Monday, September 20, 2010

Some thoughts on cellphones

I have recently made some research on cellphones and how they have changed over the years. You can see the results I found in my cellphone overview.

For me, the topic always offers material for heated discussions. I like to have these especially with my friend Stefan, with whom I have somewhat similar ideas.

I would like to sum up these ideas in the following text, which might seem a bit unorganized in its structure. Have fun reading.

What first caught my attention in the course of cellphone history is not so much the features that were added, but more the buttons.

If you sum it up, the pattern goes like this:

-1992-mid-90s: lots of extra keys, for sending messages, opening messages, adding numbers, etc.
-mid-90s to early 2000s: maximum reduction of keys. Epic examples are the Nokia 3210 (4 keys including navigation) and the Ericsson T28s (5 keys including navigation)
-early 2000s to late 2000s: the use of function keys increases again, peaking in the upgrade to touch-screens of nearly all famous cellphone brands

I find it funny to see "senior-phones" pop up in stores now... An example are the Emporia devices. Why does it seem impossible to use standard cellphones by intuition nowadays? If it has almost perfectly been possible with the mentioned two navigation wonders, why do we need to go back to a big mess of functions?

I think the approach that Apple and Android phones take is a little over the top. All applications on a pile can be necessary and/or helpful for experienced users but will just overwhelm unexperienced ones. I also think that it is strange that senior phones with huge, easily pressable physical buttons pop up after this has hit the market.

Maybe more thought about unexperienced users is what ended the war on the tinyest phone ever in the past. But touchscreen phones don't seem to be much better either.

I think this is the time to put in relation the features to the number of keys or the navigation on a phone: Of course, more features eventually become easier to access with more buttons. I don't want to start a discussion about whether these are very useful or not. But what I do want to start a discussion about is how they are accessible and what I can do if I don't want them.

In the mania of adding new features, people tend to forget those, who actually would rather buy a phone that has basic functions:

Call, send short messages, store numbers

The sad thing is that the only way to buy something like this is to buy a "senior phone" or a used phone.

I think the ultimate test a cellphone should pass is the "grandfather test". This is nothing to laugh about and in my opinion a very serious way to determine how far you can get on a cellphone just by intuition and following writing and symbols or buttons and display. We are actually living in a generation that will be the last one to experience this exciting effect, which you cannot imagine yourself: your grandparents, as people who have not used electronic gadgets for at least 60 years of their life will have a very hard time doing almost anything on a phone.

Why has it become harder to reach the aforementioned basic 3 features? Why was it necessary to add two more directional buttons or a joystick?

Think about it: The basic concept that most of the people should understand is this: scrolling through a menu with arrow buttons. Everybody knows the meaning of arrows. A menu can consist of a list of terms. To see for example the lowest of the three terms move up one line to the middle of the screen, opening the way onto the screen to the term below means that you have successfully scrolled down. This action can be performed by two buttons.

Now imagine the action with a 4-direction ring around a confirmation button. This adds a lot more complexity than needed to the whole thing.

Modern cellphones seem to have at least 4 buttons that could in my opinion be left away. For example either two shortcut buttons and two direction buttons, or the traditional green and red buttons, if they are not used for navigating forth or back a level or confirming anyway.
Why did the cellphone manufacturers, who spent some years decreasing the number of buttons, start to add ones all over again? The answer is probably the rapid increase of features, which I mentioned earlier: Because of the adding of functions (some of which were probably added to show what is possible instead of really making the phone more useful).

I think one should ask himself what functions are mostly used in everyday life and what functions he has used since buying the phone. So, did you ever use the radio? Do you seriously use the mp3-player, which probably requires phone-specific earphones? Did you often use the camera? Do you take the time to scroll through pictures afterwards? And how many times did you use WAP internet, the stopwatch, the customizable background and screen savers?

If you answer with "yes" or "often" then you are not a typical cellphone user.

If not, ask yourself which functions you would include in a phone that you could design or specify yourself. Probably, one will think of the trinity of functions mentioned before: making and receiving calls, sending short messages, scrolling through the phone book in search for numbers and having some supporting features such as turning the volume up and down during calls to compensate noisy environments.

I think it would definitely be something I and probably a lot of other people would buy.

What is the reason for manufacturers not making any of these? The answer is marketing and trying to constantly offer more than the competition in a market that has changed over the years:

In the early days of mobile communication there was no such thing as real concurrency between different brands, because everybody was focused on just making the pure communication (SMS + phone) work best. Of course, they tried to outbid each other with improved voice clarity etc, but there was just not that picture of the mobile phone as the all-in-one-gadget everybody uses today.

With the evolving development of mobile phones, producers became aware of the fact that they are producing something that people have in their pockets all day long. So what if they could include features for which people would normally need to carry around heavy/heavier equipment?

The "race to arms" that began after this realization, resulted in the thing with the buttons described above.

The interesting thing is that the general public wasn't ready for this kind of all-in-one gadget. Why should you have a device that can do many things BADLY when you can rather have a device that is really good at one single thing (e.g. a pocket camera, a pocket radio, an mp3-player)?

The smartphone-idea was what really resulted in a breakthrough for the mobile phone industry. The Apple iPhone EXPRESSED that idea to the public. While former phones just tried to be that one gadget for everything, the iPhone effectively combined all features with a never before experienced simplicity and design (but, as a side note, with inferior hardware).

It was probably thanks to the fame of the brand Apple, that once again the mobile phone industry was transformed. Whatever you might think about the iPhone (e.g. probably low useability for unexperienced users mentioned above): It made the people ready to just use their phone for several tasks wherever they are. If you asked any iPhone or iPhone-inspired-phone users nowadays how often they use the internet on their device, the answer will be completely different than if you asked two or three years ago.

With this said, I think we will never again find a phone for, say, 30€ with a monochrome screen. Even if the built-in color screen is REALLY bad...

So what can you say in the end? I think IF it really is necessary to put a camera and a color screen into everything, let us at least have some useful features like barcode scanning, flight tickets per SMS (a photo with a (bar)code is scanned directly from the cellphone screen) and so on. Sadly, these features are beginning to appear almost a decade after the necessary basic features in phones became common.

Anyway, if this got you started, you should have a look at my cellphone timeline that I have compiled during my research.

If you don't believe that I actually forgot myself what (else) I was getting at, just see this as some condensed thoughts about the cellphone phenomena.

Yannick Grawenhoff, with some interesting thoughts by Stefan Biereigel

Ode to the Internet Archive

What came to my mind recently when thinking about internet services that really help me was the Internet Archive, known by some also as the WayBack-Machine.

As I've told you, my hobby is not only to collect old or ancient hardware, but also to find as much information as possible about it. While doing this, I have often experienced a dead end - a site that has been taken out of the internet's "ether" some years ago and is not in Google cache. What can you do if that is the only site promising info about important but for most long forgotten hardware?

This is where the Internet Archive takes over. The people running this archive collect and store pages of the World Wide Web with their regular "web crawls": Nearly every site on the net gets picked up and at least its text is saved in the archive. The user then has the possibility to enter a URL and select which saved version of the page he would like to access. This is possible with pages that still exist (to see earlier versions) and e.g. pages that have been deleted over 5 years ago.

A perfect example of how useful the archive can be is the following site I once recovered when researching about the Xerox PARC Alto computer:

http://web.archive.org/web/20030807044816/www.ainotl.com/alto.html

This is for me one of the most interesting computers ever built. It featured a Letter-format black and white screen, a graphical operating system with icons and WYSIWYG functions and programs controlled by a mouse and booted from a removable hard disk drive… And, last but not least, an ethernet connection to other Alto computers. Sounds like nothing unusual? Well, this was 1972, still before the microprocessor was available. The manufacturing costs of this computer were over 50,000$ back then. Punch that into an inflation calculator and then compare it with the manufacturing cost of the PCs everybody and his uncle are making today…!

Anyway, a little more history about why this computer is so great: One of the people that enjoyed a tour through the Xerox PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center, also what gave the Alto his name) was nobody else than THE Steve Jobs. He was so fascinated about HALF of the features (it is said that he overlooked the ethernet connections), that he decided to build a computer like this himself. More than ten years later, in 1983, the Apple LISA was ready. The breakthrough, though, was made with the Apple Macintosh one year later.

To sum it up, it took more than TEN years to have something comparable to the Xerox Alto for home use (the Alto was given away to universities but never actually sold, the successor that was sold was immensely expensive).

Rumor has it, that a certain Bill Gates was fascinated by the Macintosh and also thought to himself "Well, I could do something like that myself", and so the line of copiers went on… But that's another story.

So why am I telling you this? The site I recovered claims that the ONLY REMAINING Alto I is in their possession. It is the ONLY resource so far where I could find such detailed information and pictures… All thanks to the Internet Archive.

This is why, like I find the Alto one of the most interesting computers, I find the Internet Archive one of the most interesting resources on the World Wide Web. It is definitely a site that's got its place on my "list of sites to donate for", because these guys are doing an enormous amount of work to make sure that our (sub)culture(s) is/are preserved forever.

If you reach a dead end in the future, why not give it a try at www.archive.org

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Extreme Time Travelling / Time Wasting Session

Old hardware banged once again (also known as nerding around)

If you have a lot of old hardware around you, as is the case with my friend Stefan and I, it can happen that you start fooling around with it a bit. To be precise: with its features. Of course, you will want to know what this hardware can do, how it can compete with current hardware and which storage media it can use.

Through boredom and daydreaming, a concrete list slowly emerged. The ideal goal is, to work through all of this list. Who doesn't know this: your old hardware is catching dust and starting to yellow and you just won't find the time or a good reason to examine it more closely. There is more than enough to do, though! Although we are not the inventors of the technology which make what is about to come possible, but still we think that an to the outside world unjustified decision to buy something can be justified by just four words: so that I can!

Roughly ordered by do-ability and availability:

-Connecting our loved 9-pin joysticks and joypads over USB: Who doesn't want to play Trackmania United Forever with the old Amiga CD32 bone? This is possible with a small but powerful adapter. This contains electronic components, that can be bought for little money. Even fully built, this little helper can be bought for under 20€. I already use an adapter like this at home.

What is needed? Joystick adapter (cost for material: about 18€)

Commodore floppy drives connected over USB: The connection over the parallel port of the PC was already awesome. But what is even more awesome? Of course, sticking 30-year-old hardware into a USB port. With this, you cannot only boast at LAN-parties, but also produce disks for the real computer, the Commodore 64, much faster. After all, the PC is nothing but a workhorse ;-). For around 20€, you can get the parts… After that, it's time to fire up the welding iron (some skills with that will come in handy, though)…

What is needed? XU-1541 cable (costs for material: about 20€)

Feed datassettes with your iPod: Owning an iPod is reason enough for many to feel cool. But how cool would it be to load games into your Commodore 64 with it? Who is still talking about format incompatibilities, if the only thing that matters is the flow of audio signals through the wires of a datassette? The format doesn't matter to the drive. With a simple adapter cassette, which lays an audio-out jack signal onto the audio heads of a cassette, you've gotten all the needed hardware together. Now it's time to load the files onto your player.

What is needed? Adapter cassette (approximately 5€)

Misuse the Commodore 64 as a PC Keyboard: As mentioned before, no hardware collector likes to work on a PC… To have at least some retro while being at this forced work, one should just use a C64 as the keyboard. Got a case with defunct mainboard? Then get yourself a keyboard adapter. This costs 30€ and is an eye-catcher not only on LAN-parties.

What is needed? KEYRAH adapter (30€)

Internet on Amiga: Who is sick of the ongoing war between Mac and PC should prove to the sworn fanboys, what can be done with the Amigas of the late 80s to the early 90s. Produced in a time, in which not even the Bulletin Board System usage over the telephone line had reached its peak, this third and forgotten computer platform can even today keep up with Macs and PCs in terms of internet ability. Yes, they don't need to be kept up with but are rather knocked aside by modern hardware, but being 20 years behind their level… it should be allowed to have that noticed. Still, the Amiga 1200 features a PCMCIA port, which makes the use of driven (in the sense that there are drivers available for them) standard plugin cards for ethernet or even WLAN possible.

What is needed? PCMCIA card (cheap variant) or network card for Amiga (expensive variant)

Internet on the Commodore 64: A relatively simple piece of hardware for roughly five times the price of a used version of this computer catapults it 20 years into the future (sadly only to its own one… after all, it is still a computer with 1 MHz)

What is needed? Retro Replay (50€) and RR-Net (50€), soon also Chameleon and RR-Net (more expensive, though). Also possible: older variants like MMC-Replay and RR-Net (now approximately 70€)

5,25" and 3,5" Floppy Disk Drives in your PC, able to write everything: Long-time dream for retro computer freaks, even this is possibly today. One needs a so called Catweasel controller and can write all "retro formats" natively from PC to disk with that. Now, it is your own decision what is cooler: Commodore floppy disk drives connected to the PC by USB or Commodore disks quickly written with the internal 5,25" drive. Both is only cherished or thought necessary by a small amounts of nerds, but who cares…

What is needed? Catweasel Controller (100€), appropriate drives (per piece approximately 5€)

SID-Chip in the PC: For all that prefer a SID over any sound card, the Catweasel also offers two sockets for original SIDs. Now there is nothing in the way of an unbelievable emulation oder maybe other acoustic experiments.

What is needed? Catweasel controller (100€), SID chip(s) (butcher up a Commodore 64 or buy them used for about 10€ each)

Internet on Windows 3.1…: …but on Atari or Commodore hardware: Even if the PCs of Commodore and Atari were nothing special, everybody has the urge to bang them a little… I mean hardware wise of course. How can that better be done than by first feeding them with Windows 3.1. The thing gets really interesting, if you add in an ISA ethernet card and put the machines online. Like this, you can let everybody who does and does not want to know, with which PC you are just online. And who did not always want to connect the enemies Commodore and Atari? LAN makes it possible…

What is needed? ISA ethernet card, software

Internet on the Dreamcast: Yeah, the first console with a Modem. But that's exactly the problem. If one has an ADSL connection, but no rare Sega Broadband Adapter, one is stranded with the Dreamcast. Once again, our workhorse called PC can help us out: internal modem and ethernet card at the same time fix the problem. The whole thing works only on Windows 98, as it seems… Maybe also a candidate to run on a Commodore or Atari computer? But this is getting too far… To use the Internet on the Dreamcast in a useful way, you can optionally already start DreamKey or Linux. The rest is messing around with software…

What is needed? Internal modem, ethernet card, modem cable, Dreamcast standard modem

Classic Operating Systems on an Emulator: Who hasn't wanted to work with NLS? With a Xerox OS? Or at least with Amiga OS. On a software emulator for the PC, this should be possible. Ultimate scene: A Mazewar server (PDP-11 emulation) with appropriate Mazewar clients (Imlac PDS-1 or Xerox Alto emulation) or a Spacewar! computer (PDP-1 emulation)

What is needed? Loads of Software (mostly freeware)

Linux on loads of devices: PS2, Nokia D-Box, iPod, Dreamcast, PS3: Are you fed up of these standing or lying around? Why not install Linux? Proven to be possible with all the named devices, this should be a nice way to spend time…

What is needed? Appropriate Linux distributions for the devices (available freely)

Hosting a Website…: …on an Amiga, a Commodore 64, the Dreamcast, and of course the PlayStation 2. If you asked yourself, what you should do with it, before buying your C64 ethernet expansion, you will now get the answer: Create a web server, what else? Especially the Commodore 64 is probably the best computer to host the internet presence of a hardware collector ;-).

What is needed? PlayStation 2 ethernet adapter (20€), Retro Replay and RR-Net (50€),… (see above), software (Contiki for Commodore 64, Linux for PS2 and Dreamcast…)

Windows 95 on Commodore and Atari PCs: Same game as with Windows 3.1, only this time, heavy artillery is drawn up. How much modern hardware can be stuffed into these computers? Is it even possible to run Windows with the maximum of upgraded? Only trying can give us the answer.

What is needed? Original Windows 95 ;-), graphics cards (ISA), memory expansions (Intel Above Board) (20€), etc.

Music of (almost-)Videos loaded in real time from the Datassette: This is only a question of programming and 4 frames per seconds is all you are going to get, but still… This can probably be used to display a more or less useful message animated in the background.

What is needed? Datassette, programming skills

Network with old Computers: You don't really need ethernet LAN to connect computers. For example with the Commodore 64: here you can do this by connecting two computers to a floppy… If something useful can be done with that is the next question. This procedure cannot only be done with Commodore equipment but also for example with exotics like the Enterprise (not the space ship, the computer). As long as you have enough computers of a certain type, you can surely build something up with those.

What is needed? Lots of computers, lots of peripheral stuff, lots of appropriate wires

Emulate a PC by Software on a Commodore Amiga or an Atari ST: This won't be fun but rather be an exercise in patience. Still, isn't it something that this is possible at all? Use an architecture to emulate a completely different architecture over software… Wait, this is common on PCs nowadays. But one should not forget, that first, this was done in 1985 and second that the Amiga then was performance-wise almost an the same level as the emulated one (a PC) *duck and run before the Amiga fanboys get me*. Third, the Amiga is not up to date anymore, which is kind of what we are looking out for in hardware. It would be great, if one could run MS-DOS on this patched-together machine *run really quick*. Ideally, one could try to emulate some more architectures on these 16-bitters (C64 on Amiga?).

What is needed? Rare emulator software, maybe memory expansions, MS-DOS

Emulate around: Of course, there are also hardware emulators. Besides the probably best known, the Sidecar for the Amiga 1000, there is also an Apple emulator and one for Atari computers for the Amiga architecture. Most of the times, it is enough to put in a board with a few extra chips. This might catch attention of the few people that care…

What is needed? Rare appropriate hardware emulator boards, software

A VOIP call over a W48 of the German Post (for BBS): If you are going old school, then please also with your telephone: How much more nostalgic can it get than with an original W48 telephone of the German Post. If you own the correct adapter, which converts the impulsive dialing method to an up-to-date method, you should be able to connect the phone to a VOIP router over a LINE cable (needs to be adapted from TAE in Germany). Now nothing stands in the way of setting up a BBS on the old computers, that already stand ready with acoustic couplers.

What is needed? W48 telephone (in good condition about 40€), adapter to use it with modern telephone networks, appropriate acoustic couplers, ability to use VOIP or a VOIP account

Hosting a BBS… but on which machine?: Who does not know this: A whole collection of devices is in front of you, but they are all so different. If there just were a possibility to connect them all.. But the hobby computer expert suggests a BBS here: How about setting up your Dreamcast, Commodore 64, PlayStation 2, Atari 800XL, Apple II, etc… and a couple of PCs… and connecting them to a VOIP connection (set up your acoustic coupler!)? The game is only finished when every computer has an account on a BBS hosted on another computer (ideally with system specs) and the other way around until every computer can count every other computer except itself as members in their BBS. Got that? Then it's time to start sending useless junk back and forth… Now we would just need a standardized file format. For all computers with internet, the whole thing could also be done over Telnet (also known as the noob-style).

What is needed? A lot of modems or acoustic couplers, telephone line, VOIP ability or VOIP account

"Feed" a Modem of an old Computer over a PC Modem: Like with the Dreamcast method, this should work as well with other computers. It's not always fun and takes much effort to connect these computers over the telephone line. The workhorse PC makes this easier.

What is needed? Check above in the section on internet on Dreamcast

Grande finale: CP/M on MITS Altair 8800 and the Commodore 128… from the SAME disk: If you are through with shopping for approximately 30,000€ (Commodore 8" floppy disk drive, a transfer cable, original MITS Altair 8800, original MITS Altair 8" floppy disk drive, a good 8" floppy disk, a transfer cable to write CP/M to that floppy (from the PC), and last but not least a Commodore 128 computer), all you still need is software. So, who can write us a program, which makes it possible to use official Commodore 8" drives for the CP/M bootup?

What is needed? I don't think there is anything left to say here ;-)

***

So this is our list… Of course, it is everything but complete, because you can always extend something like this. Now I ask you: We first want to try to complete all these ideas or at least thoroughly document how it could be done. After that, it's your turn to summit your craziest ideas. Nobody needs to feel bad: no idea, as objectively useless as it might seem, is too crazy!