Thursday, 24 March 2022

Nokia 3510 (2002)

Introduced March 2002

It is sometimes said that there are only two things that would survive a nuclear war: cockroaches and old Nokia phones. The Nokia 3510 – launched in 2002 – has the potential to be something that a future cockroach civilisation would unearth and worship as some type of cockroach god.

Maybe in this future roach utopia the 3510 might find itself in an epic Godzilla vs Kong battle with the legendary Nokia 3310, but the 3510 takes the indestructible design of the 3310 including the funky changeable Xpress-on covers and adds polyphonic ringtones, bigger screen, GPRS and a WAP browser. Indeed, the 3510 was once of the very first popular consumer phones to offer GPRS.

Sober or funky, the Nokia 3510 had interchangeable covers
Sober or funky, the Nokia 3510 had interchangeable covers

Like the 3310, the 3510 could survive a direct strike from a Tsar Bomba – but it couldn’t quite wrestle the roach god crown from the 3310. But a few months later the 3510i arrived, adding not only a colour screen but also support for Java games. The bugs raised temples in its honour.

Although the 3510 (and 3510i) are primitive by modern standards, they form part of the golden age of mobile phone design where every new handset looked different and new technologies were being introduced at a rapid rate, here with colour screens and Java but also including cameras, Bluetooth, media players, expandable memory and so much more.

XpressOn covers allowed a high degree of personalisation with the 3510i
XpressOn covers allowed a high degree of personalisation with the 3510i

If you fancy a retro Nokia like this then you’ll be pleased to know that they are as cheap as chips, buy enough of them and you could even make a Nokia Stonehenge for future cockroach archaeologists to puzzle over.

Image credits: Nokia

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Kaypro II (1982)

Introduced March 1982

A few years after the introduction of the first generation of practical microcomputers, manufacturers started to look at the possibility of having a computer that you could take anywhere rather than have tied to a desk. Perhaps the best known of this first generation of “luggable” microcomputers was the Osborne 1, launched in 1981.

The Osborne had plenty of limitations, not least the tiny screen. The market was ready for something better, and something better certainly turned up with the Kaypro II. It was designed by a company called (at the time) Non-Linear Systems (or just “NLS”), who up until this point had made lab equipment. NLS knew how to make reliable, rugged and portable electronics and they turned this expertise to a microcomputer.

A Kaypro II with several other vintage portables
A Kaypro II with several other vintage portables

Running the de-facto standard CP/M operating system and running on a 2.5MHz Z80 CPU with 64Kb of RAM and dual floppy disks, the Kaypro II had highly competitive specs for the era. Built into the high-quality painted aluminium case was a pin sharp 9 inch display which you could comfortably use all the time. The keyboard was also a high-quality design and it clipped firmly into place on the case making a practical if somewhat hefty 13 kilogram computer.

It wasn’t just the hardware that made the computer competitive. The Kaypro II was bundled with an office suite from Perfect Software that included a wordprocessor, spreadsheet and database, plus a version of BASIC that could be compiled into CP/M .com programs. Eventually the bundled programs included the class-leading WordStar wordprocessor and SuperCalc spreadsheet. The bundled software theoretically cost many hundreds of dollars, making the Kaypro II seem more of a bargain. If what you wanted wasn't in the box, then there was a wide range of business and home software available, including the legendary Zork.

Please give this Kaypro II a home
Please give this Kaypro II a home

This was a high-quality, reliable, well-designed and inexpensive product and it became quite a success. If you took one home from the store there really wasn’t much you needed to do except plug a few cables in. Everything else was in the box, making this an extremely consumer friendly-product.

It ended up as a popular tool with writers. Arthur C Clarke had one, as did Jerry Pournelle. Although it was always a bit of a niche system, the Kaypro II was enough of a success to make NLS a major player in the early 1980s market.

Curiously, there was never a Kaypro I as such. Aping the rival Apple II, NLS decided on making their first commercial machine another “II”. In 1983 it was followed by the improved Kaypro IV and Kaypro 10 (with a 10Mb hard disk), then in 1984 followed the Kaypro 4 and Kaypro 2X which were confusingly named, and if you thought that was confusing another Kaypro 2 followed in 1985 and the Kaypro 1 in 1986 (because why the heck not call it the “1”). All those Kaypro machines ran CP/M, it took until 1985 for Kaypro (as it changed its name to) to come up with a PC-compatible system with the Kaypro PC and the Kaypro 286i, which was the world’s first AT-compatible system. Kaypro also adapted their luggable boxes with the MS-DOS capable Kaypro 4 Plus 88 and Kaypro 16. Kaypro even managed an early MS-DOS laptop with the slightly peculiar Kaypro 2000 and the qurkly and deeply unreliable CP/M Kaypro Robie. Somewhere along the line NLS changed its name to “Kaypro” as well.

Kaypro went from boom to bust quite quickly. The II was launched after the IBM PC but before it became really popular. It took four years for Kaypro to come up with their own PC, by which time the rapidly-evolving market had moved on. Despite soldiering on for a few years, Kaypro went bankrupt in 1992.

As with almost all microcomputer companies of the era, the success of Kaypro was relatively short-lived. However, they were the first company to come up with a practical and affordable portable computer, furthermore one that required very little work to get it fully operational, with a high-quality build and smart looks. The Kaypro II undoubtedly influence other computer designs of the same and next generation.

Today the Kaypro CP/M portables are somewhat collectable, although many have become separated from the floppy disks that held the software. Most available systems are in the US but some can be found in Europe, but expect to pay several hundred pounds

Image credits:
Diaper via Flickr - CC BY 2.0
Daniel Boulet via Flickr - CC BY-NC 2.0

Sunday, 13 March 2022

LINC (1962)

First delivered in March 1962

The LINC – short for Laboratory INstrument Computer - was one of the world's very first minicomputers, helping to break the computer out of the corporate machine room and making it available to individual departments, labs and (at a stretch) homes.

Designed at MIT for academic work, most LINC machines were built by Digital Equipment Corporation, who were based in Massachusetts as is MIT. By 1962, DEC had already launched the PDP-1 (another candidate for the world’s first minicomputer) but the LINC was considerably cheaper and more compact.

Based on a 12-bit architecture, one innovation with the LINC was the tape drive (the LINCtape) which could store up to 400Kb and allowed a slow but reliable form of random access storage (somewhat like a very slow disk drive). The LINCtape evolved into DECtape, a common feature on DEC’s PDP line.

Digibarn's LINC system
Digibarn's LINC system

A small CRT could be used for output, and a rather clunky keyboard from Soroban Engineering (responsible for many computer keyboard of the same period) allowed input. Additional output could be made to a teletype, and the LINC could also be controlled by a set of rotary knobs which were essentially a precursor (pun intended) to the mouse.

The key application for the LINC was interfacing with lab equipment through the inbuilt A-to-D (analogue to digital) and D-to-A interfaces. This made the LINC a successful lab machine, although only 50 were built so it didn’t exactly change the world.

LINC exhibit at the Computer History Museum, California
LINC exhibit at the Computer History Museum, California

Significantly though, the LINC may be the world’s first home computer. Programmer Mary Allen Wilkes had a LINC system installed in her home, something that would be unfeasible with the 730kg PDP-1. It would take another 15 years or so before home computers became something that you could just go to the local electronics store to buy..

The LINC architecture grew into the PDP-5, PDP-8, PDP-12 and DECmate well into the 1970s. In the end though, the 16-bit PDP-11 and 32-bit VAX architecture (which were unrelated) moved things forward from there.

Image credits:
Jonathan Assink via Flickr - CC BY-ND 2.0
Don DeBold via Flickr – CC BY 2.0