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

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Renault 4 (1961)

Introduced July 1961

One of world’s most successful single models of car, the Renault 4 sold over eight million units in 33 years of production. It was an enduring success, utilising several technologies which were novel in the 1960s but commonplace in later years.

Although the Renault 4 is shaped like a small station wagon or estate car, it was actually the world’s first mass-produced hatchback. It was also front-wheel drive, at a time when almost everything else on the road was rear wheel drive. Indeed, the engine was in the front as well when rear-engined cars were still a thing.

Renault 4
Renault 4

The design was modern by early 1960s standards, and the target market was people who up until then had been buying the Citroën 2CV. Despite the rival 2CV having been introduced in 1948, it was still a strong seller due to its practicality and simplicity. However, the Renault 4 offered more power, more comfort and lower maintenance costs.

Unlike modern cars, the Renault 4 is built on an independent chassis with the body being placed on top. The chassis provided all the structural strength, allowing more windows and thinner pillars in the car itself giving better visibility. A range of engines were available – the smallest was in the Renault 3 (fundamentally the same car as the Renault 4), giving 22 horsepower. The Renault 4 had up to 32 horsepower. The rival 2CV thrashed around on just 12 horsepower at the time.

It was a practical car, and comfortable too. Although it maybe lacked the charm of the 2CV, it went on to be a massive sales success worldwide. Licence-built versions of the Renault 4 were made in such diverse countries as Argentina, Ireland, Morocco, Australia, Mexico and Yugoslavia. There was a popular van ("fourgonnette") version, plus a pickup and dozens of quirky custom versions made by converters and enthusiasts.

Renault 4 fourgonnette
Renault 4 fourgonnette

After the Renault 4’s launch came a host of other front-wheel drive hatchbacks, both from Renault and other manufacturers. The 4 lingered on though, with French production going on until 1992 (and until 1994 in Slovenia). Eventually it was replaced with the first-generation Twingo which successfully built upon the 4’s design philosophy – becoming a modern classic in its own right.

Today the Renault 4 is a rare sight on British roads – much rarer than the rival 2CV – with prices starting at just a few thousand pounds for a slice of Gallic charm. 

Image credits:
Spline Splinson via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0
Gzzz via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Chromebook (2011)

Introduced June 2011

Chromebooks are boring. Not as sleek as a tablet, not as powerful as a laptop. They’re for people who think a chicken korma might be a bit spicy and whose automobile of choice is an off-brand South-East Asian compact people carrier which just reliably gets them, their family and the dog from A to B with the minimum of fuss.

Based on Google’s Chrome OS - derived from the open source (but still largely Google) Chromium OS which is essentially a lightweight version of Linux – Chromebooks are inexpensive laptop-like devices designed for running web applications and a somewhat limited range of native apps, plus on many devices that ability to run applications designed for Android.

Currently most Chromebooks run on Intel-compatible processors, especially lower-end Celeron CPUs. Alternatively some variant of the ARM processor can be used, but these seem to be losing popularity. Like laptops there are a variety of configurations, mostly different screen sizes and CPUs. Internal storage is usually very limited as it is expected that most storage will be done in Google’s cloud. Similarly, there’s only limited functionality available without an internet connection.

HP Somethingorother
HP Somethingorother

Bland? Well, when you consider that people shell out thousands for high-end devices such as Macbooks but only use them for web browsing, they are certainly better value for money… in the same way that most expensive four-wheel drive SUVs never go further off the road than the supermarket car park. Since most Chromebooks tend to cost a few hundred pounds, they are usually a decent value proposition.

There are irritations, one of which being that Google got rid of the CAPS LOCK key to replace it with a search button. Printing can be difficult, but anyone who has tried to print from a smartphone will know that feeling too. You can’t run heavyweight native apps either because the hardware is generally underpowered and there is minimal storage space, but Chromebooks don’t pretend to be laptops. On the plus side they are inexpensive and have a real keyboard which makes them more suitable for real work than a tablet.

One key advantage is security – Windows devices are plagued with viruses and other malware, and so are Macs and even iOS and Android devices to a lesser extent. Although Chromebooks aren’t to security flaws, for all practical purposes they are much safer than using a traditional PC. On the other hand, software updates for Chromebook models have a much shorter lifespan than (say) a Windows PC, especially in early models which led to some hardware becoming obsolete in just a few years.

Chromebooks in a school environment
Chromebooks in a school environment

Did I mention they were boring? Well, really they are... but Chrome OS has a greater market share than the Mac (if you count a Chromebook as a laptop and not a door wedge), and in markets such as education they have a much larger share still. Is the idea a success? It’s a slow burn to be sure, but it does seem that Google and its partners have managed to come up with a viable alternative to Windows, Macs and tablets. Will they be around for another ten years? Given Google's habit of dropping products I would not bet on it..

Image credits:
BUF Simrishamn via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
TechnologyGuide TestLab via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Frogger vs Centipede (1981)

Introduced June 1981

Early popular arcade games tended to be space-themed shoot-‘em-ups, which tended to appeal to male customers. However, games such as Pac-Man had a much broader audience and were especially popular with female players.

Fighting for a share of this market - and introduced roughly at the same time as each other – were Frogger (by Konami and Sega) and Atari’s Centipede. Both these games are regarded as classics of the golden age of arcade machines, but both had very different gameplay.

The origin story for Frogger is as cute as the game itself. Konami employee Akira Hashimoto was watching a frog trying to cross the road from his car, and was thinking about the difficulties the poor creature was having… which led to the inspiration for creating the game. Only the poor old frog in Frogger has an even tougher time.

Frogger machine from Seinfeld
Frogger machine from Seinfeld

In the game, the player starts at the bottom of the screen and tries to make it to the frogs’ homes at the top. To do this, the frog has to cross several lanes of traffic, and then cross a river on floating logs and diving turtles while avoiding alligators. There are many ways to die. Colourful graphics and a catchy soundtrack added to the appeal of the game, and it was a huge hit.

Centipede was another animal-themed game, but very different in execution. From a gameplay perspective, this was closer to a traditional shooter game, but here the adversaries were various bugs that you had to defend yourself against, primarily a long centipede which wound its way down the screen and which would split up if you shot it. Fleas, spiders and scorpions appeared with different behaviours, and the playfield was full of mushrooms which changed the course of the centipede when it hit.

Atari Centipede
Atari Centipede

Like Frogger, Centipede was a huge hit particularly with female players. Both games were widely ported – officially and unofficially – to the booming home computer and console markets. Indeed, both arcade machines shared many hardware parts with theses home machines – Frogger ran on a Zilog Z80 with the versatile AY-3-8910 sound chip and Centipede used the MOS Technology 6502 with Atari’s own POKEY sound chips which found their way into every Atari product of the time. This symmetry in hardware capabilities allowed this generation of video games to be a huge hit away from the arcades. Eventually powerful home computers and then consoles would end the golden age of arcades but by 1981 that was still some way off…

Image credits:
Arturo Pardavila III via Wikimedia Commons - CC BY 2.0
Matt M via Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Monday, 14 June 2021

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (1981)

Introduced June 1981

When Texas Instruments (often known as just “TI”) entered the home computer, it wasn’t a typical player. Most machines were made by startups, or companies that had specialised in calculators and electronic games. Instead, TI was a massive and long-established electronics manufacturer which could trace its origins back to the 1930s, and by 1981 it was the largest semiconductor company in the world.

Rivals such as Motorola were happy to supply all the important bits and bobs to go into these new microcomputers, but that was as far as it went. However, TI chose to leverage its considerable expertise in silicon to try to carve out a slice of the market for itself.

In 1979 TI launched the TI-99/4, based on the 16-bit Texas Instruments TMS9000 CPU. The TI-99/4 was expensive, had a horrible keyboard and was limited in expansion capabilities. Two years later, TI fixed many of these issues with the improved TI-99/4A with a massively improved keyboard, clever expansion system and – crucially – a price tag that was half that of the original. The TI-99/4A looked promising to consumers, and sales started to take off.

It was a good-looking machine, with plenty of brushed aluminium and black which was in line with the aesthetics of the time. It wasn’t cheap, but the 4A’s price ticket of $525 was at least competitive unlike the 4. The graphics and sound were amongst the best in its class, so initially at least it seemed like a compelling proposition.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
Texas Instruments TI-99/4A

At its heart was the TMS9000 CPU, a sophisticated beast that was essentially a 1970s Texas TI-990 minicomputer on a single chip. It should have allowed the 99/4A to be one of the most powerful microcomputers on the market, but instead it was a major source of problems. Because building a full 16-bit system would be prohibitively expensive, almost all the internal architecture is just 8-bit which negated the possible performance impact. More difficult still was the fact that the 16-bit CPU’s instruction set was twice as memory hungry as a contemporary 8-bit CPU.

To get around this, TI essentially created an 8-bit virtual machine using an intermediate language called GPL. This made coding more efficient and was a technically advanced technique, but the processing limitations of the hardware meant that all of this sophistication created a computer that was significantly slower than its 8-bit rivals, despite running with a 16-bit core.

No computer of the era was perfect though, so the TI-99/4A wasn’t disadvantaged as much as you might think. But there were other problems – and the main one was software. TI were reluctant to share information about the platform with independent developers, instead TI wanted to produce the bulk of the software and peripherals for the 99/4A themselves – and thus profit from them. In truth, the TI-99/4A was probably better than most offerings but it was much weaker than the likes of the venerable Apple II or the upstart Commodore VIC-20.

But there was trouble brewing, and it was the Commodore VIC-20 which would deliver it in a giant tankard with a single raised finger painted on the side. Commodore’s boss – the legendary Jack Tramielloathed TI for nearly bankrupting his business during the pocket calculator wars of the 1970s. The VIC-20 ran on the 8-bit 6502 CPU (built by Commodore subsidiary MOS Technology) which was cheap, fast and well understood by programmers. The VIC-20 wasn’t as sophisticated as the TI-99/4A, but it was about half the price… at first.

Tramiel dropped the price of the VIC-20, TI followed suit. A price war emerged with both Commodore and TI dropping the prices until both units were shipping at less than $100. TI was haemorrhaging cash at this price point, but sales were good and it thought it could make the money back on software and peripherals. It couldn’t. TI started to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in this price war, driving the whole corporation into a sea of red ink. Even cost-cutting in production couldn’t turn it around – late 99/4As swapping to a cheaper beige case rather than the snazzy aluminium-and-steel one.

Late model fully-expanded TI-99/4A
Late model fully-expanded TI-99/4A

TI couldn’t sustain these losses, and in late 1983 it announced that the TI-99/4A would be discontinued. Production ended in the spring on 1984 and TI cancelled the interesting TI-99/2 and TI-99/8 systems that it was working on. Instead TI switched its efforts to 8088-based PCs running DOS, machines that were better than the IBM PC but weren’t IBM PC-compatible. In retrospect this was not a winning market strategy either. On and off TI stuck with the PC business, coming up with the TravelMate line of laptops which were quite successful, but TI sold their PC business to Acer in 1997.

Ultimately TI went back to concentrating on making the components that make the world go around apart from one consumer product – calculators. Yes, the product that so ired Jack Tramiel is still a profitable line for TI and outlasted the Company that dared to challenge it.

Image credits:
Max Mustermann via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0
Leigh Anthony Dehaney via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Zuse Z3 Computer (1941)

Completed May 1941

Who made the world’s first programmable digital computer? The Americans? The British? The Japanese? Well, in what is perhaps a forgotten part of history it was quite possibly the Germans with the Zuse Z3 which was completed in May 1941.

The electronics of the time were not sophisticated, the Z3 relied mostly on relays and the whole machine ran at a little over 5 hertz (no, not megahertz.. just 5 cycles per second). It weighed a ton and drew 4000 watts of power, but it was actually remarkably capable.

Zuse Z3 detail
Zuse Z3 detail

Floating point numbers were supported, the Z3 could not only add and subtract, but divide, multiply and calculated the square root. Many of the computer’s operations were actually implemented in microcode rather than being hard wides. A keyboard and row of lights formed the basis of the operator console, and the Z3 could store data on punched celluloid tape.

Sometimes considered a design flaw, the Z3 was incapable of performing a conditional jump – i.e. the program couldn’t take a different path depending on different circumstances, an essential feature of a multipurpose computer. Still, the Z3 could perform complex calculations more quickly and accurately than a human, which is pretty much all early computers were used for.

It might not have escaped your attention that a lot was going on in Germany in 1941. Designer Konrad Zuse struggled to get resources for his project, but the much simpler predecessors of the Z3 (the Z1 and Z2) persuaded the Nazi government to support it in a limited way. Despite commissioning the Z3, the authorities were not convinced of its value and it was not used to its full capabilities. A bombing raid in 1943 destroyed the computer, and by this time Zuse had gone on the design the Z4 – arguably the world’s first commercially available computer - which was released a few years after the end of the war. Zuse continued to develop computers into the 1960s.

Zuse Z3
Zuse Z3

It is perhaps fortunate that the Nazis didn’t see the potential of the computer – in Britain the Colossus computer was breaking high-level German codes produced by the Lorenz cipher. This allowed the Allies to read communications from German high-command, including some from Adolf Hitler himself.

The Z3 ended up being largely forgotten, although a reconstruction was made after the war which now resides in the Deutsches Museum. In different circumstances – probably not very good circumstances considering – the Zuse Z3 might have been the progenitor of modern computing. But it wasn’t, instead the Zuse company was taken over by Brown Boveri in 1964 and then was sold on to Siemens in 1966, eventually disappearing in 1971. In 1999 the computer division of Siemens merged into a joint venture with Fujitsu, eventually being wholly taken over by the Japanese firm in 2009. Perhaps somewhere in there a little bit of Zuse DNA lives on.

Image credits:
DKsen via Wikimedia Commons – CC0
Floheinstein via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

Saturday, 22 May 2021

IBM 7030 Stretch (1961)

Introduced May 1961

Sometimes products are released that look like they are sure-fire successes at the time, but end up in the long run as being insignificant. Sometimes products are launched that look like failures, but end up changing the world in some way. The IBM 7030 Stretch is a little of one and a little of the other.

The 7030 was IBM’s first fully transistorised computer, and at launch it was the fastest computer in the world. Projected to be priced at an eye-watering $13.5 million dollars in 1961 money (about ten times that today), this was a serious computer for serious organisations – coming in at 32 metric tons and consuming 100kW of power.

Transistor technology had been developing at a rapid rate by the start of the 1960s and IBM proposed using diffusion transistors for the new design. This was a risk move for the typically risk-averse IBM, but competition with companies such as UNIVAC was heating up. The initial goals for the 7030 was impressive – a 64-bit system capable of a processing capacity of 10 MIPs. When the technical complexities of the project began to dawn, this was dropped to 4 MIPS. When the 7030 was launched, it actually shipped with 1.2 MIPS. 

IBM 7030 Stretch
IBM 7030 Stretch

The system performance was a disappointment – even though it turned out that the 7030 was the fastest computer in the world. IBM cancelled new orders and halved the price for those who had already ordered it. In IBM’s eyes, the 7030 was a failure. Just 9 units were sold – including one secret version known as “Harvest”. There were significant internal recriminations at IBM, with plenty of finger-pointing going round and people anxious to assign blame.

But the 7030 was more of a technological success than was realised, and the innovations in hardware and software found their way into other IBM products, especially the successful IBM System/360 series which found their way into corporations everywhere. And although many of the technologies in the 7030 were soon obsolete, they all provided an important stepping-stone in the development of 1960s computing.

IBM 7030 Stretch

Two key figures in the 7030 Stretch were Gene Amdahl, a legendary designer of powerful early mainframes and Frederick Brooks who went on to write the seminal software engineering tome “The Mythical Man Month”. This book attempted to learn from the mistakes in the project management of Stretch and other projects, significantly the idea that adding more people to a late software project will only make it later. Despite being in print for more than 40 years, corporations continue to make the same mistakes that IBM did in the early 1960s.

Image credits: Don DeBold via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
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Thursday, 29 April 2021

Fiat 127 vs Morris Marina (1971)

Introduced April 1971

Two cars, two different design philosophies – the Fiat 127 and Morris Marina were both introduced in April 1971. One ended up being celebrated, the other derided. But which is which?

Fiat 127

Ah yes – the Fiat 127, the cute and inexpensive Italian hatchback of the 1970s. But it wasn’t a hatchback… well, not at launch, in 1971 you had a two-door saloon that had a boot at the back. Remember than even in the 1970s, the idea of the hatchback was a radical one… even though today it is an obviously versatile way to build a small car. The little 900cc engine gave a respectable 46 horsepower for such a car weighing about 700kg. The design was innovative enough, with crumple zones and excellent road holding – helped by the car’s front-wheel drive - with decent interior space as well.

Fiat 127
Fiat 127

A year later the hatchback version arrived – this is the version that really sold well – a major facelift in 1977 gave a more modern look and better engines. A further revision in 1982 sneaked in just before the launch of the Fiat Uno in 1983, and licenced versions built overseas lasted even longer.

This radical car was designed by Pio Manzù, who was tragically killed in a car accident before the 127 came into production. Manzù was an exceptionally talented young designer of lamps, clocks and furniture before turning his hand to automotive design. Just 30 years old when he died, it is likely that Manzù would have become one of the great car designers given the chance.

The Fiat 127 was massively influential – arguable the first modern hatchback design (well, eventually) – it set a pattern for small cars that it still in use today. Despite selling in huge numbers, only about 100 are still on British roads.

Morris Marina

Where the Fiat 127 predicted the future, the Morris Marina was instead a quick fix to British Leyland’s problems in the late 1960s with competing with the Ford Cortina. Available as a traditional four-door saloon or a rather rakish coupé, the Marina used tried-and-tested components to come up with something that wasn’t all that exciting, but for a while was certainly successful.

Morris Marina
Morris Marina

A reputation for unreliability and variable build quality, the Marina fell out of favour by the late 1970s and quickly became something of a joke, but this was probably unfair. It had been designed in a hurry and with a minimal budget, and yet it did everything that an early 1970s fleet buyer would want. It was certainly competitive with the Cortina.

The Marina’s Cortina-like capabilities were perhaps no coincidence. Designer Roy Haynes who created the Marina was also largely responsible for the Mark II Cortina. Haynes went on to other things before the Marina was launched however, and again here was another designer who had a chance to be one of the all-time greats but things didn’t quite pan out.

The Marina continued on until 1980 when it was replaced by the Ital – essentially a heavy facelift of the Marina – which continued until 1984. The Ital was the end of the line for Morris though, in the end the Marina was a dead end. Fewer than 400 Marinas are still on British roads.

Well, almost – the Ital briefly emerged again as the Huandu CAC6430 in China in the late 1990s. But it was the utterly magnificent door handles that had a life of their own, turning up in all sorts of exotic designs such as Lotuses and Ginettas.

Image credits:
Robert Capper via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0
Qropatwa via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Monday, 26 April 2021

Hayes Smartmodem (1981)

Introduced April 1981

The sound of modems belongs to a certain era before ubiquitous broadband. The characteristic screeching noise – a bit like a fax – joined in the rat-a-tat of dot matrix printers and the clunk clunk of mechanical disk drives. Modems had been around since the 1950s, a way of connecting computers together over the omnipresent telephone network. But initially they were very expensive and aimed at really big computer systems. As time went on, they became more affordable.. but not very usable.

By the late 1970s modems for computers had developed in two different ways – the acoustic coupler was a device where the screeching noise was fed into the telephone handset (often via a serial cable) or alternatively where it was permitted, the modem would be a card inside the computer with a telephone connection built in. But the acoustic coupler was bulky and slow, but the alternatively tended to need a modem designed specifically for every model of computer on the market – and these were only available for large systems and not the booming microcomputer market. There had to be a better way.

What was needed was a modem that could work with just about anything. That was the Hayes Smartmodem.

Hayes Smartmodem
Hayes Smartmodem

The “Smart” in Smartmodem wasn’t just marketing speak. It took advantage of the fact that almost every microcomputer system on the market had a serial port fitted, or one available as an optional extra. By using a serial port, all you needed to connect the Smartmodem to your micro was the appropriate cable, which if you couldn’t buy you might be able to make yourself.

But the implementation of serial ports varied from computer to computer, the Smartmodem needed to know (for example) when to hang up the connection. More sophisticated computers used pins to indicate when the connection was up or down, but cheaper ones didn’t. The serial port could also be running at a variety of speeds, so matching the port with the modem could be tricky on some devices.

Hayes designed a series of commands to control the modem, all beginning with “AT” for “attention”. But because all the commands started with the same two latters, the modem would attempt to use this to automatically match the baud rate of the computer with the modem. This made setting up the Smartmodem much simpler, but there was a more tricky problem… how could you tell the modem to hang up if you had a basic serial port that didn’t have the right wires to signal that to the modem?

To achieve this, the Smartmodem would look for a sequence “+++” followed by a once-second pause. This would break out of the communications sequence and make the modem ready to receive a command. If that command was ATH then the modem would hang up. It was an elegant solution, the pause minimised the possibility of it happening by accident. When competitors tried to copy the functionality of the Smartmodem, this was often implemented badly (in part because Hayes had patented it and demanded a fee). This meant that on some non-Hayes modems could hang up completely at random if they were sent the +++ sequence accidentally.

In these pre-internet days, modems would be use to connect computer directly to another computer, or perhaps to a BBS (bulletin board system) or if you were one of a small number of privileged people, they could act as a gateway to what was to become the internet.

The original Hayes Smartmodem was a 300 baud unit, but as technology improved the Hayes modems became faster. However, competition was also becoming fierce and although Hayes products were expensive, they were also very reliable and they carved themselves a healthy share of the market.

All good things come to an end though, and in the 1990s Hayes bet the barn on ISDN products, a market that never materialised. Competitors such as USRobotics were taking the analogue modem market. By the mid-1990s Hayes were in serious trouble. Bankruptcy and mergers led to them being subsumed into rivals Zoom Telephonics, where the brand eventually vanished. However, the Hayes website is still available although it was last updated in 2013.

Surprisingly, analogue modems are not quite a dead technology but their heyday has certainly passed. However, Hayes certainly made it easier to connecting disparate computer systems together and in part that drove the uptake of the internet in the 1990s.

Image credit:
Michael Pereckas via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Xerox Star 8010 (1981)

Introduced April 1981

By the early 1980s, hardware and software designers had great dreams about what they wanted products to be. Portable perhaps, affordable or business-oriented… but all of these were constrained by technology and price. But what if you dreamed big and without compromise, and built the best computer system you possibly could? This is what Xerox did.

The catchily-named Xerox 8010 Information System – more commonly known as the Xerox Star – introduced potential customers to the graphical user interface, mouse, Ethernet, servers and email. A great deal of modern computing technology was first available in the Star, but it certainly came at a price.

Xerox Star 8010
Xerox Star 8010

It had been a very long journey. Doug Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos in 1968 had introduced many of these modern concepts, but running on primitive hardware. Many of Engelbart’s team migrated away to the giant Xerox corporation which had pioneered photocopiers and laser printers. The fortunes of Xerox were very much based in paper, but the concept of the paperless office loomed large and Xerox wanted to still be in business when paper was consigned to museums.

The Xerox Alto was their first attempt, launched in 1973 it incorporated a GUI (graphical user interface) and a mouse, but it was never sold commercially. Instead the Alto was deployed around the Xerox PARC as well as some universities and research organisations. It took another eight years for Xerox to realise a commercial product – the 8010 – but even though it had taken over a decade since Engelbart had shown the concepts, the Star was still way ahead of everyone else.

Strictly speaking, “Star” referred to the software rather than the hardware. And this wasn’t simply a computer you could buy and take home. Doing anything required a network, some servers and perhaps $100,000 in 1981 money for a small installation (about $250,000 today).

Japanese market Fuji Xerox 8012-J
Japanese market Fuji Xerox 8012-J

The price like the name was astronomical. But what that substantial wedge of cash bought you was a computer system with a high-resolution 17” monitor, a carefully thought out software interface that could work collaboratively with others, based on the high-end AMD Am2900 CPU. And the software was like nothing else.

Everything was WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) – you could edit two pages of a document side by side, including charts and tables from other applications and when they printed out they matched what was on the screen. You’d expect that today, but in 1981 it was revolutionary. The clever object-oriented operating system delivered features to the desktop that wouldn’t be common until a decade later.

There’s a problem with trying to sell customers a product that they don’t know they want at a price they can’t afford... all the efforts of Xerox to create an advanced computer system did not translate into many sales. Xerox tried to reposition the 8010 into a desktop publishing platform called the 6085 (aka Daybreak) which included a laser printer, and although this was a capable system it was still expensive and sales were slow. Later attempts to port the software to OS/2 and other platforms also failed. Xerox weren’t done with WYSIWYG though, a spin-off created the iconic Ventura Publisher, but that was only a passing success.


Xerox Star UI
Xerox Star UI

Despite being a sales failure, the Star was a technological success. In particular elements from the Star user interface found their way into the Macintosh, Windows and a host of other platforms. The networked environment too was increasingly emulated by competitors. As is sometimes the case with big, sprawling companies the Xerox Corporation itself did not seem to understand or be able to protect its own intellectual property. As with many pioneers, it was other adapting their idea that made it a success. Today elements of the Star user interface are pretty much everywhere, but this pioneering system is long dead.

Image credits:
Rhys Jones via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Fuji Xerox - Courtesy of FUJIFILM Business Innovation Corp
Amber Case / Digibarn via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Victor 9000 / ACT Sirius 1 (1981)

Introduced April 1981

By 1981 the business microcomputer market was developing very rapidly. First generation 8-bit systems were giving way to more powerful 16-bit systems, and so too a new generation of computer companies were challenging the early pioneers.

One of these companies was Sirius Systems Technology, founded by (among others) the legendary Chuck Peddle who had designed the Commodore PET and MOS Technology 6502. Peddle and his team then set about designing a next-generation computer system based around Intel’s 8/16-bit CPU, the 8088, called the Victor 9000.

Now you’ve probably heard about the IBM PC, also launched in 1981 and eventually finding its descendants on just about every work desk everywhere. The Victor 9000 was better and hit the market first, but would it be enough to succeed? The answer is complicated.

Victor 9000
Victor 9000

It was based around a 5MHz 8088 CPU with between 128Kb to 896Kb of RAM, a high-resolution 800 x 400 pixel display, clever variable-speed floppies with up to 1.2Mb of storage, a bunch of interface ports and a very pleasing industrial design. On top of this the Victor 9000 could run CPM/86 (the 8086/8088 version of CP/M) and could also run Microsoft’s new (although slightly recycled) MS-DOS operating system. A useful wordprocessor, spreadsheet and financial management software could be bought to run on it.

Overall, this was a good and extremely competitive system… and perhaps it could have been a world leader if it wasn’t for the launch of the IBM PC in the US in August 1981. The PC was more expensive and less capable, but the magic three letters “IBM” ensure that larger corporations went out and bought it. Sales of the Victor 9000 were disappointing in the United States… but IBM waited another 18 months to launch the PC in Europe where the market was wide open.

Sleeker Victor 9000 with half-height drives
Sleeker Victor 9000 with half-height drives

In Europe, the Birmingham-based Applied Computer Techniques (ACT) acquired a licence to sell the Victor 9000 as the ACT Sirius 1. With little competition, the Sirius 1 became a major success in the UK and Germany in particular, even though it wasn’t really PC compatible in any meaningful way. Of course when IBM did start shipping into Europe, sales of the Sirius I were hit badly.

ACT Sirus 1 advertisement
ACT Sirus 1 advertisement

For the US-based Sirius Systems, their history was short one that followed a traditional path – only three years after the launch of the Victor 9000 they were bankrupt. It was a different story for ACT who launched several generations of advanced but not-quite-PC-compatible computers under the “Apricot” brand afterwards including the world’s first production system based on a 486 CPU. A takeover by Mitsubishi in 1990 was effectively the end of the independent Apricot brand - indeed Mitsubishi shuttered operations in 1999 – but it outlasted Sirius Systems, and along the way ACT kept innovating and was probably far more influential than its American partner.

Image credits:
Samuel via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
Bradford Timeline via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0
The Henry Ford Museum - CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Osborne 1 (1981)

Introduced April 1981

These days we take our computers everywhere – powerful smartphones, big-screen tablets and for more serious work, laptop computers that can do anything that a desktop machine can do. But if you wanted to take your computer with you forty years ago, then it was a serious hassle to disassemble everything and then assemble it all on the other end – travelling with a computer was just not a practical proposition.

That wasn’t the only issue in the early ‘80s. Even if you bought a computer, at best you’d have the operating system on a floppy disk and really nothing else. To get the most of it you would need to buy software for it, which could often cost more than the substantial amount of money you had already spent on the machine.

Launched in April 1981, the Osborne 1 attempted to tackle both of these issues. A self-contained “luggable” computer, you could simply unplug it from the wall socket and take it with you. Although it weighed a hefty 10.7 kilograms, it was packaged in such a way that you could stow it under an airline seat and potentially take it anywhere. The hardware had its appeals, but it was the bundled software – nominally worth $1500 – which had even more appeal, especially given that the Osborne 1 was priced at $1795. It seemed like a bargain.

Osborne 1

The bundled software included WordStar (the leading wordprocessor of its time), dBASE II (the leading database package), SuperCalc (a spreadsheet), PeachTree accounting software, two versions of BASIC, some tutorials and a couple of games: Infocom’s Deadline and a version of Colossal Cave.

Inside the Osborne 1 was a Z80 CPU with 64Kb of RAM, running CP/M 2.2 which was pretty typical for its time. A pair of full height floppies were on either side of a tiny 5” CRT display – smaller than most modern smartphones. The small screen size was in part due to the limited space left in the case due to these drives, which were chosen for robustness rather than capacity and as a result could only store 90Kb. An external monitor interface was available, so you could have a screen both in the office and at home which is still a common solution to portable displays today.


It's a "portable" computer. You can move it. Not put it on your lap.

Despite its flaws, the Osborne 1 found its niche. No other company made a viable portable computer, and the software package made it a compelling buy even if you didn’t want to lug it about. It was somewhat expandable too, including a 300 baud modem that could fit into one of the diskette storage bays which made the Osborne 1 viable for rudimentary remote working.

Although the shine was coming off CP/M with the launch of the IBM PC later in 198, Osborne was still selling these in quite large numbers and at a profit. They also had more machines in the pipeline, including the Osborne Executive which had a bigger screen, more storage and more RAM. Things were going well, but then a disaster occurred.

The disaster was a human one. Adam Osborne - a prolific writer of computer books who had founded the Osborne Computer Corporation – announced the follow-on models a significant time before they were ready. Customers and distributors stopped buying the Osborne 1 in anticipation of the better models. This cutting away of their customer base also coincided with the launch of the Kaypro II and eventually the PC-compatible Compaq Portable for high-end users. The company declared bankruptcy in 1983 – just two and a half years after the release of the Osborne 1 – trying a last-ditch attempt to get back in the market with the Executive and the more advanced Osborne Vixen. Ultimately it failed to re-establish a foothold in the market it created, although Osborne limped on until 1985 ultimately producing the Osborne 3 which was based on the Morrow Pivot.

One you added a couple of full-height floppy drives there wasn't much space for anything else

Today the infamous “Osborne Effect” is probably better known that the computers that presaged it. Most collectable models are in the United States, but prices for one in working condition are typically just a few hundred dollars.

Image credits:
Tomislav Medak via Flickr – CC BY 2.0
Thomas Conté via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
Dave Jones via Flickr – CC0

Monday, 5 April 2021

LG KG800 Chocolate (2006)

Released April 2006

Today LG announced that they were pulling out of the mobile phone business, a market that they had competed in for two decades. The loss-making unit struggled to compete with the likes of archi-rivals Samsung (a Korean company like LG) and increasingly competitive Chinese manufacturers are taking substantial market share in the Asia-Pacific region.

Recent LG devices have been slabby and competent smartphones, but did they ever make an iconic device? Possibly the most memorable phone they made was 2006’s LG KG800 “Chocolate”.

LG KG800 Chocolate
LG KG800 Chocolate

An elegant slider phone, coming to market 15 years ago, the KG800 came from the golden age of mobile phone design. The smooth almost featureless phone slid open to reveal a keypad that had a passing resemblance to the squares on a bar of chocolate – hence the “Chocolate” name the phone was marketed under. An adaptation of a Korean-only phone launched the previous year, the KG800 was sold worldwide in one form or another and was a huge hit.

What interesting feature were the touch-sensitive buttons on the front of the phone which were normally invisible but lit up when they were active. This gave the device a sleek, mysterious form factor. Unfortunately they could also be easily triggered accidentally, one common problem being that it was easy to trigger the sequence to delete all the contacts in your phone. Ooops.

In these pre-iPhone days, expectations about technical specs were not very high but the Chocolate didn’t really meet up with those, even by 2006 standards. A 2.0” 176 x 220 pixel display, 1.3 megapixel camera, 128Mb of non-expandable storage, no 3G support… it wasn’t great. But primarily this was a fashion phone and the sleek looks were the appealing factor.

Where the Chocolate may have been the most memorable, there were some other interesting devices too. LG’s U8000 series of clamshells were among the first 3G phones to be widely available on the market, the GD900 had a very cool transparent keypad, there was the GD910 watch phone, the PRADA phone that might have been an iPhone rival under different circumstances, the LG Optimus 3D (which you might guess had a 3G display), indeed looking back LG weren’t short of innovation, but they could never quite create the “must have” phone that they needed for real success.

LG tried to follow up the success of the Chocolate with a number of other devices such as the BL20, BL40, KU800 plus also the Secret and the Shine. They met with limited success in a market that was shifting towards smartphones rather than feature phones.

While it’s sad to see LG go, it’s unlikely that most people will notice. But if you want a device to remember them by, the KG800 is typically priced at only £10 to £25 in decent condition.

Image credit: LG

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Nintendo Game Boy Advance (2001)

Introduced March 2001

Nintendo had popularised handheld gaming, first with the simple but fun Game & Watch in 1980, then then Game Boy in 1990 and the Game Boy Color in 1998. By the early noughties, the technology for handheld devices was improving at a rapid rate – and it was into this market that the Game Boy Advance (or “GBA” for short) was born.

The original series of Game Boy devices used a weird Sharp CPU – the LR35902, which was a sort of cross between an Intel 8080 and a Zilog Z80. The new Game Boy Advance used a 32-bit ARM processor of the type that was eventually to become ubiquitous in handheld devices. The weird Sharp CPU was still there though, providing backwards compatibility with earlier Game Boy generations.

Game Boy Advance
Game Boy Advance

Unlike earlier versions, the control buttons were on either side of the 2.9” colour display. But it was the display itself that was divisive – it didn’t have a backlight and was difficult to see in a lot of lighting conditions. Although 2001-era displays weren’t as good as they are today, the Game Boy Advance was a disappointment. However, power requirements were low and the unit would run for up to 15 hours on two AA batteries.

Limitations aside, it was a very successful device with a wide variety of games, including all those written for earlier Game Boy devices plus a large number of others written just for this console. The GBA also came in a wide variety of colours and special editions to tempt people to buy more than one. Less commonly used were adapters and link cables for playing multiplayer games and watching videos.

Game Boy Advance SP
Game Boy Advance SP

Although it was a fundamentally good console, the poor screen held it back. In 2003 Nintendo launched the Game Boy Advance SP in a clamshell design with a front-light which improved matters, but a later revision in 2005 (the AGS-101) included a backlight and it finally made the GBA playable in all environments. The Nintendo DS effectively replaced the GBA and was compatible with most of its games, originally launched alongside the SP it eventually took over. Between all different models of the GBA, total sales were in excess of 80 million. If you want one today, prices vary significantly but an AGS-101 in good condition will start at around £150 but rarer variants can be much more expensive.

Image credits:
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0
Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons – CC 0