which was leading to fragmentation, they were also very poor at providing software updates and prices for higher-end devices were quite expensive.

Microsoft had suffered a similar problem with their Windows phones – weakness in the user interface with that operating system had resulting in different manufacturers reskinning the OS to make it more appealing. This meant that your experience with a Windows phone from HTC would very different to one made from Samsung or Motorola. This was a problem that rivals Apple and Nokia didn’t have because they completely controlled both the OS and the hardware.

Google’s response to this was the Google Nexus One, a device made for them by HTC. Competing in part with the iPhone 3GS, the Nokia 5800 and a multitude of Android and Windows phones, the Nexus One beat most of them when it came to both hardware and software. The 3.7” 480 x 800 pixel AMOLED display beat almost everything else in its class, the 5 megapixel camera was pretty good and the whole package looked attractive even if the styling betrayed that it was an HTC underneath.

Initially the idea was that Google would sell the Nexus One to consumers at $530 or €370, which was good value for a high-end SIM-free smartphone at the time. However back in 2010 customers were cool on the idea, preferring to get their phones subsidised with a contract.

Despite the attractions of the device, sales were slow. Google shifted away from direct sales in mid-2010 and tried to attract carriers to the device, with only a moderate amount of success. Customers were unhappy with the quality of the OLED screen to begin with, the Nexus One was modified for a more traditional Super LCD display a few months in (although this was mostly down to manufacturing issues). There wasn’t much in the way of marketing either, so while mobile phone fans might have known about it... many others didn’t.

But still, the Nexus One was meant to set an example to other manufacturers about how to do it and to some extent sales were not important. The other thing that Google wanted to do was show that software updates could be done quickly, rather than dragging on more months with other manufacturers (especially handsets tied to carriers). And Google were as good as their word, updates hit the Nexus One very quickly and everyone was happy… right up until the point that Google announced that the Nexus One wouldn’t be getting an upgrade to Android Ice Cream Sandwich in October 2011 because the hardware was “too old”. This was for a phone that was less than two years old and was now effectively on the scrapheap – and just as a comparison, the contemporary Apple iPhone 3GS ended up with software updates for five years.

Despite all of these woes, Google stuck with the Nexus project with a variety of partners such as Samsung, ASUS, Motorola and HTC (again), LG - with the final Nexus model being built by Huawei in 2015. After that, Google dropped the Nexus devices and instead brought out a more expensive range called the Google Pixel to somewhat mixed reviews and moderate success.

Google’s involvement in Android got more complicated when they bought Motorola’s mobile phone businesses a year after the launch of the Nexus One, only to asset strip it of patents and sell the desiccated husk to Lenovo in 2014. In 2018 Google bought part of HTC but as yet haven't turned this fading company around. Overall, Google’s foray into producing its own handsets was probably not the decisive influence that Google wanted it to be. Would it have made any real difference if they hadn't bothered?

Image credits: HTC and Google

Google Nexus One - Video 


Thursday 9 January 2020

Digital (DEC) PDP-11

Well-appointed PDP-11 at TNMOC, Bletchley
Launched January 1970

The Digital PDP-11 is a computer you may not have heard of, but it was hugely influential in terms of hardware and even more so in the software that it helped to create.

Digital Equipment Corporation (typically known as DEC or Digital) was founded in 1957, first tinkering with electronics for laboratory environments and then producing a full computer system in 1959 with the PDP-1 minicomputer. Other models followed and DEC grew quickly through the 1960s with a wide range of new products including the very successful PDP-8.

The term “minicomputer” is rarely used these days, and by modern standard there was nothing mini about them. Often house in racks and sometimes filling a small room, minicomputers were shrunk down versions of the huge mainframe computers that tended to require their own building. Even as microcomputers became popular, minicomputers were much more powerful and made it easier for people to work collaboratively, these days their modern descendant would be a server. Typically you would access a minicomputer with a terminal such as a VT52.

Time and technology move on and by the late 1960s the computer industry started to settle on 8, 16 and 32 bit architecture (based on an 8-bit word size) where Digital was mostly producing 12, 18 and 36 bit machines (based on a 6-bit word size). In part this change happened because the computer industry was starting to standardise on the 7-bit ASCII character set.

In January 1970, DEC launched its first 16-bit minicomputer – the PDP-11. Combining the extensive experience of the company from the previous decade (both good and bad), the PDP-11 was a high usable and expandable system. A key feature of the PDP-11 was that it was relatively easy to program, especially when it came to using peripherals (initially on the Unibus bus and later Q-Bus). And peripherals were available from DEC in abundance, including disk drives, tapes drives, printers and terminals.

From the outset the PDP-11 was a huge success, starting with the original 11/20 and 11/15 models in 1970 and then developing along with advancing technologies to become smaller and more powerful, ending with the 11/93 and 11/94 in 1990 (which were in production until 1997). But PDP-11 systems ended up being squeezed into other “smart” peripherals too such as robot arms and when added to a terminal such as the VT100 they could make a compact desktop version (such as the VT103). DEC even tried to make a PDP-11 to compete with the IBM PC with the DEC Professional range.

Perhaps confusingly DEC had many operating systems for the PDP-11, notably RT-11. However the most famous OS that the PDP-11 is famous for is Unix – a platform that was developed at Bell Labs in response to the complex Multics OS. In fact, Unix was tied to the PDP-11 platform until 1978 when it was finally ported to a fairly obscure system called the Interdata 8/32.

Unix became an enormous success – it took a while – and today descendants and variants of that OS power smartphones, servers and personal computers worldwide. But the PDP-11 hardware too was hugely influential, directly inspiring 1970s processors such as the Motorola 68000 and Intel 8086.

DEC sold hundreds of thousands of PDP-11s while it was in production, making it possibly the most popular minicomputer ever made. The 32-bit DEC VAX launched in 1977 was meant to be the next logical step, however both the PDP-11 and VAX ended up being sold in parallel.

In terms of both software and hardware the PDP-11 was a hugely significant device, even if most people may never have seen one. Surprisingly it seems some are still in use, and there’s a brisk trade in parts and components on the second hard market.

Image credit: Loz Pycock via Flickr

Wednesday 1 January 2020

Sinclair ZX80 (1980)

Sinclair ZX80
Launched January 1980

By the start of the 1980s, the microcomputer revolution had been in full swing for a few years. However, price remained a problem – generally speaking even basic systems could run into thousands of dollars or pounds when you added in all the bits and pieces you needed.

This meant that many people couldn’t afford to get involved in this new field, especially in the UK where disposable income at the end of the 1970s was quite small compared to the US. So, Clive Sinclair tackled the issue of affordability head-on to come up with a uniquely British computer that went on to spawn some even more successful offspring.

Sinclair had been dabbling in all sorts of high-tech gadgets for some years, and in 1978 had come up with a low-cost board computer called the MK14. This very simple little computer showed that there was a market for this type of device, so Sinclair’s firm – Science of Cambridge – set to work on something more usable, the Sinclair ZX80.

When it was launched in January 1980, the ZX80 came in ready-built form for a shade under £100. If you wanted to solder it together yourself you could save £20 on top of that. Then, all you would need was a TV, cassette recorder and a couple of cables to make a complete system.

Measuring 22 x 18cm it was about two-thirds of the size of an A4 sheet of paper – a fact that surprised many customers who bought one by mail order who expected it to be somewhat bigger. Despite the diminutive form factor, the ZX80 was an exceptionally elegant design. A blue-on-back membrane keyboard housed in a futuristic white case with “SINCLAIR ZX80” boldly emblazoned across it, the exterior design was the work of the late Rick Dickinson who went on to work on many other Sinclair projects.

Inside were just 21 chips including a Zilog Z80 compatible processor and 1KB of RAM. RAM could be extended to 16KB by using a “RAM Pack” that plugged into the edge connector on the back of the machine. There was no sound and the monochrome output only supported uppercase characters and some simple predefined block graphics. BASIC was built-in to the computer along with some pretty good documentation, so it was possible to get started on the ZX80 straight away and start doing some coding. As with a calculator, each key had many different functions – for example, almost all the BASIC keywords were generated by a single key press.

It had its flaws – primarily the way the display went blank when the computer was processing, and poor ventilation meant that the ZX80 was prone to overheating (the black slots that look like cooling vents are in fact merely cosmetic). However, Science of Cambridge sold around 100,000 units in a lifespan of just over a year and the machine was so popular that there were significant waiting lists.

The ZX81 followed in 1981, which was almost identical in overall architecture but had a lower chip count, more features and crucially was cheaper. In 1982 Sinclair launched the ZX Spectrum, and between them these inexpensive compact computers sold in their millions.

Despite selling so many machines, the ZX80 is a rare beast these days. Typical prices for a complete working system are around £600 or so, quite a bit more than it would have cost in real terms.  Alternatively you can buy a modern kit such as the Minstrel and assemble one yourself for much less.

Image credit: Rain Rabbit via Flickr
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