Tuesday 28 December 2021

2021: things that didn’t quite make the cut

This year we mostly concentrated on the year ending in "1", covering gadgets and technology from 1941, 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011. It turns out to be a decent last digit for computers, games consoles and cars in particular. But here are some of the things that were also notable that didn't get covered.

2011 saw the launch of two rival handheld gaming platforms that were evolutions of previous devices. The Nintendo 3DS had a dual display capable of displaying glasses-free 3D on an otherwise modest hardware platform, the Sony PlayStation Vita was a more powerful device but also a more traditional gaming console. Both products competed directly against each other, but it was the Nintendo that won out although the Sony did gain a dedicated fanbase.

Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita
Nintendo 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita

A decade earlier, in 2001, the Nintendo GameCube was launched against the Sony PlayStation 2 and the original Microsoft Xbox. In this fight, the GameCube came in third - in quite a bruising result for Nintendo.

Skipping back another decade to 1991 we see the Commodore CDTV, a repackaged Amiga that was meant to compete against the Sega Mega Drive and Nintendo SNES. It was a failure, and helped to accelerate Commodore to its demise a few years later.

Nintendo GameCube and Commodore CDTV
Nintendo GameCube and Commodore CDTV

In the early eighties, the best place for video games was the local arcade and 1981 was part of the golden era of arcade machines. We've covered quite a few from this year, but Namco's Galaga and Atari's Tempest were both notable and were very different types of shoot-em-up. And if you fancied something different from endless slaughter, there was Taito's Qix which was more of a puzzle game where the player had to fill the screen with boxes while being chased by a mysterious electric entity.

Galaga, Tempest and Qix
Galaga, Tempest and Qix

None of this would be possible without the microprocessor, and the first commercially-available device was the Intel 4004 which was launched in 1971. Originally designed for a calculator, the 4004 could be used for a variety of other purposes. A successful line of products followed for Intel, notably the x86 series of processors used in most PCs today.

The same year saw the release of the world's first floppy disks. Originally a huge 8 inches across (and very floppy), these inexpensive and transportable storage media and their 5.25 and 3.5 inch descendants were the standard way of transferring files into the 1990s and beyond.

A decade later, the Intel 8085 and a pair of 5.25" floppies could be found in the ergonomically designed Nokia MikroMikko. Nokia Data had a series of mergers and acquisitions, first with Siemens and then ICL until finally vanishing into Fujitsu.

Intel 4004, 8" floppy disk (with 3.5" for comparison), Nokia MikroMikko
Intel 4004, 8" floppy disk (with 3.5" for comparison), Nokia MikroMikko

Nokia have made many things over their long history, including car tyres. Today you might find Nokian winter tyres on a Nissan Patrol or Toyota Land Cruiser - both these rugged and practical 4X4s were originally launched in 1951 and were heavily inspired by the wartime-era Willys Jeep.

Nissan Patrol (circa 1958) and Toyota Land Cruiser (circa 1966)
Nissan Patrol (circa 1958) and Toyota Land Cruiser (circa 1966)

If exploring in your Japanese offroader with your Finnish tyres, you probably want a good system to tell you where you actually were in the world. Today you'd use a GPS system, but that wasn't an option back in 1981 when Honda announced the world's first in-car navigation system, the Electro Gyro-Cator. Instead of using satellites, it used inertial navigation and a set of transparent maps fitted over a screen. It was bulky, expensive and of limited use, but eventually the first in-car GPS system was launched in 1990 by Mazda.

Honda Electro Gyro-Cator
Honda Electro Gyro-Cator

Stretching things out a bit more… if you found yourself off-roading in your big Japanese 4X4 with Finnish tyres in the 1970s or 1980s and you wanted to make a high-quality video recording of your journeys, the choice of professionals was a Sony U-matic recording system which was launched in 1971. Capable of capturing broadcast-quality images, the U-matic was the choice of professionals. Smaller than a traditional film camera, most units were still quite bulky and required a crew of two or three - one for the camera, one for the recorder unit and perhaps one for the microphone boom. Perhaps on your exploration into the wilderness you might want to pack some supplies, and there's a good chance that these might include Heinz Baked Beans, a staple of tinned food since 1901. Luckily the Japanese make some of the best can openers in the world too..

Sony U-matic in a carry bag and Heinz Baked Beans
Sony U-matic in a carry bag and Heinz Baked Beans

Image credits:
Nintendo 3DS: Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
PlayStation Vita: Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
Nintedo GameCube: BugWarp via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Commodore CDTV: Patric Klöter via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Tempest: Russell Davies via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Galaga: David via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Qix: Joho345 via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0
Intel 4004: Simon Claessen via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
8" floppy disk: Michael Holley via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
Nokia Data MikroMikko: Nokia
Nissan Patrol (1958): Sicnag via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Toyota Land Cruiser (1966): Sicnag via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Electro Gyrocator: Honda
Sony U-matic: Joybot via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Heinz Baked Beans: Ian Kennedy via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Friday 17 December 2021

BBC Microcomputer (1981)

Introduced December 1981

If you were to make a shortlist of microcomputers that epitomised the very peak of 8-bit technology, then the BBC Micro would probably be part of that list, especially if you were British. Pushing the limits of what was possible, the BBC Microcomputer (often just referred to as the “Beeb”) introduced several features that were considerably more advanced than rivals and produced a series of machine that were available – in one form of another – for 13 years, leaving behind a lasting and arguably world-changing legacy.

BBC Microcomputer
BBC Microcomputer

The story starts in the late 1970s in the wake of the launch of the Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore PET – three computers that made computing relatively affordable and simple, and which challenged traditional large-scale computers used in big businesses. It wasn’t just on the desktop either, microprocessors were finding their way into everything and it seemed very likely that the 1980s was going to be a digital age – one that both the British government and the BBC thought the country was ill-prepared for.

The BBC set out to educate the masses, in line with its public service charter. This idea became the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project, and at the heart of the project was an idea to teach people how to use a computer – which for practical purposes would concentrate on a single model of machine.

But which to choose? It needed to be a British company ideally, and there were several to choose from. Promising systems had been developed by Tangerine, Research Machines, Sinclair, Acorn, Nascom and Transam… but the BBC chose Newbury Laboratories and their still-under-development microcomputer which later became the Grundy NewBrain.

The NewBrain itself has an interesting history, but it didn’t become the BBC Micro. Production problems meant that the computer wasn’t going to be ready for sale in the BBC’s timescale so instead they approached Acorn who had achieved some success with their 6502-based Atom machine. Acorn were already working on a replacement for the Atom, called the Proton.

Despite being only a few years old, Acorn had quite a lot of development under its belt. In addition to the Atom, they had a range of Eurocard systems that offered expandability and reliability, but at a price. The Proton would be an expandable and fast system, but when the BBC approached Acorn it was only a paper design but a frantic effort managed to create a prototype which was stable enough to show the BBC… who were impressed. Acorn were offered the contract, subject to some design changes.

The Proton pushed the 6502 processor to 2MHz, twice that of the competition. Paired with fast memory sourced from Hitachi and some clever circuitry to make everything work at these breakneck speeds, the Proton was no slouch. Internal memory was a maximum of 64 kilobytes, 16Kb of ROM was the operating system, another 16Kb of ROM was BASIC or any other application that could be loaded from the four ROM sockets on the board, leaving 32Kb of RAM (on the Model B) which was shared between the computer’s workspace, graphics and the rest could be used for programs and data.

There wasn’t a lot of RAM in the machine as the 6502 could only address 64Kb of total memory, and half of that was the system’s ROMs on this machine. Futhermore high-resolution graphics could take up 20Kb of the 32Kb of RAM, and with about 6Kb of RAM as the computer’s own working area this could mean that less than 6Kb was available for the user. This wasn’t a lot and it would have badly impacted the usefulness of the machine. Worse still, 32Kb of RAM was a feature of the more expensive Model B where the cheaper Model A had just 16Kb which was not even enough to display high-resolution graphics.

However, the BBC insisted that any machine they were to commission needed to be able to display Teletext, and Acorn had already implemented this in some of its machines using a Mullard SAA5050 chip. This gave 40 column text and rudimentary block graphics while taking up just 1Kb of the precious RAM. Known as display “Mode 7”, this feature became a key part of the BBC Micro’s success.

Then there was expansion. The Model B had lots of ports – on the back were three types of video output, a serial port, cassette interface plus an analogue-to-digital port plus an optional Econet network interface. Underneath were more ports that used a ribbon cable connection – a parallel port, a connector for the optional floppy disk drive plus a power output and then a user port, 1MHz bus port and a clever interface called the Tube. Apart from the floppy disk and network ports, everything was included in the BBC Model B as standard.

The Model A was based on the same board as the Model B, but lacked a lot of the interfaces. It was possible to add them in though, but this required some work with a pile of components and a soldering iron. Upgrading either model to a floppy disk drive or Econet required opening up the machine and plugging in some new components too.

With all of these interfaces you could hook the BBC up to just about anything, assuming you had the right cables, including lab equipment, joysticks, mice, modems, printers, Teletext and Viewdata adapters and more. You could do that with other computers too, but the Tube interface was something different again.

Acorn built the system to be expandable, and the Tube was a way of connecting a second processor to the BBC. This wasn’t a coprocessor, these units essentially took over and reduced the BBC Micro itself to handling input and output only. These processors could be anything at all – Acorn (eventually) provided a 6502 or Z80 (both with 64Kb of their own RAM) and a National Semiconductor 32016 with up to 1MB of RAM. Other companies produced other second processors too, including the Motorola 68000 or Intel 8088. Because the work was now split between two computers, these solutions could be both fast and made lots of RAM available. Although none of these add-ons were very common, they did offer a lot of power for the price.

BBC Micro with Teletext Adapter and Second Processor
BBC Micro with Teletext Adapter and Second Processor

Mostly though, BBC setups were more modest. Typically paired with one or two 5.25” floppy disks (which could cost as much as the computer), a printer and a TV (or if you were lucky a Microvitec Cub monitor). They were versatile machines for small businesses, were pretty good for games (although the lack of RAM was always a problem) but most of all they succeeded in education where their robust design and wide variety of software made them the most common computer in schools at the time.

The built-in BASIC was also very fast and allowed structured programming, becoming a popular platform for bedroom coders who would then take their skills out into the real world when they started careers in IT.

Games were always a bit of a problem – compared to the rival Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64, the lack of RAM meant porting popular games from those platforms difficult or impossible. But in 1984, Acornsoft announced Elite - – space trading gaming the capitalised on the strengths of the BBC. In Elite, the player flies a spaceship flying through an impressively rendered 3D space environment with wire frame graphics with hidden line removal. The galaxy the player is in is procedurally generated, a semi-random technique that allows for a great variety of locations but with little memory used. Elite had a clever trick of managing to display two screen modes at the same time – something regarded as impossible – giving high-resolution black and white 3D at the top and a more colourful status bar at the bottom.


Upgraded versions of the BBC followed, the Model B+64 and B+128 adding more RAM through paged memory, and the more substantially upgraded BBC Master which took the computer into the 1990s. A cheaper version of the BBC called the Acorn Electron met with limited success. But Acorn had something else up their sleeve which was ultimately more important – the Acorn Archimedes, the world’s first production computer with an ARM processor. The ARM itself was designed by Acorn and was largely shaped by their experience with the simple, speedy 6502 found in the BBC.

Acorn Electron
Acorn Electron

Because it was both a popular machine and very reliable, there are lots of BBC Micros on the market today. Typically the capacitors in the power supply fail over time and need replacing, but other than that there are few problems. Floppy disk drives are another matter though, these can be quite rare. A complete working system with accessories can be worth well over £500.

You can argue at length what the ultimate 8-bit computer was, but the unique expandability options of the BBC surely make it a contender in any contest. The ARM processor which it inspired is – of course – what the world runs on today,

Image credits:
StuartBrady via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
marcus_jb1973 via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Steve Elliott via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Adam Jenkins via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Saturday 4 December 2021

Renault Avantime vs Renault Vel Satis (2001)

Introduced 2001

French cars are cool. That’s a fact. Big French cars are cooler. Quirky big French cars are cooler still. And in 2001, Renault launched not one... but two quirky big French cars for our delight – the Renault Avantime and Renault Vel Satis.

The name “Avantime” is a portmanteau* of the French word “Avant” (“Before”) and the English word “Time”. It wasn’t like anything else on the market at the time – a sort of cross between a grand tourer, MPV, coupé and convertible. These days we’d think of it as a crossover, but twenty years ago customers were baffled.

Is it an MPV? Coupé? Grand Tourer? Convertible? The Avantime is a bit of all of those things.
Is it an MPV? Coupé? Grand Tourer? Convertible? The Avantime is a bit of all of those things.

Like the Vel Satis, the Avantime was designed by Renault’s legendary chief designer Patrick Le Quément. But unlike the Vel Satis, the Avantime was built by Matra who a history in aerospace, defence and motor racing and who somewhere had along the way created the magnificent Matra Rancho.

The Rancho was really just a Simca van converted into the world’s first MPV with the addition of some fibreglass, seats and plastic panels. Although it was a modest success, Matra took the idea further and created arguably the world’s first purpose-built MPV in their P18 prototype which they intended to sell to their long-time partners Chrysler-Simca. Chrysler were interested, but their business was collapsing and they were bought out by PSA (Peugeot Citroën) who weren’t interested in the concept at all.

Matra then sought out a new partner for this radical new car, and in the end Renault agreed to work with them. After some back-and-forth, the Renault Espace was launched in 1984… although the original still had many components from the Simca parts bins. Consumers did not understand the Espace at first – huge, radically shaped and quite different from anything else on European roads. However, once customers “got it” the Espace became a significant success.

Matra was a relatively small company though, and in order to build enough Espaces for Renault they had to drop their sports car line and give 100% of production over the to the new MPV. The Espace II was launched in 1991 with the same basic formula but a more Renault style, followed by the Espace III in 1996 which introduced a radical new interior.

Hundreds of thousands of Espaces were built by Matra, but Matra’s automotive division had just one customer…. Renault. And in 2002 Renault switched the production of the new Espace IV to their own factory in Sandouville. This was potentially very bad news for Matra.

Renault’s solution was to co-design a new car based on the Espace which would utilise Matra’s own engineering skills. Based on the same floorpan as the Espace, the Avantime had just four luxurious seats (squeezing in a fifth person at a pinch), two double-hinged pillarless doors, an almost completely glass roof with the largest production sunroof of the time, a cavernous boot, futuristic yet minimalistic interior all housed in a radical and coherent body based on Matra’s space frame engineering.

Typically this was all powered by a big 3 litre V6 engine and an automatic gearbox, combined with a soft ride for eating up the miles on the autoroute. One interesting feature was the “full air” mode, where at the press of a button all the windows would drop and the sunroof would open to create a sort-of-convertible. The lack of B-pillars helped the illusion of open-ness.
There was nothing else like it, and the Avantime didn’t fit into anybody’s pre-defined notion of what a car should be. Sure, it was a radical design… but so was the Espace and with that it just took a little while for consumers to understand that this was the car they needed.

So, sales of the Avantime were slow to begin with. Alas they stayed that way, with the model selling just over 8000 units worldwide rather than the 100,000 needed for profitability. Despite being critically acclaimed, it was a sales disaster. Matra’s automotive division went bankrupt, ending 40 years of innovative car designs..

..and yet, Renault consider the Avantime to be a design success even if it wasn’t a commercial one. Twenty years late, the huge bulk of the Avantime is not unlike the majority of other new cars. Even the esoteric two-door layout has found its way into other large cars. Today, the Avantime is recognised as being innovative… but nearly two decade too late to save Matra. This is a car that was ahead of its time in more ways than one.

Part of the problem with the Avantime may well have been the Renault Vel Satis. If you wanted a big, weird Renault then this was another choice you could make. A bit bigger than the Laguna, it was also designed by Patrick Le Quément but with a rather different design philosophy.

A large hatchback designed for executives and dignitaries, the Vel Satis was designed to look imposing. This was a car with presence rather than elegance, while not exactly ugly there was a hint of brutalism in the exterior design. Inside, the was comfortable and more conventional. The odd name - a bit like the Avantime's - was a combination of Velocity and Satisfaction.

Not the prettiest thing perhaps, but the Vel Satis had presence and looked like nothing else in its class.
Not the prettiest thing perhaps, but the Vel Satis had presence and looked like nothing else in its class.

It lent itself well to those who needed a car that people would notice without it looking too flashy. The President of France had one, which he loaned to Queen Elizabeth II. The French police would use them as unmarked police cars. These were serious motors.

The design never really fitted in with the rest of the Renault range of the time, with the result that it didn’t date in the same way. Although the Vel Satis is a rare site, especially in the UK, it still looks fresh.

A revision in 2005 kept the car going until 2009, although it wasn’t sold in the UK. About 64,000 were built, although just 1200 made it to the UK… even so, that was 8 times the number of Avantimes worldwide.

Both cars are uncommon these days, but it you are in the market for a big weird car with 20-year-old French electrics, then prices do vary depending on condition. The Avantime is probably the most collectable, with some prices going as high as £10,000 but mostly much cheaper. The Vel Satis can typically be picked up for a few thousand pounds, but it’s not as well-loved as the Avantime and numbers are dwindling fast.

Lovers of big weird French cars in the UK don’t have much choice. Although the fifth-gen Espace is pleasingly individual, it isn’t available in the UK. Other most other big French cars don’t have the character, with most big Renaults originating from Korea and Citroen and Peugeot producing badge-engineered Stellantis models you would be hard pushed to find anything quirky.

* literally meaning “coathanger”, a word created by merging two other words.

Image credits:
Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Rudolf Stricker via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Saturday 20 November 2021

Microsoft Xbox (2001)

Launched November 2001

Microsoft is a software company. It’s right there in the name. On the uncommon occasions that Microsoft has ventured into hardware, the results have been decidedly mixed from the failure of the Zune and KIN devices to the slow-burn success of the Surface to the best goddam computer mice ever made and I will die on that hill.

The Xbox line is certainly one of Microsoft’s more successful products, with a history spanning 20 years. But why does it even exist?

Original Microsoft Xbox (2001)
Original Microsoft Xbox (2001)

Back in 2001 there were three major players duking it out in the games console market. Sony’s PlayStation 2 was the boss… fighting against it was the Sege Dreamcast and Nintendo GameCube. These companies had been fighting it out for years, and although Sega had the head start with these sixth-gen consoles, it was Sony who was taking the biggest share of the market. The PS2 was more than just a simple games console, crucially it was a low-cost way of playing DVDs and music and the hardware was extremely capable. The Sega and Nintendo rivals were similarly versatile.

For Microsoft the concern was that this new generation of games console might start to compete with PCs for home users. The hardware was as good as or much better than contemporary Windows boxes, and prices in the $200 to $300 dollar range made them financially competitive too. Sure, Windows-based PCs were a popular platform for games as well, but you couldn’t always guarantee that your PC would be able to play the latest and greatest games if it was a few years old.

With the Xbox, Microsoft had the idea of taking the technologies and components that Windows already used. Underneath, the Xbox used a heavily modified version of Windows 2000 (the somewhat forgotten predecessor to Windows XP) and utilised the DirectX technology that Microsoft had built into Windows for gaming – DirectX giving the console the “X” in “Xbox”. Inside was a standard PC-style DVD drive and hard disk plus a customised version of the 733 MHz Intel Pentium III processor and an Nvidia GPU for graphics, combined with what seems today like a very modest 64MB of RAM.

The Intel CPU was a bit of a surprise for AMD who had originally been engaged to come up with a processor. In fact AMD would have to wait for the 3rd-gen Xbox – the Xbox One – before they supplied both the CPU and GPU, which they still do. The hardware overall was competitive, but the system itself was bulky because of the non-bespoke components. Even the original Xbox game controllers looked bulky and clumsy compared to the competition.

When launched, it was something of a success, helped a lot by the availability of HALO to play on it. The Xbox was also much stronger in terms on online gaming than rivals, coming in at a time when always-on broadband connections were starting to become popular. In the Microsoft-Sony-Sega-Nintendo race, the Xbox eventually came in second place in sales terms… way behind the PlayStation 2 and a little ahead of the GameCube.

Standard PC components added to the bulk
Standard PC components added to the bulk

Although it was a successful platform, Microsoft failed to make any money on the hardware – in the end they lost billions – but this was part of a bigger strategy including selling many of the games themselves and providing subscription services. In the end, games consoles didn’t take over from PCs… but to a large extent smartphones did. Probably in the end, Microsoft’s foray into gaming was unnecessary, but today’s ninth-generation consoles essentially leave just Sony and Microsoft standing.

Although obsolete by today’s standards, special edition Xboxes or ones with a large selection of games can sell for hundreds of pounds. There’s also a healthy modding scene for those who want to get more out of the hardware. Even twenty years on, the original Xbox has its fans.

Image credits:
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons - CC0
Swaaya via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday 7 November 2021

Nokia 7650 (2001)

Launched November 2001

It’s easy to think that smartphones didn’t exist before the original 2007 iPhone, but they most certainly did. Nokia had launched a hybrid PDA/phone as early as 1996 with the Nokia 9000 Communicator, or there was the Ericsson R380 from 1999… or going even further back was the IBM Simon from 1994. But these were all scaled-down computers, bulky and complex. But in 2001, Nokia released the 7650 which took the form factor of a phone and squeezed as much as possible into it.

Nokia 7650
Nokia 7650

This was a much more pocket-friendly device than some of those that had gone before. A slider phone weighing 154 grams and measuring a comfortable 114 x 56 x 26mm, it felt like a normal phone… one noticeable thing was the larger-than-normal 2.1” 176 x 208 pixel display which was much bigger than the type 1.5” 128 x 128 pixel screens that other early colour phones had.

It was also Nokia’s first phone with a built-in camera, a modest (by today’s standards) 640 x 480 pixel resolution, and photos could be sent to others using MMS or email. The 7650 supported GPRS data, had a WAP browser plus a somewhat limited Bluetooth implementation. Inside was a relatively powerful 194 MHz ARM processor with 4MB of storage, modest by today’s standards but much more powerful than a standard “dumb” phone.

The heart of the phone though was the Symbian Series 60 OS, which allowed the user to install – and if they wanted, even write – native applications directly onto the phone. In fact, the 7650 was the first Nokia Symbian smartphone to market, followed by a long line of others. Symbian itself was derived from Psion’s EPOC OS which was originally designed for the PDAs that the 7650 strove to replace.

Not a bad looking device by 2001 standards
Not a bad looking device by 2001 standards

This being the golden age of smartphone design, Nokia felt free to innovate. With the slider closed, the minimalist design seemed to make the screen dominate the handset  -although in reality it was only about a quarter of the size of the footprint of the phone. The minimalist buttons were also a precursor of what was to come. Nokia didn’t stick with the slider for the successor though, instead they went for a pair of weird monoblock designs with the 6600 and the whacky 3650.

The 7650 was relatively successful… not Nokia 1100 successful, but it sold well amongst gadget fans who were impressed enough for Nokia to persist with the smartphone idea. In one form or other, Symbian dominated the smartphone market with relatively few challengers until the first iPhone and Android devices appeared. Today the 7650 is quite collectable, with prices for good ones being in excess of £100.

Image credits: Nokia

Saturday 30 October 2021

Samsung Galaxy Note N7000 (2011)

Launched October 2011

Once upon a time, phones were tiny. The smaller the phone, the better was the mantra in the early noughties. A few years later, smartphones started to become popular… but even the iconic iPhone only had a 3.5” display, which is positively quaint by today’s standards.

Samsung had an idea that bigger was possibly better, and in 2011 they launched the original Samsung Galaxy Note N7000. Bigger than a smartphone and smaller than a tablet, the Note ended up with the rather ugly class of “phablet” being applied to it. And it was a controversial beast. Oh yes.

Samsung Galaxy Note N7000
Samsung Galaxy Note N7000

Sporting a 5.3” 800 x 1280 pixel display, the Note was huge for its day coming in at 170 grams and 147 x 83 x 9.7mm in size. Many critics thought that it was far too big, that a device of this size was going to be unusable for most consumers… that it would simply be too large to even carry around comfortably.

Although it did look like a slightly stretched Samsung Galaxy S II, the Note came with a stylus (the “S-Pen”) which was supported by a few specially written apps for the device. Hardware specs varied according to which regional model you had, but the Note was no slouch with a 1.4 or 1.5GHz dual-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, 16 or 32 GB of storage (plus a microSD card), and for good measure an 8 megapixel camera on the back with a 2 megapixel one on the front. This was high-end stuff.

Consumer reaction was cool, and it was only a moderate sales success. But despite the size of the thing, the Note won converts because the large screen was substantially easier to use. Standard smartphones began to creep up in size, and by 2014 the Samsung Galaxy S5 matched the screen size of the Note, even if it was more pocket-friendly. Today, the Apple iPhone 13 packs a 6.1” display in a form factor not too far from the original Note… so today, the “huge” size of the Note is pretty much what all high-end smartphones look like.

The Note didn’t die out though, the current Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is still a fair bit larger than a standard smartphone, but it doesn’t feel ridiculous. Somewhere along the line, Samsung screwed up royally and the Galaxy Note 7 could accidentally burn down your house, but the line continued anyway.

These days almost every high-end phone is a similar size to the original Galaxy Note, where the current Note really does sit slightly below a 7” tablet in terms of size. The lasting legacy of the original Note was to show that consumers really wanted much bigger phones with better screens, rather than the pokey little displays of smartphones of the time. Perhaps it is under-rated in this regard, having largely been responsible for the modern phone form factor. Today a little piece of design history like this will probably set you back between £40 to £70.

Image credit: Samsung

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Nokia 5510 (2001)

Launched October 2001

At the same time that Apple launched their groundbreaking iPod digital music player, Nokia were going for the same market with their equally groundbreaking Nokia 5510. Of course, today people remember the original the original classic iPod… but the 5510 hides in obscurity filed under W for weird.

A weird looking Nokia 5510
A weird-looking Nokia 5510

The two devices were both trying to do the same thing, but both Apple and Nokia started from different origins. Where the iPod had a 5GB internal hard disk and was strictly a music-only device, the 5510 had 64MB of internal flash memory and also a full QWERTY keyboard, WAP browser, email client and of course it was a phone too.

This was Nokia’s first music capable phone, but it required a Windows PC to encode MP3s in a copy-protected format, and the 64MB of memory was about for about one album’s worth of songs (compared to the 1000 or so on the iPod). This was slow and cumbersome, and the 5510 didn’t support memory cards so you were stuck with this 64MB limit. However, the 5510 did include an FM radio which was quite a useful feature for its day.

Nokia wanted it to be more than just a music phone, so the inbuilt email client and the built-in QWERTY keyboard should have been a good match. Except of course that looking at it now, the keyboard takes up most of the device with a relatively tiny screen. But RIM hadn’t yet come up with their iconic 6230 design which was frankly a lot more usable, and which was much-copied in the years that followed its release.

Doubly weird, two Nokia 5510s
Doubly weird, two Nokia 5510s

Flawed as a music player, and flawed as a messaging device… the 5510 nonetheless foreshadowed technologies that were to come. You can’t attach any blame to Nokia for seeing what consumers wanted, giving it a go and getting it wrong. But Nokia got it wrong rather too often, whereas the iPod was right first time.

Weird Nokia phones are quite collectable, and the 5510 easily falls into this category with good examples going for about £70 or so. You might only get limited use out of it, but certainly on looks along it still has the wow factor…

Image credits:

Saturday 16 October 2021

Apple iPod (2001)

Introduced October 2001

Last time we looked at Apple’s offerings in October 1991 with the Mac Quadra and PowerBook machines. Although they were decent systems, Apple went into decline during the 1990s and by 1997 it was a hairs breadth away from bankruptcy. But a change in leadership, including the return of Steve Jobs and fresh engineering and design talent started to turn the company around. 1998’s iMac wowed consumers, but the company wasn’t going to rely just on the Mac this time around.

By 2001, Apple had an eye on the portable music player market – devices that were tricky to use and either very limited in what they could store or were huge. But Apple didn’t have enough engineers with the rights skills to make such a device, so Apple’s head of engineering – Jon Rubinstein – contracted the work out to a former Philips engineer named Tony Fadell who had made a couple of practical if commercially unsuccessful PDAs and then formed his own company. Fadell recruited other engineers from Philips and his own firm, and then added to this was Apple engineer Michael Dhuey and Apple design Jonathan Ive. Further work on the UI was outsourced to a company called Pixo (eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems), and a deal was struck with Toshiba to supply their compact 5GB hard drive which would form the heart of the whole thing.

This music player became the Apple iPod, developed in less than a year and quite unlike anything on the market. Capable of storing 1000 songs, it came with a prominent scroll wheel, a decently sized screen with easy-to-use options all in a compact and elegantly designed case. Although it wasn’t cheap, retailing at $399, it was easily better than almost anything else on the market and was a huge hit.

Apple iPods and a Mac G5
Apple iPods and a Mac G5

The original iPod had a 5GB drive, but a 10GB one followed. One major drawback was this it could only be used with a Mac. The second-generation iPod was launched less than a year later, had more space and a touch-sensitive scroll wheel… and it could be used with a PC. Less than a year after than, the inbuilt FireWire port was supplemented with a USB for greater compatibility and these incremental improvements kept on happening, with the original-style iPods forming the “Classic” range and more company “Mini”, tiny “Nano” and display-less “Shuffle” devices following. After the launch of the original iPhone, a “Touch” range became available which was essentially an iPhone minus the Phone.

In the end, dedicated music players started to become a bit redundant. Smartphones were just as capable and the last Classic iPod (the sixth generation) went off sale in 2014. The iPod Touch remains, with the 7th generation launched in 2019 which is closely related to the iPhone 7. Although it is a bit of a niche market now, along the way Apple sold hundreds of millions of iPods making it the best-selling device of its type in the world.

The iPod also demonstrated that Apple could succeed outside of the microcomputer market. The next logical target was phones, and Apple’s long-anticipated entry into the market… well, actually the first attempt was a disaster because they made too many compromises. But eventually we’d get the iPhone (and iPad) which redefined their respective marketplaces. Although the iPod is a much less important product today, it helped to make Apple almost ubiquitous.
Image credits:
Matthew Pearce via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Sunday 10 October 2021

Apple Macintosh Quadra and PowerBook (1991)

Introduced October 1991

We find ourselves in the early nineteen nineties. Apple is still riding the wave of the early Macintoshes, but their advantage over PCs and the new Windows 3.0 environment is waning. Apple is still innovating, but is struggling to compete in terms of cost and usability.

In October 1991, Apple launched the desktop Quadra and laptop PowerBook computers, which were either more powerful or more portable depending on which route you took.

The PowerBook was probably the most interesting device. Apple had tried to make a portable Mac years earlier with the Macintosh Portable which was a market failure despite some very promising engineering. Several years of technological advancements – especially in the PC-compatible arena – demonstrated that it was possible to come up with a compact and usable laptop computer. The PowerBook took many of these ideas and created a more elegant and usable solution, and critically one that was a Mac and not a PC.

Apple Macintosh PowerBook 100
Apple Macintosh PowerBook 100

The first generation of PowerBooks break down into two distinct models. The PowerBook 100 was actually designed and built by Sony, and took the bulky original Portable and shrunk it down to a fraction of the weight. Running the by-then elderly 68000 processor, the PowerBook was essentially a classic Mac in a laptop form. The more powerful PowerBook 140 and 170 models were Apple designs running the more powerful 68030 CPU. The 170 was faster than the 140 and had an active-matrix monochrome display compared with the passive-matrix on the cheaper model.

The PowerBook was a huge success at first, but Apple struggled to fit the more powerful 68040 processor in it due to heat dissipation problems. By the time they’d fixed that, PC manufacturers had looked at the PowerBook and improved their models too so Apple started to struggle to compete. However, the PowerBook line remained until 2006, transitioning to the much more powerful PowerPC co-developed by Apple, IBM and Motorola.

The Quadra didn’t have the same problem with heat as the PowerBook and was a more natural platform for the improved 68040. More powerful than the 68030, transition between the two was not always smooth as the code required some optimisation to run on the new platform. A more modest success than the PowerBook the Quadra spawned a variety of models into the mid-1990s when it too was replaced by the PowerPC-based Power Macintosh line.

Apple Macintosh Quadra 700
Apple Macintosh Quadra 700

Despite some initial success, these models mark the beginning of a long decline for Apple. The Motorola 68000 series was reaching the end of its life, Microsoft’s kludgy early versions of Windows became more polished and Apple’s prices remained out of reach of many.  Just a few years after the launch of the Quadra and PowerBook it seemed that Apple was doomed. But that is a different story.

Image credits:
Danamania via Wikimedia Commons - GFDL
Simon Claessen via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

Tuesday 17 August 2021

IBM Personal Computer Model 5150 (1981)

Introduced August 1981

Four years on from the launch of the holy trinity of the Apple II, Tandy TRS-80 and Commodore PET there was a rapidly growing (but fragmented) multi-million dollar market worldwide. Although rival micros tended to be incompatible, business systems showed a growing standardisation around the CP/M operating system and the S-100 expansion bus. Home machines had wildly different hardware and software, but tended to be based around either the MOS 6502 or Zilog Z80 CPUs.

IBM Model 5150 and 5152 printer
IBM Model 5150 and 5152 printer

But in August 1981 came a paradigm shift, thanks to IBM. IBM seemed an unlikely player in the microcomputer market, specialising in powerful but incredibly expensive mainframes and whose initial microcomputer systems were also blistering pricey. It took IBM at least five years to develop a product, which was much slower than the microcomputer market was moving. IBM seemed old-fashioned in a market that was mostly dominated by younger and more agile competitors.

IBM could sense the way the wind was blowing, however. Cheap but versatile micros were finding their way into IBM customer sites while at the same time the market for big iron computing was faltering. IBM wanted a slice of the micro market, while at the same time it was aware that its traditional business processes would not be able to compete.

In a moment of enlightenment, IBM took one look at its internal rulebook and tore it up. Their entrance into microcomputers would follow a completely different path. Dubbed “Project Chess” by IBM, the development work attracts many top-flight IBM engineers to work on this new computer in complete secrecy. The result was the IBM Model 5150 - best known as the IBM Personal Computer or simply the IBM PC.

Instead of basing the PC around an IBM CPU, an Intel 8088 was chosen – as seen in the IBM Datamaster which was being developed at the same time. The PC also took a variant of the Datamaster’s keyboard and expansion slots, but then developed features all of its own. Output was either crisp text via a Monochrome Display Adapter (MDA) card to an existing model of IBM monitor, or to an compatible colour monitor with a Colour Graphics Adapter (CGA) card.

Although the PC could run a version of CP/M, the primary operating system was PC-DOS which was sourced from Microsoft. Quite how this choice of OS was made is now the stuff of legends. Initially IBM approached Digital Research (DR), the makers of CP/M, to provide a software platform for the PC. Although CP/M was designed to run on the Z80, an Intel version had been developed as well. Legend says that the boss of DR – Gary Kildall – was out flying his private plane when IBM turned up at the office unannounced, although the truth probably that DR and IBM couldn’t agree on a licensing structure. IBM then approached Microsoft and asked them to provide an OS. Microsoft didn’t actually make operating systems – their main business was BASIC – but a nearby company called Seattle Computer Products had an OS called QDOS that would run on the 8088. Microsoft bought the rights to QDOS, renamed it MS-DOS and then licensed it to IBM as PC-DOS while retaining the rights to sell MS-DOS themselves.

IBM PC with neatly-labelled floppies
IBM PC with neatly-labelled floppies

Compared to PCs of even just a few years later, the model 5150 was pretty limited. The 8088 was a cheaper and more readily available version of the 16-bit 8086, but the 8088 only had an 8-bit external bus. RAM was theoretically expandable to 640Kb which was substantially more than the competition, but typical configurations topped out 256Kb. Although the 5150 supported twin floppies (up to 320Kb each) the only way to support a hard disk was to use the 5161 expansion box which wasn’t available at time of launch.

The 5150 did have a cassette interface, although almost all systems were bought with floppy drives. Typical configurations would include two serial ports and a parallel port, but eventually you could add a joystick, network card, more memory and other options. The 8-bit expansion card design was physically robust, and IBM published all the specification so that third-party vendors could make their own.

IBM had a rebadged Epson MX-80 printer available as the IBM model 5152, the most popular dot-matrix printer of the time. You could add any other parallel or serial-port printer as long as your software had the drivers for it.

The use of an open architecture (where IBM described in detail the workings of the machine) plus industry standard components made this a very flexible system. Because it was well-built and designed – albeit expensive – it became a popular business computer, although realistically it was priced too high for the home market. Third-party software and hardware followed, so within a year of launch the PC could do everything any other machine could do plus much more.

It was a huge sales success, outstripping IBM’s most optimistic projections several times over. High demand meant that most initial units were sold in the US only. Production of machines for Europe officially started in 1981 when IBM launched a plant in Scotland, but grey imports existed before that. This delay gave the opportunity for rivals such as the ACT Sirius 1 to gain a foothold.

The 5150 was the direct ancestor of almost all PCs in use today (apart from Apple’s Macintosh machines). The IBM PC XT added more expansion slots and hard disk support in 1983, the IBM PC AT came in 1984 and used a much more powerful Intel 80286 CPU. It did seem at the time that IBM was onto a winner, but it didn’t take long for other companies to build compatible machines using the same architecture.

The only proprietary part of the PC was the BIOS which had to be emulated, or in some cases just ripped off from IBM. The Columbia Data Products MPC 1600 was the first true clone of the PC, launched less than a year after the 5150. Better known was the Compaq Portable, launched in 1983, which was not only 100% compatible (and used a legal BIOS) but it was transportable too. Thousands of other companies followed suit, and within a few years IBM’s control of the market was slipping.

In 1987, IBM attempted to change the direction of the PC industry with the launch of the PS/2 range which was more tightly controlled by IBM. Clone makers needed a licence to make a PS/2-type machine which had a different hardware architecture, but few bothered and instead the bulk of the market remained with machines with a direct line back to the original 5150. IBM continued in the PC business until 2005 when it sold the unit to Lenovo.

Today the 5150 commands decent prices for collectors, commanding prices of several hundred pounds for a good one, although they are much rarer in Europe than the United States (and if importing one, you need to get a voltage regulator unless you want to blow up your power supply). Of course, you can buy a direct descendant of the original PC in any computer shop which might give you a less antique experience…

Image credits:
Science Museum Group - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Rama & Musée Bolo - CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

Thursday 29 July 2021

IBM Selectric (1961) and IBM Datamaster (1981)

Introduced July 1961 and July 1981

Remember typewriters? You know, the obsolete technology that existed before the obsolete technology called word processors? Somewhere after people wrote stuff down by hand? No? Oh well, the IBM Selectric probably isn’t for you.

By 1961, typewriters were clunky, slow and inflexible… but businesses everywhere relied on them. IBM had a different vision of what a typewriter could be, and the Selectric was much more feature rich than most of the machines on the market at the time.

Early IBM Selectric Typewriter
Early IBM Selectric Typewriter

One obvious different was the print head – instead of having an individual arm with each letter laid out in a complex mechanical arrangement, the Selectric had a “golf ball” print head which would rotate to find the letter you wanted. On the Selectric, the head moved from left to right rather than the paper moving from right to left. Crucially, if the operator wanted to change the font they would just stop typing and swap in a different print head.

A quite complex electromechanical arrangement made all this work, and to get the best out of the Selectric required either experience or training. But it was faster, more reliable and more flexible than traditional devices and IBM took a large share of the business market.

New versions with more features followed, although the Selectric units were incompatible with each other. Some had correcting ribbons, wordprocessing features and even local storage. Variants of the Selectric could be used as computer printers. By the time the brand was retired in 1986, IBM had sold more than 13 million Selectric devices.

20 years further on, IBM found itself on the cusp of a larger revolution. Business computers had been getting smaller, more powerful and – crucially – cheaper, which was becoming a possible threat for IBM’s large computer business.

IBM wanted its own microcomputer and had started working on creating a unit based on an Intel processor, which was a major design break for IBM who had previously used their own PALM CPUs in their machines. The results of this unconventional effort by IBM is probably not the computer that first springs to mind – the IBM PC – but instead the IBM System/23 Datamaster.

IBM Datamaster
IBM Datamaster

The Datamaster used many of the same or similar elements that would be seen in the PC, including the Intel CPU, expansion bus and keyboard. Instead of the PC’s now-familiar modular design, the Datamaster was an all-in-one box (not dissimilar to the original Mac) designed to be set up by people with no technical experience. It was also IBM’s cheapest computer to date.

Unfortunately for the Datamaster, it had been stuck in development hell and took a very long time to come to market. As it was being readied for launch, the team behind it were also finalising the IBM PC which was launched the very next month. The PC had learned many lessons from the Datamaster, keeping what was good and throwing out what wasn’t. The PC changed the world, the Datamaster found modest sales in die-hard IBM shops.

The Selectric was arguably the ultimate electric typewriter, and while the Datamaster wasn’t the ultimate microcomputer it paved the way for what arguably evolved into one. Both devices are quite collectable, although the Datamaster is much rarer than the Selectric. Out of the two, the Selectric might still be of more practical use... and your children may well never have seen anything quite like a typewriter before.

Image credits:
Marcin Wichary via Flickr – CC BY 2.0
Steve Lodefink via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Monday 26 July 2021

Donkey Kong (1981)

Introduced July 1981

Donkey Kong was the arcade game that established Nintendo as a success in the North American market – introducing two of their most iconic characters in the process. But unlike many other games from the golden age of arcades, the development story for Donkey Kong begins in failure.

Donkey Kong detail
Donkey Kong detail

In 1980, Nintendo had attempted to break into the US with a game called Radar Scope which was a 3D space shoot-‘em-up with some advanced graphics for the time. 3000 machines were built and shipped to the States, but sales were poor and 2000 of the cabinets were unsold, prompting a financial crisis for Nintendo.

Donkey Kong was developed initially as a way to reuse the existing cabinets. Instead of a space-based game, this was a platform game where an Italian plumber attempts to climb to the top of the level while being bombarded by barrels thrown down by a primate.

The names of these characters? If you hadn’t guessed, they were Mario and Donkey Kong. Unusually for a game of the time, the characters came first and the game followed after. This process eventually meant that Nintendo had a cast of digital stars they could put into their own games which helped them grow in popularity even more.

Nintendo reworked the logic board from the original Radar Scope game, Donkey Kong had simpler hardware requirement than the shoot-‘em-up, it still possessed colourful graphics, sound effects and music all powered by a Z80 CPU. It wasn’t hard to port it to the booming microcomputer marketplace, and licensed and unlicensed clones were soon everywhere.

Donkey Kong arcade machine
Donkey Kong arcade machine

As well as direct sequels (many of which were based on the same hardware) a whole range of Nintendo games built on the characters and added many more. Mario in particular went on to star in what is probably the most successful video game franchise ever including Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart and many others. Donkey Kong starred in Donkey Kong Country and many other games, often crossing over with Mario.

It’s quite possible that if Nintendo hadn’t been sitting on a couple of thousand Radar Scope machines that such a novel concept might not have been risked. As it was, the descendants of the original Donkey Kong game gave Nintendo a unique edge in the future… which turned out to be not just shoot-‘em-ups after all.

Image credits:
Wordshore via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Microsiervos via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

Monday 19 July 2021

Ericsson T68 (2001)

Introduced July 2001

By the middle of 2001 the golden age of mobile phone design was beginning. New features were added to phones rapidly, and every handset managed to look very different from rivals. The next few years would see a wave of innovation – but for Ericsson, 2001 was also its swansong as a mobile phone brand.

Ericsson had produced a range of successful (and mostly very compact) phones but was losing money on the operation in a big way. Despite this, Ericsson continued to launch great new products and the Ericsson T68m (usually referred to as just the “T68”) was one of them. A diminutive 84 gram device, it packed in more features than rivals to create a very desirable handset.

This Ericsson T68m has seen better days
This Ericsson T68m has seen better days

One of the main selling points was Bluetooth – one of the first phones to feature this technology. It also had a colour screen, tri-band GSM, GPRS packet data, a WAP browser, predictive text, a bitmap editor and a bunch of included games. A camera – the MCA-25 CommuniCam – was available as a clip-on extra, again making it one of the first phones to feature that particular technology.

Not long after the launch of the T68, Ericsson merged their mobile phone business with Sony to create Sony Ericsson. The T68 received a slight cosmetic makeover and had a software update to become the Sony Ericsson T68i, the first phone to carry that branding. Eventually the camera add-on became a standard accessory, helping to popularise the idea of cameraphones.

Sony Ericsson T68i with Communicam
Sony Ericsson T68i with Communicam

When it eventually arrived, the replacement for the T68 was the stylish T610 and there was a successful run of handsets after that. Today, used prices for the T68i and T68m are pretty healthy with really good ones selling for £100 or more, although sub-£50 is more common. The Communicam camera add-on is available as new old stock from £50 or more, all pretty healthy for a 20 year old feature phone..

Image credits:
The Norwegian Telecom Musuem via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0
Science Museum Group - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0