Saturday, 3 October 2015

Adox CMS 20

Off to Milan again, and because I like to live dangerously, let's have a look at Adox CMS 20. It's a film I haven't ever shot before. One of those lith films that was designed to reproduce black-and-white artwork, but at a pinch you can use it for everyday scenes. The packaging is maddeningly vague, so I shot at ISO 20 and developed in the usual way. It seemed to work.

Italy has an interesting attitude to women.

I used my half-frame Olympus Pen FT, because I wanted to stretch out the film. I only had one roll, and no way to test it in advance. CMS 20 has very little grain, and even with half-frame negatives the images I developed are sharp. If it was faster and less contrasty it would be super.

Is it still being made? I'm not sure. I always get Adox and Agfa mixed up. Agfa is dead; Adox is still going. I have no idea if it makes its own film, or repackages stuff it finds in warehouses. Adox targets a tiny niche of black and white thrillseekers who crave unusual films, and it would be a shame if it vanished.

Obviously the film copes with airport X-rays, because I left a half-finished roll in the camera on the way back to the UK. The rest of this post was shot in Shoreditch, infamous hipster capital of London and thus the UK.

Not long ago a gang of ne'er-do-wells smashed the windows of a local estate agent and threw paint at Cereal Killer, a cafe that sells cereal and has a boring frontage, so I didn't photograph it.

They appear to have ignored the frozen yoghurt cafe just across the road and all the other signs of hipsterism. It was a protest against gentrification, but that's silly. Shoreditch was a hipster mecca fifteen years ago, when I lived in London; the people I knew who worked in nearby Hoxton didn't actually live there. Real people haven't lived there for decades. Shoreditch is just like Notting Hill and Brick Lane. Real people don't live there.

Like London's Chinatown, Shoreditch is essentially a street with people walking back and forth, plus a couple of streets coming off it. How do you get there? If you alight at Liverpool Street station and turn right you end up in The City, where deals are made; if you turn left and walk onwards for ten minutes you end up in Shoreditch. Historically Shoreditch was thus full of people who worked in The City during the week, who had money to spare on the weekend on rare groove records that they bought from Shoreditch to take home to the suburbs and put in their Ikea Expedit shelving units.

That economic model is essentially gone nowadays. No-one can afford records, or space to put them. The record shops are more valuable as investment properties than shops, so they've all closed. And not just because of online sales - even before Amazon, the record shops of Shoreditch were menaced by the likes of HMV and Our Price. Britain is now a post-retail, property investment economy. If that entails a certain amount of stagnation, why not? It worked for Switzerland. Let the rest of the world have warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. We have the cuckoo clock.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

On/Off: Old Electronic Products from Long Ago

Two long weeks ago, while I was trying out an old camera, this thing caught my eye.

This thing:

Well, it's not really a thing. It's a book.

Are books things? I mean, they're objects, just like toothbrushes and pencils, but they're not just objects, they're distillations of the human spirit. Like bars of soap, but instead of being made out of animal fat they're made out of thoughts.

Albeit that On/Off doesn't have a single thought in its gormless head, and there's nothing of the human spirit to be found in its 160 pages. It's just a cheap cash-in. Lots of advertising images sourced by a team of researchers with some simple captions copied from press releases. The publishers wanted a coffee table book that could be assembled cheaply and sold at a premium. It says On Off on the cover but On/Off on the spine, so that's what I'm going to call it from now on.

The cover image is a 1600x1200 17" Apple Studio Display, which had been discontinued by the time the book came out. It was Apple's last ever CRT. My recollection is that hipsters clung to theirs for a few years because the blacks were deep and colour rendition was superior to early LCD displays, and also because the case looked awesome. And the new 1600x1024 22" LCD Cinema Display cost $4,000, which was a lot in 2001. The 17" CRT was only $500 or so. You could hollow it out and use it as a chair.

A Whole New World

According to Barnes and Noble On/Off was published on 04 December 2001. Two days after Enron declared itself bankrupt, three months after 9/11. Some of the examples date from late 2001, but on the whole the book reeks of 1999 and 2000. This is part of an advert for the StreetFinder GPS.

Authorship is credited to Mel Byars, but I'm not sure what he actually did beyond contributing a short essay at the beginning. The essay is tonally off-base. This kind of book needed some Wired-level bullshit, instead it has an elderly fuddy-duddy waffling about how he didn't have email when he was a lad, and how the kids of 2004 will never know a world without VCR.

Except that they will because VCRs will be dead by 2004 you silly man. Who is Mel Byars? He seems to be a go-to man for short captions for design books.

On/Off was published during the tail end of the crash. It was, I imagine, supposed to capitalise on the boom, but the timing was off. The NASDAQ doubled from 1996 to 1999, doubled in 1999, and peaked at 5,048 on 10 March 2000. By March 2001 it had halved and by March 2002 it had halved again. What were the best-performing stocks of the 2000s? Medicine, construction equipment, energy, coffee, diesel engines, coal, tobacco, oil, engineering.

Hitler once said that he had no fear because he was following a path already laid for him by providence, and as I gazed upon On/Off: New Electronic Products by Mel Byars it came to me: what if I am the reincarnation of Hitler, and it is my destiny to write about this book?

And so I cleared my mind and this is what came out. I was a young man during the boom; this was my time; I was one of them.

The 3Com Audrey is the book's most infamous flop. It was an internet appliance, essentially a small touch-screen computer designed to sit next to the cooker and show you adverts, as per the image above. It was aimed at women and families.

The Audrey often pops up in Cracked-style lists of most stupid tech products of all time, but I think that's unfair. The design is decent. On a conceptual level the idea was just a few years ahead of its time. If it had been really cheap it might have worked. If it had been a straightforward PC in a neat case it might have attracted the same people who had made the iMac a huge hit, but instead it was non-standard, and so you had to buy it as well as a computer.

In 2000 you probably had one very expensive computer that connected intermittently to the internet with dial-up; the thought of spending $500 on a dedicated family internet machine for your girlfriend/parents in the kitchen was absurd. In fact the thought of any tech product targeting women or old people was silly. If you were a young internet professional during the boom women were basically strippers and old people didn't exist, and families were what older, boring people had. This is how entrepreneurs saw the world. This is how young men see the world today. If you are a young white man, other young white men are real, women are strippers, everybody else is off the radar. It is true now and it was true then. The Audrey was not aimed at you, which is why it was mocked so thoroughly. It was aimed at a market that, in your world, did not matter.

These are just electric razors. They aren't internet razors and they don't connect to anything. They're just razors. Apple had experimented with translucent plastic a couple of times in the 1990s, but the 1998 iMac made see-through dayglo polymers the next big thing. Translucent plastic was postmodern; silly and hip and cutting-edge at the same time, but by 2001 it had become a sad cliché.
Apple's next generation of products were made of white plastic and then metal. Nowadays the only things made of translucent plastic are cheap memory card readers and pens.

Why are all the photographs tilted? Well, if I was doing this professionally I would take a razor blade to the book, cut the pages out, scan them, and assemble the article that way. But I'm not doing this professionally and I don't want to ruin the book. Photographing everything dead-straight would be awkward, so why not make them really tilted? Why not?

Apple: The Future
Let's get Apple out of the way first. A generation has grown up knowing nothing but Apple. It is the wind that blows the world's economy; it is a set of wind chimes that sing the song of global commerce. The most written-about and studied-about company of the modern age. But in 2001 it was just Apple Computer, and it merited four pages in this 160-page book:

Yes, the text calls it the Apple Powerbook G4 Magnesium, despite telling us that it is made out of Titanium. The Titanium G4 is the only product in the book that I have owned, albeit that I bought it in 2014 in a burst of nostalgia. Elements of the design haven't aged well, but it's light-years ahead of stuff like the following, which is a concept for a legacy-free PC, without parallel ports and PCMCIA slots and floppy disc drives:

Ziba Design's Aztec is conceptually similar to the Apple G4 Cube, but hideously wrong. It makes me admire the Cube even more. There were numerous attempts to sell legacy-free PCs and internet appliances at the time, but as with the Audrey they suffered from the twin problems of being too expensive to buy on a whim and not functional enough to appeal to traditional PC owners. Although the internet was making great strides in 2000, 2001, the industry seemed to vastly overestimate the degree to which ordinary men and women had adopted it. Everybody knew that the internet was going to be huge, but the industry wanted it to be huge in late 2001, not 2010. This is one of the reasons Amazon survives to this day. The founders were prepared, were able to wait.

Histories of the internet tend to be written by people who adopted the internet early or who have never been without it, but for the great mass of humanity the internet was nerdsville until the middle of the decade. Way back in February 2001 First Monday published a fascinating essay, Content is not King, which in a roundabout way argued that the internet for most people was email, and that for the foreseeable future there was more money to be made in facilitating communication than pushing news or streaming TV. I often wonder if the founders of Facebook and Twitter had read that article. In 2001 it was assumed that the internet would quickly replace television, and that we would all sit in front of our internet terminals reading the newspapers whilst looking at adverts, and that - crucially - there was money to be made from this. History has shown that television still exists, and although lots of people read newspapers online, what little money they make is no more representative of internet commerce than Morgan's sales are to the global car market.

I'll quote from my own article on the G4, written in December 2014:
    The G4 was designed by Jory Bell, Nick Merz, and Danny Delulis, melancholic figures who have been written out of history. Bell and Merz left Apple shortly before the G4's launch to set up their own laptop company, OQO, which specialised in teeny-tiny Windows palmtops running on Transmeta Crusoe chips. The OQO Model 01 (2005), a tablet with a slide-out keyboard, is the spitting image of the titanium G4. Presumably Bell failed to persuade Ive and Jobs to release it as an Apple product.
    Merz's name has popped up a few times since then - it seems that he filed some patents that were used in the later iPhone - but on the whole Bell, Merz, and Delulis are yesterday's men, forgotten men. I have no idea what happened to Danny Delulis. In future it will be remembered that Ive oversaw the design of the titanium G4, and then it will be remembered that Ive designed the titanium G4.

The Cube was launched in July 2000. At the time I assumed it would be a big success. It was expensive, but that was par for the course with Apple. The design was difficult to expand, but again, what did it matter? It was the most quintessentially Apple product of the early Jobs II era. Nonetheless it was discontinued in July 2001, five months before On/Off was published. The company took the unusual step of admitting that it wasn't very popular in a press release. Along with posh chair manufacturer Aeron, Apple benefited from the boom without becoming fully caught up in it; the company's revenue dropped from just under $8bn in 2000 to $5.3bn in 2001, but slowly recovered thereafter. It had a few lean years yet but with OS X and the iPod out there and Jobs at the helm the company was free to concentrate on making interesting products again.

The basic concept of the Cube - a small Mac desktop aimed at the casual user - was resurrected several years later with the Mac Mini, but the crucial difference was that the Mac Mini was a budget machine designed to get people hooked on OS X, whereas the Cube was a premium fashion accessory. My hunch is that potential Cube owners opted for a G4 PowerBook instead. Why didn't Apple simply slash the price? Given that the components were mostly laptop parts I have to assume that the case was too expensive to manufacture, otherwise the G4 Cube would have been an ideal entry-level machine.

Modern obituaries of the design cite the fanless case, the chunky external PSU and the decision to put all of the ports on the bottom of the machine as reasons for its failure. It strikes me that as with the Audrey, the Cube was a few years ahead of its time; it was launched just as the wi-fi era was dawning, and if it had been sold with minimal ports and a low-power CPU at a lower price, with an emphasis on wireless connection, it might have been more popular. But of course the Mac Mini does this today in a cheaper enclosure.

Apple never had a trademark on the letter i. The Logitech iFeel postdates the iMac and was perhaps aimed at Apple fans who despised the hockey puck-shaped Apple USB Mouse.

More translucent plastic. Trevor Baylis is a good example of the adage that nice guys finish last. A moustachioed former National Serviceman and underwater escape artist(!), he developed a wind-up clockwork radio in his spare time. It was intended to help the people of Africa keep in touch without having to spend a fortune on batteries. Inevitably Baylis sold his patents and ended up penniless. He won a lot of awards. I can find no concrete evidence that the radio actually helped the people of Africa. Within a few years mobile phones had swamped the continent, just as they swamped the rest of the world, and a clockwork radio seems quaint nowadays.

Apple gets about as much space in the book as Alcatel but, to be fair, Apple didn't have all that many products in 2001. It was busily working on OS X, and although the iPod existed, it didn't take off for several years. I didn't see one in the wild for a year, and I didn't consider buying one because I didn't have a Macintosh. MP3 players were becoming commodities; what was so special about one with a spinny wheel? Besides which I wanted one that could record audio, but at the time the only decent small portable recording solution was a Minidisc recorder, which didn't appeal to me because they were on the way out.

The Creative Labs Nomad is the only product that I considered buying at the time. Why was it different? It had a 6gb hard drive instead of 64mb of flash memory and it could record uncompressed .WAV, But the batteries didn't last very long and I remember being concerned about the hard drive breaking if I bashed it. And it cost $500. Bear in mind that it could only play music; it wasn't a mobile phone or internet device or e-reader. In 2001 you needed a handbag full of devices costing a total of $2000 to approximate the functionality of a modern smartphone.

The Future Passed
The future dreams of the 1960s and 1970s were full of robots and clones and time travel and spaceships; in the 1980s we were all going to wire our homes up to our ZX81s so we could control the blinds, and in the 1990s we were poised to manage our digital lives with wearable smartwatches and smartglasses and VR headsets etc. Some ideas never take off, others are born too soon, some have wide orbits, like comets, and only trouble the world every 76 years. Over the last few years wearables have become fashionable again, and so has home automation, although it is now called The Internet of Things.

Honda's ASIMO robot was unveiled in 2000, and it's just hit me that he has a big dong where his belly button should be. Can you see it? ASIMO was a humanoid robot designed to show off the fact that Honda could build a humanoid robot. The original ASIMO was hobbled by an enormous hahaha almost literally hobbled, because it was big and heavy, almost literally hobbled by a gigantic battery backpack that only lasted for thirty minutes. Over the last fifteen years ASIMO and its heirs have been brought out on special occasions but on the whole the project didn't really lead to anything.

ASIMO was not however the most visible robot in 2001. That would be the AIBO robotic dog, which had been launched by Sony back in 1998. It was the quintessential era toy, a clever robot dog that cost $2,500. A genuinely complex, substantial work of engineering. There hasn't been anything quite like it since. The AIBO sparked off a miniature craze in robot toys, and within a few years there were floods of cheap market stall knock-offs.

Sony was at the height of its Imperial Phase in 2001. There was a joke that within a few years we would all drive our Sony to the Sony to pick up more Sony. The company had been huge in the 1980s and early 1990s. Its acquisition of CBS Records in 1987 and Columbia pictures in 1989 were two of the last and most visible examples of Japan's bubble-fuelled 1980s buying spree. But the original Playstation (1994) seemed to kick the company up a notch. It became not only the best-selling games console of the era but an indispensable lifestyle accessory. Its top games titles were major media events.

The Playstation 2 (2000) helped to make DVD ubiquitous. It remains the best-selling games console of all time. The AIBO itself was a manifestation of Sony's ballsy, swaggering confidence. Sony's decline in the 2000s and 2010s was gradual, and there were occasional triumphs - at great expense Sony's Blu-Ray won the high-def war, just as online streaming was starting to make physical media redundant - but on the whole the 2000s was not a great decade for Sony. Its products were either overshadowed by the competition or driven into technological irrelevance, and its great size and diversity seems to have hindered its efforts more than it has helped them.

The AIBO itself was discontinued in 2006. Sony no longer makes spare parts, and surviving AIBOs are gradually dying off as their batteries run down and their gears strip. They were complex pieces of equipment that required specialised servicing, and ten years later their memories are lost in time, like tears in the rain.

NASA's PSA appears to have gone nowhere too. It was a floating thing that was supposed to help astronauts in some way - how, I have no idea. As late as 2004 it was still being tinkered with, and now it has been forgotten. The ISS has a pair of robots - the R1 and R2 robonauts - but they are far more humanoid devices with arms and are far more practical. One thing that On/Off did not anticipate was the rise of personal drones. I have to assume that there was a technological breakthrough in battery and motor technology during the 2000s that suddenly made them feasible.

I mention up the article that robots and space travel were the future dreams of the past. My recollection of the real 2001 was that NASA and space travel were old-hat, and that the evil computers of 1950s sci-fi were a dated joke. In 2001 I was conscious that the present was the future, that Amazon's product recommendation algorithms and Altavista's search routines were all the artificial intelligence we were likely to have, and that the stars and space travel were a dead end. The West had a collective vision of the future which seemed to evaporate during the 1980s and 1990s. It has not returned. On/Off has several pages of futuristic concept designs, but on the whole the gadgets of 2001 are conceptually the same as the gadgets of 2015, but much less functional.

In a wider sense, the internet of 2015 is again much the same as the internet of 2001, but on a grander and more ubiquitous scale. The idea of using a social network, of booking flights online, of using internet maps to scout travel locations and internet finance to check your stock market portfolio is not new. In fact all of those things were around in the 1980s, in the days of PRESTEL and France's MINITEL. Every generation imagines that their revolution will change the nature of human beings, but in the end we stay the same. And the stuff of On/Off is really just a lot of toys. Millions of people alive in 2001 were busy expanding their property portfolios and learning about buy-to-let and remortgaging; these people were the future, not kids with MP3 players.

Dreams of the Future
The boom generated a lot of wiggy technical concepts. In 2001 mice and GUIs were ubiquitous but most people in their thirties could remember when these things were refreshingly new. One of the top internet celebrities of the period was Jakob Nielsen, who wrote extensively on user interface design, and at the time it seemed that the future of the internet might actually belong to arts graduates and their unusual ideas.

On/Off has a number of out-there design concepts that didn't go anywhere and looked ridiculous even at the time, but then again so much of the modern world looked ridiculous when it was new. I'm sure that when God first designed men and women, his consultants felt that they looked ridiculous too. With their floppy dangly bits. I hate it when women laugh at my penis. It's off-putting. Little do they know that I am secretly laughing at them. This has nothing to do with electronic gadgets, I just wanted to say that.

Herbst Lazar Bell's Zuzu's Petals was devised in 1998. I don't think it was intended as a serious product; it pops up here and there as an arty concept. The stalk is a docking station, and the petals are individual devices that you take with you according to your need. It's totally impractical - there's no space for batteries - and the future was of course a single device that can do everything, but the design is whimsical and the basic idea of a fancy docking station shaped like a plant pot amuses me. Even today docking cradles are ugly things. They are being made obsolete by wireless charging pads.

Herbst Lazar Bell's other concept was the Gooru, a child pacification device for the education market. By 2001 nine out of ten children in the UK owned a mobile phone, and something like the Gooru would have looked incredibly naff. I imagine that there was a market for a child-friendly classroom computer during the 2000s, but the technology wasn't there; and by the middle of the decade literally every child owned a G3 or G4 iBook. Except for poor children, but On/Off isn't aimed at poor people. Or (cough) urban (cough) people, because all of the models shown in On/Off's product photographs are like us.

The most wiggy concept is Gary Natsume's Data Pond, which is more art installation than serious concept. Natsume also came up with the "bound packet computer", a laptop concept in which the components were embedded into sheets of plastic held in a binder. As with Zuzu's Petals the idea was impractical, technically impossible, but interesting. For Natsume it led to a career at frogdesign before branching out on his own, so in that respect it was a big success.

Hella Jongerius' My Soft Office was commissioned by the MoMA, and is again more a satirical art object than a functional prototype. It exists in a world where pizza-eating bed-dwellers are physically fit young men and there is no mess and no stains. The design inevitably calls to mind Tracy Emin's My Bed, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999. Emin was part of Charles Saatchi's Young British Artist movement, which was still massive in 2001. Although Saatchi struggled to generate public interest in newer generations of artists, he still runs a very successful gallery. Nowadays he is famous for being mean to ex-wife Nigella Lawson and is probably no longer invited to many parties, but does he care? He never attended parties anyway.

Karim Rashid's genome tattoo and eye chip are the most obviously cyberpunk items in the book. Again, it's tosh. Rashid subsequently lost a lot of weight and went on to become a massively prolific designer of plastic chairs and things. He doesn't really fit On/Off - he did not design electronic products - but appears to be the most legitimately successful of all the book's concept designers.

Echoes of the Future
On/Off contains a number of ideas that reappear every decade or so. As I write these words Apple is trying hard to make smartwatches a thing again. They were also a thing in the late 1990s, and in the early 1980s as well. Seiko launched an impractical wristwatch TV in 1983 and Casio followed a year later with the Databank, which had a calculator and a small database.

Seiko's watch was part of a synthetic, manufacturer-led craze for pocket televisions that flopped hard in the 1980s, because the idea of watching television on the move didn't make any sense. Ignoring the technical practicality of portable television, pop radio worked because pop singles were only three minutes long and required very little intellectual involvement. Television, on the other hand, didn't work in bite-sized chunks and without a portable VHS player there was no way to timeslice it.

My personal recollection is that wristwatch MP3 players and GPS units found a very small market, but manufacturers hoped that they would be enormously successful, disruptive products. That simply didn't happen. The technical barriers to useful functionality and battery life in a wristwatch-sized object are high in 2015 and were insurmountable in 2001.

As I contemplate these watches I have a nightmarish vision of having to press SELECT MODE SELECT SELECT UP SELECT LEFT UP UP MODE so that a little black bar appears next to PROG and then having to press SELECT SELECT (hold down for two seconds) LEFT UP SELECT MODE ENTER in order to pick a waypoint / enter my lap times, or having to interface the watch with a PC using Casio's own EZ-WATCH software that only works on Windows 98SE etc etc.

And smartwatches of the late 1999s were moving against the historical tide. By 2001 there were more mobile phones than people in the UK and the 2000s was a decade in which people checked the time on their phones. If they needed a watch, it was either as a fashion statement or, in the case of the Casio G-Shock, as a robust accessory that could just tell the time in adverse conditions.

The final image covers the Nike Triax wearable fitness range. This is perhaps the least dated of On/Off's content; the watch, the fitness band, and the trainer haven't really aged. Nike sold the Triax until 2009 before giving up on the idea. In 2012 Nike launched the FuelBand, a fitness tracking wristband, but although it made a profit it led to a class action lawsuit by some people who were upset that Nokia's adverts were not literally true. Nike settled out of court and appears to have given up on the FuelBand as well. Fitness trackers on the whole have become a commodity fad.

The conceptual section includes IBM's headset computer concept, which was still nowhere near ready for prime time:

Not pictured is the heavy battery pack, or indeed a compelling raison d'être. In 2001 virtual reality was already mocked as a ridiculous cliché from long ago; IBM's headset PC is an early example of augmented reality, which emerged from the military-industrial complex in the 1990s. Many, many years later Google managed to squeeze the equipment and battery into an object the size and shape of glasses, but again without any killer app. Google Glass, as it was called, never left the prototype phase.

Owning the Future: Shadow of the Colossus
In the late 1800s there was a scramble for Africa, as the European colonial empires sought to own that continent's resources. Lumber, coal, copper, oil, diamonds. And so it was that in the late 1990s various companies set out to own the future of mobile telecommunications and electronic gadgets. Some companies failed quickly; some failed slowly.

On/Off dates from the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter age, when people still printed photographs on paper. How else were you going to show them to other people?

Ericsson, Kodak, and Palm, although the device shown here was made by Handspring. It's complicated - US Robotics' Palm division introduced the Palm Pilot, and after Palm was sold to 3Com the original inventors split to form Handspring, which developed Palm Pilot clones, and then Handspring and Palm merged to form an independent company called palmOne in 2003, but the moment had passed. In the late 1990s Palm's Jeff Hawkins was a techno-business giant on a par with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The magazines gushed over him.

The Palm Pilot was launched in the wake of Apple's Newton MessagePad and a flood of other, similar devices, but unlike them it was a big popular success. The Pilot was less complicated and didn't try to do too much; it was genuinely pocket-sized and didn't try to recognise longform handwriting. The Handspring Visor was more of the same, but with a translucent plastic case. At less than $200 for the base model it was good value. The company found it hard to meet demand and was of course competing with Palm, which continued to sell Palm Pilots.

The image shows one of the SpringBoard add-on modules; the VisorPhone turns it into a smartphone. Handspring-Palm ran with this idea, but despite being ahead of the curve the Palm Treo smartphone range was, surprisingly, never very popular. Palm's Foleo netbook of 2007 was an interesting might-have-been but ultimately Palm evaporated during the 2000s before being sold to HP in 2010 and killed off. Jeff Hawkins went back to academia. Palm is now a dormant brand owned by a "shelf company".

I mean, at the time I struggled to find a reason to own a Visor - you couldn't write with it and this was many years before eBooks took off - but it's hard for kids today to remember how big Palm seemed, how quickly it vanished.

eBooks existed in 2001 but they were a hard sell. The REB1100 - catchy name - cost $299 and had a very limited range of ebooks, from Barnes and Noble. It couldn't display plain text or HTML and despite having a headphone jack the original release didn't have any kind of audio support. The ebook market didn't really take off until the Amazon Kindle of 2007, but even nowadays I reckon that more ebooks are read with a tablet or mobile phone than a dedicated epaper ebook reader. I'm digressing here.

Kodak's travails are well-known. Although the company is remembered nowadays as a stick-in-the-mud it did try hard to dominate the digital camera market. Traditionally Kodak had sold cheap cameras and expensive film, but this model didn't work in the digital era; the company sold cheap digital cameras, but ended up simply competing at the low-margin, commodity end of the market. Meanwhile its hardcore movie/NASA/CIA imaging business simply wasn't large enough to keep Kodak afloat. Ironically Kodak still sells Tri-X and 35mm motion picture film, which means that the company's film products outlasted its digital cameras, although its modern business model seems to consist of demolishing its old buildings so that it can rent the space out to other companies.

Surprisingly, On/Off has nothing about Nokia. The mobile phone giants of 2001 included some names that are still around today - Samsung and Panasonic most obviously - but also fallen colossi such as Ericsson, Nokia, Alcatel, Motorola, and Siemens. In the early years the mobile phone revolution was dominated by European firms. They all had little triumphs - the Siemens SL45 (2001) was the first MP3 phone, the Alcatel OneTouch Com (1998) had a full-face LCD screen years before the iPhone, the Ericsson GA628 (1996) was one of the most ubiquitous business phones of the mid 1990s - but all of them declined, and ceased to be masters of the future.

Ericsson sold its mobile division to Sony in 2001. Sony Ericsson benefited from Sony's huge resources but suffered the same malaise that affected the rest of Sony throughout the 2000s; by 2012 Sony abandoned the Ericsson name. Its modern Xperia phones tend to get good reviews, they don't make a profit and are probably not long for this world.

Siemens gave up on mobile phones entirely in 2005. The company's mobile phone division was sold to BenQ of Taiwan, who killed it off a year later.

Alcatel-Lucent set up a joint venture with a Chinese firm to sell mobile phones in 2004, but sold its shares in the company in 2005; modern-day Alcatel-branded mobile phones are just generic Android models with no connection to the original parent company. In fact they are sold by the same company that owns the Palm name.

Nokia was the dominant mobile phone manufacturer throughout the 2000s, but things started to go wrong towards the end of the decade. Apple's iPhone and Google's Android were launched just as Nokia was struggling and failing to update its own Symbian operating system, and although Nokia still had a majority of the mobile phone market in 2010, it was on a downward path. In 2011 the company teamed up with Microsoft and essentially became Microsoft's mobile phone brand. In the process Nokia abandoned its existing phone range. It was to no avail, and Nokia's market share collapsed. After the deal was formalised Microsoft dismissed most of Nokia's staff, and as of 2015 Nokia's phones have very little to do with the Nokia of old. The non-mobile-phone Nokia still exists, indeed in 2015 it bought Alcatel, so perhaps one day it will re-enter the mobile phone market.

Motorola was one of the pioneers of the mobile phone industry. Its RAZR phones were very popular in the mid-2000s, but as with Nokia it struggled during the transition from mobile phones as individual disposable trinkets to the age of smartphones as components of a larger infrastructure. It was one of the pioneers of the Android phone, and was briefly bought by Google before being sold again to Lenovo in 2014. Lenovo has also slowly bought up IBM's entire former computer business - including its desktops, laptops, and servers - and is well on its way to world dominance.

What remains of Motorola is nonetheless doing surprisingly well. The Android-powered Moto G smartphone is one of the best-selling Android handsets. But how is it a Motorola product? It runs Google's Android, it's made out of generic components, and really it's just a set of specifications and a price point.

It's a videotape of a lightbulb. Jesus Christ. As with Karim Rashid, Arik Levy transitioned from High Art to a career designing chairs, which pays the bills at least.

One thing that links the surviving giants of the early mobile phone era is that they are no longer in command of their own destinies, or of destiny itself; they are no longer in command of the future. They sat on the iron throne but briefly, and never again. The odd thing is that despite being perhaps the biggest new consumer technology of the 1990s and 2000s, the mobile telecommunications boom was utterly lethal for the unwary.

The market is now divided into three halves. The Android half, which is low-margin / high-volume; the Apple half, which is high-margin / high-volume; and a third half of cheap feature phones and everything else, which is invisible because no-one writes about it.

The Ziba Design Allegro is the spitting image of the contemporary IBM TransNote. In both cases the designs combined a portable computer with a paper digitising pad, presumably so that non-computer-literate executives could scribble notes for their assistants to later type up. I have no idea who these things were aimed at. IBM revisited the concept in 2002 with the prototype MetaPad, but the company was giving up on its laptop division. "Weird IBM" was laid to rest even before the company sold the ThinkPad range to Lenovo.

LaCie still exists. It is famous for making hard drives that look like dildos. Why did this image stand out? It's a CGI render. The use of CGI for adverts and product designs was not new in 2001, but it became truly transparent during the 2000s. By the beginning of the 2010s the majority of the Ikea catalogue was CGI and most of the billboard adverts you see today are renders. Your kitchen will never be that clean.

Could anyone in 2001 have predicted that Google would come to dominate the mobile phone market? No, no-one. Google existed at the time but was very much a niche player in the search engine wars. I remember seeing it for the first time, and thinking that its uncluttered homepage was a breath of fresh air, but no-one in 2001 could have predicted Chromebooks and Android from Google's humble beginnings.

Could anyone have predicated that Apple would also dominate the market? Again, no. Apple in the early 2000s was a computer company. Until 2004, 2005 - when the iPod started to take off - Apple's attempts to sell consumer gadgets had generally resulted in dismal failure, and I can easily imagine another world where Apple's one and only attempt to sell a mobile phone was the Motorola Rokr. Billboard magazine of January 2003 has a fascinating quote from music streaming businessman Paul Myers, who talks of "an iPod that can make phone calls or a phone with an iPod-type capacity built in", but on the whole no-one seems to be have been enthused with the idea of an Apple mobile phone until the iPhone was launched in 2007.

Could anyone have predicted anything? I've said it before, but I distinctly remember shopping online for the first time in 1995 or so, and thinking that HMV or perhaps John Lewis would inevitably dominate the UK's internet retail space, because all that was required was for them to build a web front end for their existing store ordering system. It would be easier for Borders (say), with its nitty-gritty knowledge of distribution and pricing, to build a web presence than for a brand new website to build a mass of warehouses and pricing agreements and a delivery network. Thank heavens I wasn't in charge of someone's investment portfolio.

I didn't notice the flesh-decaying zombie until I took this picture. As mentioned up the article, On/Off was aimed at us, not them, and so the models are all well-dressed middle-class white people who, judging by this image, do not do "the thing".

I often wonder if there were people inside Apple circa 2003 advising Steve Jobs to sell off the iPod/iTunes division so that Apple could concentrate on its core market of laptops and desktop computers. "Apple isn't a music company, Steve", to which he would reply that yes, Apple is a music company - they have The Beatles - and then everybody would laugh. Our toys would be very different today if Jobs had listened to them.

Apple is often mocked for entering markets late and then pretending that it invented everything, but as On/Off demonstrates, there is no prize for being ahead of your time, no prize for being out of sync with the limits of technology. Handspring may have had a touchscreen smartphone in 2000, but as the saying goes, history does not care who is right, it only cares who is left. Ever since the Newton, Apple has waited until touchscreen displays and batteries and processors have reached an objective standard of acceptable performance before launching a product.

The future. Aieeee!

And that's On/Off. It's not as silly as I was expecting, not as melancholic. My recollection of the period is that we were essentially waiting for the iPad to be invented, trapped in a time and place when the future was obvious, but batteries, processors, and wi-fi were not yet ready. We had to wait for the future, and here it is. Happy?