Archive for December, 2017

VCFB and Classic Computing 2017

December 29, 2017

This year (still 2017) I attended the VCFB 2017 in Berlin that took place October 7th & 8th, 2017. I mainly participated because this was also the host of the yearly Classic Computing exhibition of the (very German) club “VzEkC” (Verein zum Erhalt klassischer Computer) whose member I am since some years now. The club name translates to “Association for the Preservation of Classic Computers”. It is active all over Germany.

But back to the event. It took place in the German Museum of Technology Berlin, in an area that used to be part of the Goods Yard of the former train station “Anhalter Bahnhof” that does not exist anymore. It was spacious and well-equipped, and the event was really fun. The museum itself is something you have to visit if you happen to visit Berlin because it will interest you for sure as you read this blog 🙂 It contains planes, ships, and trains and has e.g. a quite high Trip Advisor rating. The permanent exhibition on Computer Science includes such things as replicas of the first German computer and other Zuse machines.

The event had over 2000 visitors, and featured a Lectures & Workshops track. You can find reports and pictures about it here (German) and here (German).


There was also an Award for the Most Popular Exhibit and it was deservedly won by Ansgar Kückes showing his exhibit “WarGames” (picture above). It showed a HP 9845C setup that was used to produce the “War Room” graphics for the movie “War Games” including some original hardware used in the movie production. The point was that the production team had (in 1983) no huge displays to show the graphics in the war room. Therefore, they used the above setup to pre-record the graphics (using such tricks as the rotating three color filters as the used vector display was monochromatic) on film. During filming the movie the recorded film was then projected on the screens and the actors had to act in correspondance with the shown graphics. This was the end result in the movie:


Very impressive. Both the movie and the exhibit on how these scenes were made.

General Magic and Magic Cap – How a Startup failed to dominate the PDA Market

December 28, 2017

This is the modified translation of an exhibit I had at the Classic Computing 2010.


It tells the history of the company General Magic, a startup that was founded in 1990 with the goal to to create and satisfy the demand for mobile communicators.

In 1990, there was no GSM and no Web, no tablet computer nor PDA. Fax was been introduced widely just now.

At Apple, there are two projects to create small, mobile computers: Newton, and Pocket Crystal, a smaller computer.

1990 the idea of Personal Communicators is born in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. The software project for that idea is named Paradigm. It is based on Pocket Crystal. The project is not supported very enthusiastically by Apple’s management, but it finally agrees to spin off the project in an own company.

Marc Porat, Bill Atkinson, and Andy Hertzfeld found General Magic in May 1990. 10% of the shares belong to Apple, 10% to Sony, 10% to Motorola, the rest to the founders.

1991 Apple sues General Magic. It is not clear why (apart from the fact that Apple has some problem with General Magic), and the lawsuit somehow trickles out.

In 1992, General Magic announces Matsushita, Philips, and AT&T as additional partners.

The Vision

General Magic wants to create the “Personal Internet Communicator” (PIC), a personal mobile device that unifies all sorts of communication under a single, intuitive user interface. A PIC is not

  • a simple pen computer (as envisioned by GO from 1987 and implemented by several companies from 1989)
  • a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) that aims more towards intelligent notepads.

Handwriting Recognition is not the target.

So, even if PICs are not want to be PDAs, PDA is today the most popular label of mobile computers that are not Smartphones (that’s my explanantion of the heading :-).

The company does not want to create and sell PIC devices, but it aims at controlling the ecosystem by providing the Operating System to licensees. This Operating System is called Magic Cap.

Magic Cap

The Operating System offered a number of functions to users. These functions were:

  • Telephone with hands-free capability
  • Telefax
  • Email
  • Web Browser (Magic Cap 3.1.2)
  • PIM (Personal Information Manager)
    • Address Book
    • Calendar
    • Note Pad
  • Pocket Calculator
  • some Games
  • Pocket Quicken, Spread Sheet
  • Remote Control (Sony PIC-1000)
  • Protocols
    • TCP/IP
    • POP3
    • SMTP
    • PPP
    • IrDA
    • HTML (Magic Cap 3.1.2)

Over the years, there were several version of Magic Cap:

  • 1.0: PIC-1000, Envoy 100
  • 1.5: PIC-2000, Envoy 150
    • Instant On
  • Magic Cap for Windows
  • 3.* (Rosemary)
    • Re-implementation in C++
    • Web Browser
    • 3.1.2k: Version of the 90* DataRover
    • 3.1.2j: Last Version, available in the Internet

The Magic Cap Devices

Although General Magic does not want to sell PIC devices, it needs a hardware reference system for the companies that actually want to build the devices and for the own developers that want to test the Operating System.

This reference design was then used as the starting point for the hardware companies for their own designs. That’s the reason why some general characteristics are the same across devices from different companies of the same Magic Cap generation.

  • Manufacturer: Sony
  • Model: PIC-1000
  • Year of introdution: September 1994 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $995
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.0
  • RAM: 1 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 580g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, no backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 1 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (15h) or 6 AAA
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: relatively rare, low interest by collectors


  • Manufacturer: Motorola
  • Model: Envoy 100
  • Year of introdution: January 1995 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $800
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.0
  • RAM: 1 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 800g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, no backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: NiCd
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
    • 4800 bps wireless two-way packet modem ARDIS
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: quite rare, low interest by collectors
  • Manufacturer: Sony
  • Model: PIC-2000
  • Year of introdution: November 1995 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $900
  • CPU: Motorola Dragon I 68349 16MHz
  • OS version: Magic Cap 1.5
  • RAM: 2 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 4 MB
  • Weight: 500g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 4 gray shades, backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (15h) or 6 AAA
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 2400 bps v.22 data modem
  • Number of build devices: unknown
  • Collector Status: relatively rare, low interest by collectors
  • Manufacturer: General Magic / Icras (Oki OEM)
  • Model: DataRover 840
  • Year of introdution: 1Q 1998 (USA)
  • Introductory price: $1000
  • CPU: MIPS R3000
  • OS version: Magic Cap 3.1.2
  • RAM: 4 MB DRAM
  • ROM: 8 MB
  • Weight: 500g
  • Graphics: 480×320, 16 gray shades, backlight
  • Interfaces:
    • Magicbus port (PC conn, etc.)
    • Modem port (to RJ-11)
    • 2 Type II PCMCIA slot
    • Infrared transceiver – FSK modulated, 38.4Kbps
    • AC adapter port
  • Battery: LiIon (8h)
  • Builtin Modem:
    • 9600 bps fax send modem
    • 19200 bps data modem V32 terbo
  • Number of build devices: 6000 (manufacturing cost: $800)
  • Collector Status: sometimes still available for small bucks as NIB, low interest by collectors

AT&T PersonaLink

General Magic provided the Operating System, the hardware manufacturers provided the devices. The picture was completed by a communication service by AT&T called PersonaLink that intended to provide the intelligent communication that would allow Magic Cap devices to unfold their full potential. Unfortunately, the service never really was more than an fancy Email service. It was launched in September 1994 and  stopped in June 1996.

How the story wents on…

  • April 1993: AT&T launches the EO Communicator 440
  • August 1993: Apple launches Newton
  • September 1994: Sony PIC-1000
  • January 1995: Motorola Envoy 100
  • February 1995: General Magic goes public and doubles its share value the same day
  • November 1995: Sony PIC-2000
  • April 1996: Motorola Envoy 150
  • June 1996: AT&T stops PersonaLink
  • 1996: Andy Hertzfeld sells his shares
  • 1996: GM has ~ 300 employees.
  • 1996: Dr. Steve Markman leads the company and starts a department for speech applications. This new department has 60 – 70 employees and develops a service called Portico and an audio interface called Mary. Mary understand 20 million expressions and it able to speak some thousands
  • October 1996: Magic Cap for Windows 95 is published
  • 1998: the hardware group is outsourced as DataRover Mobile Systems
  • Spring 1998: DataRover 840
  • March 1998: GM announces a licesing agreement with Microsoft that includes an investment agains patent rights
  • May 2000: DataRover Mobile Systems changes its name to Icras. Icras has 35 employees.
  • 17. September 2002: General Magic ceases to exist. The patents are auctioned off.

Why did General Magic fail?

  • Magic Cap 1.0 was finished very late
  • Therefore, the first devices were quite late on the market
  • Magic Cap 1.0 was too bad and made early adaptors angry
  • Delays in new Magic Cap versions kept going on
  • The devices were expensive, e.g. compared to the Newton
  • There was no Handwriting Recognition (and the intial hardware could not achieve that anyway)
  • The partners included too many big companies that competed in some fields
  • The Magic Cap products were partially competing to other products of the partners
  • In the middle of the 1990s mobile phones arrived at the market and changed communication
  • GM could not secure new funding because the Internet was the next big thing

Life after General Magic (2010 edition 🙂

Not only was General Magic a hot startup at its time, also there were some people involved that made quite some impact afterwards…

  • Pierre Omidyar founds eBay
  • Tony Fadell leads Apples iPod Hardware Group
  • Kevin Lynch designs Flash
  • Andy Rubin designs the Sidekick and the Android platform
    • also Android controls the ecosystem by providing an Operating System and let 3rd parties design the hardware…
  • Bill Atkinson works at the AI startup Numenta
  • Andy Hertzfeld works for Google


Stretch Goal Bonus Content

There is a ton of additional information I could add. Telescript, Mobile Agents, … Actually, Mobile Agents was my first academic topic from 1995 to 2000, and General Magic’s thoughts were inspiration to the entire field.

But I will not add these things unless I get enough feedback from you…

General Magic movie

As I am researching this entry, I stumble across an upcoming documentary about General Magic, wow. I am really hyped. Even if I feel that I might be a sizeable part of the audience for this movie 🙂







Plan Informatique Pour Tous (IPT)

December 28, 2017

Apart from my exhibition on Micronique computers, at the Classic Computing 2015 in Thionville, France, I also had some slides on a French programme to introduce computing to more schools in the 80s called “Plan Informatique Pour Tous (IPT)” or, translated to English, Computer Science For All. Because of its importance in France and the notoriously rare availability of any information on old French computers in English, here they are.

Plan Informatique Pour Tous (IPT)

  • was a program by the French government to:
    • introduce the 11M French pupils to computer science
    • support the French computer industry
  • its targets were presented on 25.1.1985 by the Prime Minister:
    • put 120k computers in 50k schools
    • train 110k teachers in computer science
  • the budget of IPT was FF 1800M in total, FF 1500M of that for hardware, i.e.:
    • FF 15k for every computer system
    • FF 2700 for every teacher
  • the high-flying goals of the program were not reached; on the other hand this program exposed many pupils to computers for the first time
  • the selection of industrial partners was given to Gilbert Trigano, co-founder of the Club Méditerranée
  • originally, he intended to give the order to Apple buying specially modified Macintoshs
  • the intended agreement would have meant that instead of in Ireland, Apple would have located the European Macintosh factory in France and transferred state of the art assembly knowledge
  • instead, out of political reasons, only French manufacturers were invited
  • out of the same reasons, the finally selected partner was Thomson, a nationalized enterprise in financial troubles

And here you have all the contenders to the IPT competition (that I know of) and how they did in the competition:


The winners were Thomson with their MO5s and TO7/70s. To a much smaller degree, also exelvision could sell some of their EXL100s.

Le nanoréseau (The Nano Network)

The IPT proposal was heavily centered around a proprietary network technology called “Le nanoreseau” that was developed prior to the competion by the Lille University of Science and Technology.

  • The Nano Network
    • a 500 kbps (RS-486-based) network connected:
    • 1 PC-compatible server (called network head) with two 5.25” floppy disk drives, 512 kB RAM, and a printer (Mannesmann-Tally MT80)
    • up to 31 Thomson (8 bit) microcomputers (called nano machines)
  • the network allowed to:
    • load programs and data onto the microcomputers
    • communicate between all computers
    • exchange screens between the computers
    • execute a program on the computers
    • use the printer at the server from all computers
  • in principle the approach was working very well, but using 8-bit machines as terminals was old-school already then

Interact Model One, Victor Lambda, and the Micronique Computers

December 28, 2017

One very interesting computer family from my point of view is the model series by a French company called Micronique. They had a certain market share in France in the 80s, but are virtually unknown in the rest of the world (and probably also now in France). The origins of their model family is an U.S. American computer called Interact Model One:


The model history of this machine continues in France with the Victor Lambda:


Now the third company continues the history of this model. This company is called Micronique.


Now, let’s have a closer look on the models that Micronique developed. The first model switches the CPU from an Intel 8080 to a Zilog Z80.


The last model is the Hector MX:


As you can tell, this entry had a lot of posters. I took them from an exhibit I had at the Classic Computing 2015 that took place in Thionville, France. Underneath the posters I showed off an Hector HRX and an Hector MX:


(Picture from Ajax (

A Brief History of Mobile Computing

December 24, 2017

This is the English version of the posters at a booth I presented at VCFB+Classic Computing 2017 in Berlin Germany.

This small exhibition aims at giving an overview on the development of Mobile Computing using computer models that were the “first” implementing relevant new aspects to the field. Often, also the second models are mentioned. These computers are sometimes not the most often sold models at that time (as often, they were quite expensive because they offered something new in a time that this new feature was not commonplace and required expensive components), but, by and large, they at least sparked competition and created markets.

Let’s start in the not-mobile field.

B1981These are, of course, a small selection of the most popular models of the early home computer era (yes, there are some important models missing, but that’s not the point here).


These are the two first representants of computers that were meant to be transported and that, therefore, made compromises in terms of e.g. screen sizes for the sake of size, compactness, and weight.


In contrast to the computers of the last poster, these computers were also meant to be used without a need for a power socket nearby. People are often baffled by the HX-20 to be the first one that integrated a battery because it looks still quite modern by its very compact form factor and the number of features it includes. The HX-20 also was a very popular computer and you will have no problems getting one from ebay for relatively small bucks. The Data General ONE is not the second computer with batteries, but the first PC with batteries.


These computers now are the first ones that deviate from the traditional usage-by-keyboard to a new paradigm that is more appropriate to truly mobile computers: the pen-and-notepad. The GRiDPad 1900 is (by and large, see the last poster) the first mobile computer using a pen (still with cable), and because it is so early, it is using still a keyboard-oriented Operating System (MS DOS). The pen is used more like a mouse. The NCR 3125 is the first mobile computer meant to be used like a notepad. It’s sleek, timeless design still looks good today, but it’s nowadays on the heavy side of things. Both models are very rare today, with the 1900 being especially rarely sighted.


1993 is the year where notepad-like mobile computers hit the market in big numbers. They differ from the previous models mainly in size and in price. They all aim at sporting a general Handwriting Recognition function in order to come from handwritten pen input to text the computer can process. Unfortunately, this is often also the problem for these early models. Either it basically does not work (PenPad), or it does not really work (Newton first model, Zoomer), at least it requires strong-for-the-time computing and memory resources (440, Newton) that make them still-too-expensive-for-many-users and still-too-heavy for shirt pockets.


But then, one small company (called Palm) finds a recipe that compromises pen input and computing requirements by replacing general Handwriting Recognition by a special alphabet users have to learn called “Graffiti”. This allows mobile computers to use much smaller CPUs which drives the price down and requires smaller batteries. In addition, the Palm computer family uses small screens, which makes the system very lightweight.


The pen remains the most important input device for mobile computers until Apple finds out how a mobile computer can work that uses only a finger. It implements these ideas in the first iPhone in 2007, Google copies this idea for the first Android phone in 2008 (some of you will now that the first Android prototype 2006 was keyboard-based, and that the design was switched as a reaction to the iPhone).

And that’s where we are today.

Let’s conclude with the technical data of the mobile models above.

Technical Data

Manufacturer Model Year Weight Price CPU RAM Disk Screen
Osborne 1 1981 11 Kg $1795 Z80@4 MHz 64 kB 204 kB 5“ CRT
Kaypro II 1982 13 Kg $1795 Z80@3.5 MHz 64 kB 382 kB 9“ CRT
Epson HX-20 1981 1.6 Kg $795 Hitachi 6301@0.6 MHz 16 kB 3.5“ LCD
DG ONE 1984 4.5 Kg $2895 8086@4 MHz 128 kB 1.4 MB 11“ LCD
Linus 1000 1987 4 Kg $2795 NEC V20@7.2 MHz 640 kB 512 kB 9.5” LCD
GRiD GRiDPAD 1900 1989 2 Kg $2370 8086@10 MHz 1 MB 10“ LCD
NCR 3125 1991 1.5 Kg $4795 80386SL@20 MHz 4 MB 20 MB 10“ LCD
Amstrad PenPad 1993 0.4 Kg $400 Z8S180@14.3 MHz 128 kB 4.5“ LCD
EO 440 1993 1 Kg $2000 Hobbit@20 MHz 4 MB 7.5“ LCD
Apple Newton 1993 0.4 Kg $700 ARM610@20 MHz 640 kB 5.2“ LCD
Tandy Z-PDA* 1993 0.4 Kg $700 NEC V20@10 MHz 1 MB 4.8“ LCD
USR Pilot 1996 0.2 Kg $299 Motorola 68328@ 16 MHz 128 kB 3.3“ LCD
Apple iPhone 2007 0.1 Kg $499 ARM1176@412 MHz 128 MB 4 GB 3.5“ LCD
HTC Dream 2008 0.2 Kg $495 ARM1136@528 MHz 192 MB 256 MB 3.2“ LCD


Presentation on PenPoint

December 21, 2017

PenPointI hold a presentation on GO and PenPoint at the VCFB 2017 in Berlin. The slides are in English, the presentation in German. As there are not so many PenPoint lovers out there, I’d love to get comments and corrections on the presentation!

NCR 3125 under PenPoint

December 3, 2017

Yesss, finally. After having a presentation on GO and PenPoint and a booth on “A short history of Mobile Computing” at VCFB 2017 (I’ll soon report on both) with a NCR 3125 and an EO 440 but no working computer running PenPoint, I finally acquired another NCR 3125. And this time running PenPoint!


Oh, yes, plus a (probably) complete set of PenPoint developer documentation (only 2 volumes are missing).


Plus some replacement tips for the WACOM pen (comes in handy as the tip of the other pen disappeared).


You’ll get some photos soon and then I can submit one to Wikipedia (for their PenPoint entry).

My plan is to extract an HDD image of PenPoint and provide it on this blog. I think some people might be interested in that… If this image from is true also for my model, the HDD is a 2.5″ PrairieTek Prairie 120 IDE model (20 MB). So this sounds manageable. Update: Yes, the HDD is the model above. I was a little bit confused upon opening the computer when all I saw coming from the HDD were 2 flat flexible cables (I was looking for IDE connectors). Upon closer inspection I noticed that the HDD controller (usually screwed on top of the HDD) was mounted detached positioned next to the HDD body obviously to make the package more flat. You can see this in this picture quite well, the HDD is the black box on the top left corner plus the controller on the right:


(Picture taken from, in this case this page on the 3125)

The controller, of course, has the IDE connector.

In contrast to my old 3125, this one is equipped with 8 MB of RAM. I wonder whether this is required by PenPoint. Hmm, all the early mobile computers being able to run PenPoint (3125, EO 440, IBM 701T) had minimally 4 MB of RAM, so probably not. BTW, the PenPoint is a 1.0a version. Sounds quite early.

My first impression of this version of PenPoint on the 3125: quite slow! You have to be patient to work with this system… The computer came with a bare PenPoint, no additional software seems to be installed. The most fun part after the tutorial on how to use PenPoint is the feature to getting the gestures explained and then being able to train them.


Upon playing with the new system I realised the first time that the on/off switch of the 3125 is located on the (detachable) battery pack, so no switching on the system without a battery. Even the manufacturer’s name and the model name on the front is printed on the battery. I never saw a battery made an integral part of the system so clearly 🙂

Oh, yes, and a word of advice on starting an NCR 3125. Sometimes (e.g. when the battery was dead), it seems to employ a strange double booting procedure (probably due to the usual dead battery). First, the “BIOS” part of the computer is started and the memory tested (namely the main PC memory (640kB) and the extended memory). The computer will complain about invalid CMOS memory content and stuff and will allow to enter the BIOS settings. But do not worry. Simply exit this stage, and the real OS booting process will start. Again with a RAM test, but this time including 3 memory parts. For exiting the first stage your pen needs to work (maybe a keyboard will do, too). Clicking on the “<EXIT>” text usually does the trick.