Tuesday 26 May 2020

Nokia 770 vs HTC Universal (2005)

HTC Universal in vanilla form and an O2 XDA Exec
Fifteen years ago the golden age of mobile phones was in full swing – each generation added new features, but most phones concentrated on the business of making phone calls, playing games and taking a few grainy photos. But on the higher end of the market were devices that would lay a path followed by the smartphones of today. Two of these were the Nokia 770 and the HTC Universal.

In 2005 HTC exclusively made devices sold with the names of other companies on them – so the HTC Universal went under many names including the O2 XDA Exec, T-Mobile MDA IV, Qtek 9000 and i-mate JASJAR. Despite the marketing confusion, HTC’s reputation was growing… but it would still be another year before HTC would sell phones under its own name.

The Universal itself was ground-breaking. Here was a smartphone with absolutely everything – a smartphone with a large 3.6” VGA-resolution touchscreen display on a swivelling hinge, a physical QWERTY keyboard, front and rear cameras, expandable memory, Bluetooth, infra-red connectivity, WiFi and 3G. The only thing missing from the feature list was GPS, which was a rare option back then (although the rival Motorola A1000 did feature GPS).

It was a big device for the time, measuring 127 x 81 x 25mm and weighing 285 grams. But in modern terms, that’s about the same footprint as the iPhone 11 but about 50% heaver and three times thicker. The swivelling hinge meant that you could use the Universal like a mini-laptop or a PDA.

There were flaws – it could have used more RAM, the VGA resolution screen was effectively a just a scaled-up QVGA screen most of the time and the new version of Windows it came with was still clunky and harder to use than a modern OS. The wallet-lightening price of nearly €1000 for SIM-free versions compared unfavourably with laptops of the same era, and while the Universal had awesome mobile working capabilities it just wasn’t as powerful as a real computer. And from a practical point of view, the sheer size and weight made it impractical to use as a mobile phone from the point of view of a customer in 2005.

Nokia 770 Internet Tablet
Nokia on the other hand were trying something different. The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet wasn’t a phone at all but was instead a compact Linux-based computer with built-in WiFi and Bluetooth for connectivity. You could still use the 770 pretty much anywhere, but you’d need to spend a little time pairing it with your regularly mobile phone and setting it up as a modem.

There was no camera or keyboard either, but there was a huge (for its day) 4.1” 800 x 480 pixel touchscreen display, expandable memory and pretty decent multimedia support. The operating system was Maemo, a Linux-based platform that was quite different from Nokia’s regular Symbian OS. It was wider but thinner than the Universal and at 230 grams a good deal lighter.

The whole Internet Table project was a bit left-field for Nokia, but it attracted a small but dedicated following. Many were attracted by the idea of using Linux on a small handheld computer which was a fresh idea, indeed in retrospect it seems trailblazing because both iOS and Android are closely related to Linux.

The 770 suffered from a lack of software at first, although it didn’t take long for Linux application to be ported across. The processor was a bit slow and there was a lack of RAM which hampered things, and some people just couldn’t get used to the idea of carrying two devices. It was successful enough though to spawn several sequels, which is a different story.

Even though the 770 was priced at just €370 (about a third of the price of the Universal) there was some criticism that it was expensive. In retrospect it looks positively cheap though, and although modern tablets are much bigger there are many echoes of modern smart devices here.

Neither the 770 nor the Universal were a huge success, perhaps partly because the technology of 2005 wasn’t quite good enough to deliver the results people wanted, and perhaps partly because consumers didn’t understand that they wanted all these features from a mobile device until handsets such as the original iPhone came along.

Today both devices are fairly collectable, with the HTC Universal coming in between £100 to £350 or so depending on condition and about £80 to £250 for the Nokia 770. Oh, and the winner between the two? The Nokia 770's software platform is pretty close to what we use today, with the "everything but the kitchen sink" hardware specs of the HTC Universal. Let's call this one a tie.

Image credits: HTC, O2, Nokia

Saturday 23 May 2020

Windows 3.0 (1990)

Software... in a box!
Introduced May 1990

By 1990 Microsoft’s Windows platform had been around for five years and had made pretty much no market impact at all. Early versions of Windows were truly terrible and combined the very worst of clunky user interface design with the technological backwardness of late 1980s IBM-compatible PCs.

Most PC users stuck with plain old-fashioned DOS and were seemingly happy to run just one program at a time, each with a different user interface and incompatible file formats. WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase and ruled the market – all very different products from different vendors. But a high-end business PC could have an Intel 80386 running at 20 or 25MHz with up to 4MB of RAM, plus a VGA card and a 100MB hard disk and a really high-end system might have a powerful 486 processor inside. But by a large of lot of these systems just ran DOS programs… but very, very quickly.

The limitations of DOS were pretty crushing. One application at a time and a maximum memory address space of 640KB. Various tools and memory managers existed, but many of these were incompatible with each other and they couldn’t make up for the clumsiness of DOS itself. Microsoft’s way out of this was to partner with IBM to make a new operating system called OS/2. This had been developed alongside earlier versions of Windows, but it was a much more modern operating system designed for 80286 processors and above where Windows 1 and 2 could run (just about) on a first generation 8086-based PC.

But Microsoft too had been pushing technological limits with Windows/286 and Windows/386 with special versions of Windows 2.1 which maintained the clunky look-and-feel of the old Windows but could actually take advantage of newer CPUs, including multi-tasking DOS applications. These were niche products, but when Windows 3.0 was introduced in May 1990 it included enhanced support for the 286 and 386 processors out of the box.

Not only was it better underneath, but Windows 3.0 had a complete overhaul of the user interface, featuring the application-orientated Program Manager rather than the brutally ugly and simplistic MS-DOS Executive in previous versions. Utilising attractive icons and taking advantage of what was then high-resolution VGA graphics, Windows 3.0 was approaching the usability of the Macintosh – although the Mac’s Finder was more about data files than programs.
That's a billion person-hours down the drain then

Windows 3.0 design was a mix of polished-up elements from previous versions of Windows with a rather flat feel to them, along with 3D elements largely borrowed from Presentation Manager in OS/2. Compared with modern minimalistic versions of Windows, Windows 3.0 had a lot of “Chrome” around the edges which resulted in visual clutter and wasted space. But it certainly wasn’t bad looking for a 30-year-old design.

It had flaws – many flaws – in particular it wasn’t very stable and the dreaded Unrecoverable Application Error (which was Windows 3.0’s Blue Screen of Death) was all too common. Driver support was fiddly, if you didn’t have a popular system out of the box then you’d need to acquire and install things like video drivers and sound drivers. Most importantly, it wasn’t really an operating system in its own right, it was an operating environment perched on top of the ancient DOS OS. It took another three years and a major schism with IBM to create a completely modern version of Windows with Windows NT.

Windows 3.0 was a huge success (perhaps in part to the maddeningly addictive card game of Solitaire it shipped with), and of course the quest for ease-of-use spread beyond the operating system itself. Microsoft Office 1.0 was launched in November 1990 with Word for Windows 1.1, Excel 2.0 and PowerPoint 2.0, typically priced at around half of what it would cost you to buy the programs separately. Windows 3.1 followed two years later with improvements all around, and because Microsoft would cut PC manufacturers a good deal to ship Windows with new PCs it eventually got everywhere and wiped out all the other PC-based opposition.

As an operating system it isn’t of much practical use today, but if you want to play with it there are a few places that you can get virtual machines to run under VirtualBox or VMware, and you can relive the frustrations of Solitaire if nothing else. Complete set of installation disks, boxes and manuals are quite collectable too with prices typically ranging from £60 to £100.

Image credit: David Orban via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Pac-Man (1980)

Introduced in Japan, May 1980

The Golden Age of Arcade games is in full swing by May 1980, and it sees the launch of a gaming icon – Pac-Man. Developed in Japan by Namco, it followed on from their successful Galaxian shoot-‘em-up, but Pac-Man was a completely different type of game.

As with Galaxian, Pac-Man was powered by a Z80 processor, it had colour graphics with sprites and a dedicated graphics co-processor and a three-channel sound chip. Utilising and impressive array of technology from the era, the capable hardware platform allowed for a much richer gaming experience than earlier generations.

The game itself – first called Pakkuman and then Puck Man before becoming Pac-Man - is familiar to most, but in case it somehow passed you by, the player controls the Pac-Man (essentially a circle with a chomping mouse) who is chased around a maze by four ghosts (Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde). Pac-Man’s job is to eat all the dots in the maze, if caught by a ghost he loses a life… but various power pills around the maze allow Pac-Man to eat the ghosts instead. The ghosts have different personalities and between them try to chase and trap Pac-Man.

With appealing graphics and sound, Pac-Man was a fun game to play – and it was also something different from the alien invasion or war games that dominated arcades. A slow burn at first, when Pac-Man hit the US in late 1980 it became a smash hit and the most popular game around, shipping 100,000 cabinets by 1981.

After arcade success came conversions to home computers and consoles, official and unofficial and of varying quality, and then there were endless sequels (notably Midway’s Ms. Pac Man), board games, TV shows, toys and other things you could spend your cash on. The franchise raked in billions of dollars and created an iconic character recognised throughout the world. Although there are many different ways to play Pac-Man today, if you want an original cabinet in good condition then you can expect to pay several thousand pounds.

Image credits:
Peter Handke via Flickr - CC0 1.0

Marcin Wichary via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Friday 8 May 2020

Penny Black (1840)

Rare block 4 of four unused Penny Blacks
Introduced May 1840

These days we mostly communicate with each other electronically – at the press of a button a message can be transmitted the anywhere in the world in a fraction of a second. But of course that wasn’t always the case, and not so long ago you would often rely on having to write a letter. On paper, in an envelope and typically written out by hand.

Postal systems had been around since at least 500 BC and possibly even earlier, but they tended to be haphazard, open to corruption and often only accessible to governments. Although this situation improved, by the 19th century most postal systems were still complex and unreliable – sometimes operating on a post-pay principle where the postage would be paid by the receiver, who might decline to pay (sometimes after reading the letter).

Reform was needed and in the spirit of Victorian innovation the government started to look for solutions. Eventually a proposal by Rowland Hill was accepted for an inexpensive, simple-to-use and universal postage system that would become the model for the rest of the world.

Before Hill’s reforms the price of postage depended on the distance the letter had to travel, making the system complicated to use. It was also expensive, so the volume of mail was quite low, and the Post Office was haemorrhaging money as a result. Instead a system was proposed where a letter of up to half an ounce (14 grams) could be sent prepaid for a uniform rate of just one penny, regardless of distance.

Penny Black Detail
To show that postage had been paid, a piece of gummed paper was cut out and stuck to the envelope – called a “stamp”. It was a peculiar thing to call a sticky bit of paper, but it referred to some older postal systems where the envelope was stamped with an actual stamp. This small piece of paper had a portrait of Queen Victoria on it and was black in colour, becoming known as the “Penny Black”.

Introduced in May 1840, the Penny Black and the postal system it represented became the model for every other country, and the stamp itself became an icon. But it didn’t last long. The black colour of the stamp made it very hard to see cancellation marks, meaning that the stamp could sometimes be carefully removed and re-used, so in February 1841 the stamp was redesigned in a red colour – and this version in one form or another continued in production until 1879.

The system was simple to use and inexpensive (one penny in 1840 terms is worth about 42 pence today). It was a huge success, and it allowed people from all classes to communicate with anyone else in the country, reliably and for a modest amount of money. Over the next few years the same model was adapted by most other countries, and an era of low-cost and reliable communication was born.

Today of course the Penny Black is very collectable, with prices typically starting at about £50 for a used one in decent condition and then heading upwards to thousands or tens of thousands of pounds. Given the short period of time that the Penny Black had been available, combined with the fact that the hobby of stamp collecting didn’t really exist until stamps did, it does add a certain rarity value to these stamps – but every semi-serious collector will either own one or aspire to it. Alternatively you could buy the modern day equivalent – a British first-class stamp currently costs 76p which is 182.4 times more expensive than the original.

Image Credits: [1] [2] 
Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons - CC0 1.0

Saturday 2 May 2020

DAI Personal Computer (1980)

Later model Indata DAI Personal Computer
Introduced 1980

The early microcomputer market is full of hits and misses. Sometimes products fail due to no fault of their own, sometimes they have flaws which are their undoing, and sometimes it is just bad luck. The DAI Personal Computer combines all of these and perhaps if the dice had fallen differently it could have been one of the successes of the early 1980s.

DAI stood for “Data Applications International”, and during the 1970s this Belgian company had developed computers and expansion cards based on their own standard called DCEbus, related to the then-popular Eurocard standard. The story goes that Texas Instruments (TI) in Europe approached DAI to make a computer that they could sell, as TI’s corporate bosses were only looking to sell the upcoming TI99/4 in the US as it was going to be compatible with North American NTSC TVs rather than European PAL ones. DAI designed a system to show TI with a physical design based on TI’s own Silent 700 data terminal.

TI changed their mind, and decided to make a PAL version of the TI99/4 after all… so they didn’t need the system that they had paid DAI to design and they were free to market it themselves. Despite having a bumpy start, the DAI computer looked promising… but the whole history of the computer itself was going to be a whole series of bumps.

In the Netherlands, educational broadcaster Teleac was looking for a computer system to accompany an upcoming series about microcomputers (launched some years before the BBC did the same). They were interested in the DAI, and this looked like a promising tie-up that would give the upcoming product a boost. But production problems in the Belgian factory plus difficulties in sourcing the ROMs from the US meant that the DAI was never going to be ready in time, and Teleac chose to go with the Exidy Sorcerer instead.

Despite these setbacks, the DAI finally launched in 1980, and (if you noticed it at all) it was a quite different machine from most of the competition, in good and bad ways. Inside was an Intel 8080 processor rather than the more common Z80 or 6502 CPUs. The 8080 came out in 1974 and it was pretty basic by the standards of 1980, it wasn’t particularly fast and it struggled with handling precise floating point numbers, although you could add a maths co-processor. Inside was 48KB of RAM, of which up to 32KB could be used up by graphics. Some clever trickery with an adjustable on-screen palette meant that the DAI could display far more colours than you would expect.

Sound was built in (with three stereo channels plus a noise generator) and there were a whole bunch of I/O ports including DAI’s own DCE bus which meant that you could expand the hardware with number of peripherals, including floppy disks and hard disk drives. Perhaps partly to make up for the pedestrian processor, BASIC on the DAI was compiled at run time rather than interpreted which made programs run very quickly.

There were problems – there wasn’t much software, documentation was poor, after-sales service was abysmal and the system was very expensive. Financial troubles plagued both the manufacturer and distributors, and in 1982 DAI (the company) went bankrupt, with production being taken over by another company called Indata. Production carried on until 1984 when the DAI fell victim to the great microcomputer market cash of the early 1980s.

Despite all this, the DAI had a strong hobbyist following which helped to develop software, write documentation and keep the systems running. Overall the DAI was ahead of its time in many aspects, and perhaps with a bit more luck it might have been a success. Today, the DAI Personal Computer is a rare find and in good condition could cost you €1000 or so.

Image credit: Thomas Conté via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 2.0