Sunday 26 April 2020

Acorn Atom (1980)

Acorn Atom
Introduced 1980

The late 1970s saw the introduction of the first microcomputers that you could just take out of the box and use and home or at work, and eventually this would lead to an explosion in the numbers of home computers available in the first half of the 1980s.

Somewhere in between these two points was the Acorn Atom – not one of the original micros that changes the world, and not one of the later ones that sold (for a while) like hot cakes. However – like almost all Acorn computers – the Atom is part of a vitally important heritage that had profound effects on the way we interact with technology today.

Acorn’s first successful commercial product had been the Acorn System 1 launched the previous year. Little more than a board computer with a keypad and some interfaces, the System 1 was incredibly basic but had potential.

The System 1 developed into the Systems 2 to 5, rack-mounted systems that were not dissimilar to the pioneering RM 380Z which had achieved some success in education and scientific markets. These Eurocard systems had evolved quickly into capable systems, but despite this the rackmount form factor was never going to work in the home.

Back: Atom, BBC Master Compact, Electron, BBC Micro
Front: BBC Master
Acorn took most of the key components of the Acorn System 3 and stuffed them into an all-in-one unit that was based on the Acorn System keyboard. Featuring a 1MHz 6502 processor, 2Kb of RAM (upgradable to 12Kb), a fast built-in BASIC plus a variety of colour graphics modes and sound the Atom was certainly competitive with other systems on the market.

The standard storage was a cassette drive, but you could add floppy disks, printers or other peripherals. Unfortunately a fully-loaded Atom would tend to overheat, a challenge that could often be fixed by the not-at-all-dangerous act of rewiring the mains power supply.

You could buy the Atom for £170 assembled or for £120 as a kit, more expensive than the rival Sinclair ZX80 but much more sophisticated. It was a relative success, selling in tens of thousands of units and setting Acorn up well enough financially to make several follow-ups.

So why is it so important? Well, the Acorn Atom developed into the very successful BBC Micro which was followed up by the Acorn Archimedes and that gave us the ARM processor which is probably what powers your smartphone. It took just 8 years for Acorn to evolve from single board computers to an architecture that would change the world.

Probably partly because they didn’t sell in huge numbers and those that did would mostly be in the UK, the Atom is an uncommon find today. Be prepared to pay several hundred pounds if you want one in a good condition, or even more if it has accessories. Or alternatively you could just tinker with an emulator for free...

Image credits: Simon Inns via Flickr [1] [2] - CC BY 2.0

Monday 20 April 2020

From the archives: Microsoft KIN, Nokia N70, N90, N91, N8, 5140i, 8800, BlackBerry Pearl 9100

Some product launches are merely bad but the Microsoft KIN (2010) cratered so badly that you you could see it from space. On the other hand, the Nokia N-Series  represented Nokia at its best, starting with the Nokia N70, N90 and N91 (2005) and ending (at least for the Symbian N-Series line) with the N8 just five years later.

April 2005 was a great year for Nokia, with the somewhat rubbery but almost indestructible Nokia 5140i and the elegant Nokia 8800. Back to 2010, and the BlackBerry Pearl 9100 combined RIM's smartphone know-how with a traditional form factor that made it a success.

Image credits: Microsoft, Nokia, RIM

Saturday 18 April 2020

Fanta (1940)

Introduced 1940

This year sees the 80th anniversary of the launch of Fanta – the fruit-flavour fizzy beverage that is one of the most popular soft drinks brands in the world. But the history of Fanta is complicated and it involves the Second World War and Nazi Germany.

Coca Cola opened its first bottling plant in Germany in 1929 – a few years before Hitler came to power. It became the most important market for Coca Cola outside the United States and by 1939 it had dozens of factories in Germany alone to keep up with demand. Of course to some extent, doing business in Germany in the late 1930s meant doing business with Nazis and although in retrospect this was probably a bad thing, many European and American businesses still do business with repressive regimes today.
"Fanta Klassik"
- a modern recreation of the original recipe

In 1939 of course the Second World War started in Europe, and by 1940 the German operations of Coca Cola were struggling because of a combination of blockades, embargoes and… well… all-out war. Although the United States (home of Coca Cola) was officially neutral until December 1941, supplies of key ingredients dried up effectively leaving Coca Cola in Germany with nothing to sell.

Coca Cola’s German boss - Max Keith – then set about looking for a product he could actually make and sell along with others in the company. What was settled on was fairly unappealing from the ingredients list – milk whey, beet sugar and apple leftovers from the food and cider industry. This got the name “Fanta” from the German word “Fantasie”… and a brand was born, indeed it was only the second beverage that Coca Cola had ever made.

The product varied a bit over the war years, sometimes switching in artificial sweetener and sometimes using other fruits or fruit by-products. But Fanta sold in millions of cases and was a huge success throughout Nazi Germany. The occupied Netherlands also made its own version using elderberries.

At the end of the war, Coca Cola took back control of their German subsidiary – including all the profits made during the war – and then shut down Fanta production and switched back to Coca Cola. But in the 1950s increased and more varied competition from rivals PepsiCo led Coca Cola to revive the brand. Variations of Fanta spread throughout Europe, and the classic orange Fanta that we most associate with the brand was invented in Italy in 1955, using locally-sourced oranges.

Fanta continued to grow, both in the countries it was sold in and in the bewildering variety of flavours. The flexibility in the brand allows it to be adapted to local tastes, and it also means that short-term special editions can be made to boost sales further.  Today the brand has evolved massively since its origins in Nazi Germany… but it doesn’t stop some very weird conspiracy theories coming up.

Interestingly, this American company prospered under the Nazi regime – even when the United States and Germany were at war. This is a ripe ground for conspiracy theorists, but several American companies ended up having their German subsidiaries orphaned in this way. Ford Germany made trucks such as the V3000 and engine parts, GM’s German branch of Opel also made large numbers of trucks and military vehicles, IBM’s involvement was darker still. Many other companies found themselves in this position with a greater or lesser degree of collaboration with the Nazi authorities, but it seems that both Max Keith and Coca Cola Germany resisted the dark side and just stuck to making fizzy drink.

A collection of Fanta cans from the 1960s

The other interesting thing is just how unappetising the original recipe for Fanta sounds. Apple pomace is the sort of thing that ends up in animal feed, and milk whey sounds very out of place in a fruit drink even though it is quite sweet-tasting and nutritious. It might not be an obvious way to make a soft drink, but considering some of the theories about what it in Coca Cola it does seem rather tame by comparison.

In 2015, Coca Cola recreated something approximating the original Fanta for its 75th anniversary, calling it “Fanta Klassik”, however a misjudged tagline of “we’re bringing back the feeling of the gold old days”  could be misinterpreted as the “good old days” being Nazi Germany, when really it was talking about the 1960s. Nonetheless it was a popular (if temporary) retro concoction, but if you want to recreate the taste of 1950s Italy you could just have some orange Fanta instead..

Image credits:
Illustratedjc via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
José Roitberg via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Monday 13 April 2020

RS-232 (1960)

Mouse using a serial interface
Introduced 1960

Known to many as just a “serial interface”, RS-232 is a surprisingly old communications standard that was once everywhere and even today it refuses to die. A simple way to connect a computer with a peripheral or other computer, the RS-232 interface could be used – with a bit of effort – to connect just about anything to just about anything.

The RS-232 interface is a “serial” interface because it transmits data one bit at a time in two directions, compared with contemporary “parallel” interfaces that typically transmitted 8 bits at a time in one direction.

The standard defines one end as the DTE (Data Terminal Equipment – e.g. a computer) and the other as the DCE (Data Circuit-terminating Equipment – e.g. a printer) connected together using a cable with 3 or more wires and terminated using 25-way D-type connectors. The number of wires in use varied depending on how many features you wanted to use, and many implementations ditched the large 25-way connector for something smaller, typically a 9-way connector on a PC.
RS-232 Breakout Box

Connecting DCE-to-DCE or DTE-to-DTE would require a special cable, and indeed it was possible to make custom cables quite easily depending on your needs, or you could simply use one of many adapters between different types of connector or equipment. Typical transfer speeds could vary between 50 baud (bits per second) to 9600 baud, 19200 baud or even higher.

A typical early use of RS-232 would be to connect a terminal to large computer system, or in later days a PC to a printer, modem or mouse. Indeed, on the PC the serial port lingered into the 2000s until the more versatile but fundamentally similar Universal Serial Bus (USB) became the de facto standard for connecting things together.

Because most computers either had a built-in serial interface or one available as an add-on, if you had (or made) the right cable then you could transfer files between utterly different and usually completely incompatible systems. The first challenge was to acquire a copy of an application such as Kermit and apply it to both systems, but once you had that it was a reasonably trouble-free way of moving data about.

Although RS-232 interfaces are less common than they used to be, they can still be found on industrial and laboratory equipment, communications gear and even home entertainment systems. But perhaps the RS-232’s most peculiar lasting legacy is this song

Image credits:
Konstantin Lanzet via Wikimedia Commons
MdeVicente via Wikimedia Commons - CC0 1.0

Spitting Image - RS232 Interface Lead 

Friday 10 April 2020

Compaq iPAQ H3600 (2000)

Compaq iPAQ H3630
Launched April 2000

PDAs had been developing rapidly in the around the turn of the millennium. Popularised by the iconic Palm Pilot of 1996, the market had grown and evolved considerably over the next few years – and these little gadgets had a particular appeal to business decision makers.

While Microsoft owed the desktop, they had very little penetration in the handheld market. Attempts to push Windows CE in this market segment had not been very successful, but version 3.0 of the OS (launched in 2000) was a vast improvement. Alongside this new version of Windows, Compaq launched the iPAQ H3600 series on handheld computers running the Windows CE 3.0-based Pocket PC 2000 platform.

Compaq had some form in the handheld market, with devices such as the Aero 1500 and Aero 2100 preceding it. But the development story behind the iPAQ actually begins with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) who had developed the StrongARM CPU in the late 1990s along with two reference boards (“Assebet” and “Neponset”) which became the hardware basis for the iPAQ. This was developed into a development system called “Itsy”. DEC was in its dying days however, and while StrongARM ended up with Intel, the rest of DEC was bought out by Compaq in 1998 who continued to develop the Itsy platform.

The iPAQ wasn’t much like the Itsy – for a start it ran Windows CE and not Linux – but it did show all the experience that Compaq had acquired in the previous few years. Although today we might remember “iPAQ” as referring exclusively to handheld devices, this sub-brand included legacy-free PCs, MP3 players, projectors, web appliances and even Compaq-branded BlackBerry smartphones. The H3600 range slotted into this range of next-gen futuristic products quite nicely.

So much for the history – the hardware itself was what buyers were interested in. One immediately obvious feature was the large 3.8” 240 x 320 pixel TFT touchscreen display. Although you could do pretty much anything just on the touchscreen alone, a large navigation pad and other control buttons also took up quite a lot of space. The resistive technologies in the display combined with a general fiddlyness of the OS design meant that a stylus was required, and this simply slid out of a slot in the back.
HP branded iPAQ

Inside was a 206MHz StrongARM CPU with 32MB of RAM, and the iPAQ could connect to a desktop computer via a serial or USB cable. There was also an infrared port (common in those days) but no built-in Bluetooth, WiFi, Ethernet, cellular or any other connectivity at all. You could add WiFi, a modem, memory cards, expansion slots or a larger battery with a series of elegant but bulky sleeves that slid into place around the main housing.

Out-of-the-box the iPAQ was rather limited. If you wanted to read emails on the move you would have to sync them with your PC first, type a reply on the go and then sync them again later. Web access was possible through the connected PC only which was a bit pointless, unless you had an expansion sleeve. But it was far better than previous generations and the lack of mobile connectivity didn’t seem as bad in those days.

The iPAQ was a success, but it Compaq itself was struggling and just four years after acquiring DEC, Compaq itself was acquired by Hewlett-Packard (HP). The iPAQ survived the inevitable product rationalisation that followed and it continued to evolve, adding built-in WiFi and a number of other features missing from the original.

We know now that the standalone PDA was a dead end, but in the early noughties sales were still strong. A change was coming with the introduction of the “wireless PDA” (what we would call a smartphone today), with the 2002 HTC Wallaby being a direct competitor for the iPAQ, but with an integrated cellular radio. HTC had been one of the main contractors in helping to build and design the iPAQ, and eventually they became pioneers in smartphones… the product that really killed the iPAQ off.

Despite losing sales to smartphones, the iPAQ name hung on until 2009 with the unpleasant sounding iPAQ Glisten being the last of the line. Not too long after that HP’s entire mobile strategy imploded dramatically, effectively leading to them pulling out of the market completely.

As a collectable the original iPAQs are kind of interesting, prices do seem to vary a lot
From about £70 to a couple of hundred depending on condition and accessories.

Image credits:
Andreas Steinhoff via Wikimedia Commons
Konrad Andrews via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.0

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Nintendo Game & Watch (1980)

Nintendo Game & Watch - original "Ball" game
Launched April 1980

Legend has it that one day Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi was observing a Japanese worker playing with a pocket calculator when he suddenly had an idea to take the basic components of a calculator and turn them into a handheld game.

It wasn’t an entirely new idea. Mattel’s rudimentary Auto Race game in 1976 was arguably the first, with the Coleco Electronic Quarterback machine of 1978 also proved popular. Both of those games were bulky and used simple LED displays, however technology had moved on and by the end of the 1970s inexpensive LCD displays were appearing all over the place – including in a range of low-cost and very portable pocket calculators. There were even pocket calculator game books which – with some effort – could make these little gadgets more entertaining.

Yokoi’s design took the LCD display, but instead of having it display numbers it could display a series of predefined graphics instead. Inside was a 4-bit Sharp calculator battery, and power was provided by button cells which kept the size and weight down. This was launched as the Nintendo Game & Watch (as it also included a clock).

The first game was simply called “Ball” and it was a simple enough game where you had to throw and catch a ball, but many more followed. Each game required its own hardware, typically with “A” and “B” variants with different gameplay. At first the games had a single screen and simple control buttons, but dual screen ones followed and in 1982 a handheld version of Donkey Kong also introduced the now ubiquitous D-pad controller. Screens also got bigger and layer ones had coloured sections printed onto the display to give a bit more visual interest.
Rare Super Mario Bros Game & Watch

Dozens of different versions came to market over the next decade or so with games titles many of which featured the Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, plus a whole lot of Disney characters and ports of arcade games. Nintendo placed a lot of emphasis on gameplay because of the strictly limited hardware, which had the effect of making the games both addictive and relatively inexpensive.

Millions of Game & Watch devices were sold, but in the end technology had moved on. Yokoi had also designed the Nintendo Game Boy, using lessons learned from the Game & Watch but in a much more flexible package where new games could be loaded on with a cartridge.

In fact Gunpei Yokoi had been a prolific designer of products for Nintendo, starting with successful toys such as the Ultra Hand in the 1960s. Not all the products were successful, but his design philosophy of (roughly translated) “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” is still an important part of the way Nintendo designs products – in other words, using existing and inexpensive technologies in innovative ways rather than pursuing the highest technology available. Yokoi left Nintendo in 1996 to form his own company, but he was killed in a car accident in October 1997. However, his influential legacy lives on.

Today Game & Watch devices are very collectable, with rare items such as the yellow Super Mario Bros (YM-901) selling for thousands of pounds, with more common or later ones such as Donkey Kong 3 selling for less than £100.

Image credits:
masatsu via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Sturmjäger via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0