Antiquities: Philips Velo 1, a technology enthusiast's nightmare

    In English, there is such a thing as "early adopter". I’m not sure whether it can be adequately translated into Russian, the only saying that comes to mind is “Hurry up - make people laugh”. Early adopter is a technology enthusiast who wants to test them on himself as soon as possible, without waiting for the solution of many problems and jambs that were unavoidable at the beginning of production. In 2007, such enthusiasts brought from the United States locked in the operator and non-Russified first iPhones. Now they are buying smartphones with a flexible screen, mastering 3D printing and VR technology.

    In general, they participate in beta testing of products that actually appear on sale as ready-made and tested devices. But no. First, you encounter a high failure rate and, if you are not lucky, change the purchase under the guarantee three times. Then you try to get around fatal flaws: either the battery is eaten in an hour, then the applications are buggy, then something else. A year later, the second generation of devices comes out, and changes overnight turn the expensive pinnacle of progress into an outdated, unsuitable buggy sharing of the past. But you are not complaining. That is, you complain, but still happy: after all, almost no one has such a device, and you have one.

    In 1996, Microsoft launched a large-scale attack on the market for wearable devices. In 1997, the first generation devices came out - keyboard PDAs. Among them, one stands out in terms of performance and functionality, as well as possible upgrades. Pocket PC Philips Velo 1 did not escape the curse of the pioneer, very quickly outdated, broke a lot and was deservedly forgotten. For a number of personal reasons, I bought this PDA, and decided to experience for myself what mobile Windows was like twenty two years ago.

    I keep a diary of a collector of old pieces of iron in real time in a Telegram .

    Turn on the time machine

    The pinnacle of the development of a handheld computer can be considered a modern smartphone: only in the second decade of the 21st century, they began to be sold in hundreds of millions of copies. In the nineties, a cell phone and a PDA were not yet combined into one device, and at best it was possible to connect one to another. PDAs were not sold in millions, at best, hundreds of thousands a year.

    In 1997, two devices were truly outstanding. This is Psion Series 5, a PDA with a convenient keyboard, EPOC32 fast proprietary operating system and smart tools for doing business (contacts, calendar, task management). And the Palm handheld computer (at that time known as PalmPilot) is the first successful implementation of the device without a keyboard, with text input using a stylus. A device with obviously limited capabilities, a prefix to a computer with a minimum of memory (2 megabytes), cheap and well performing a limited set of tasks. In the photo - the earliest Palm PDA in my collection, the budget model IIIe of 1999, not much different from the 1997 models.

    According to Microsoft, at that time occupying a dominant position in the desktop OS market, a handheld computer should be almost the same as a large one. Hence the requirements for device manufacturers: a large screen with a resolution of 480x240, serial and infrared ports, a PCMCIA slot (!), A full keyboard. The Windows 95 user experience has been recreated almost completely: the same desktop with icons, the taskbar, the Start button, Explorer, the clock in the corner.

    According to eyewitnesses, both Palm (in the late nineties - the undisputed market leader) and Psion were afraid of Microsoft coming to the market. With her marketing budgets, the ability to find production partners, she could easily bankrupt relatively small competitors. Both companies, responding to the threat, began to license their OS to other companies. In both cases, the licensing process disrupted the smooth interaction between software and hardware developers within companies, but this is a topic for another article. Microsoft introduced Windows CE 1.0 in the fall of 1996, promising fans of the portable bombing sensations and incredible versatility. In fact, it didn’t work out very well: all manufacturers of devices on the Windows CE platform together managed to occupy only 25% of the market for handheld computers by the end of 1998.

    But it was a competition in the microscopic market. If in 1997 you chose a new device for, let's say, work with data, you had a choice between Palm, devices based on the Microsoft platform, you could buy Psion. And you could buy a cheap electronic organizer or even a penny paper notebook - and the last option was chosen by most people in a situation where not everyone could afford an ordinary computer. CCP - it was the choice of enthusiasts who were willing to pay a lot for progress with obscure prospects. However, let's not guess, but look at the device. How is it at all?

    Yes, good! At first I bought the device without accessories, only the docking station was included, without which it is impossible to synchronize the PDA with the proprietary port. But this instance was almost like new. PDA specifications are as follows:

    • Processor: Philips MP3910, 36.8 MHz, MIPS architecture
    • Memory: 4 megabytes RAM, 8 megabytes ROM
    • Screen: 5.1 inches, monochrome with backlight, touchscreen, 4 shades of gray, 480x240 pixels
    • Interfaces and communication: RS232, IrDA, RJ-11 for the built-in modem for 19200 b / c, two slots for expansion cards, a V-Module slot for an adapter for PCMCIA cards
    • Battery: 2 AA cells or battery, CR2032 cell for data storage during battery replacement, up to 12 hours of battery life
    • Dimensions: 172x95x32 mm
    • Weight: 374 grams
    • Start-up price: $ 700 ($ 1,100 adjusted for inflation)

    Microsoft did not succeed in forcing manufacturers to strictly comply with the specifications. For example, HP decided to allocate its PDA due to the larger screen (600 pixels instead of 480 horizontally). Philips refused to integrate a PCMCIA slot into the Velo 1, and instead moved it to the bottom plug-in module. Due to the processor more powerful and, possibly, faster memory, Velo 1 won the PC Magazine test in early 1997. True, then all the devices of the first wave did not fall into the study.

    Another unique feature of the Philips PDA was the built-in modem. In earlier versions, there was a tricky connector near the screen, where a telephone cable was directly inserted. If you had a phone, you could go online or connect to BBS without additional devices. Other manufacturers were counting on installing the modem by the user in the PCMCIA slot, or selling adapters for connecting a mobile phone.

    From Psion fifth series Velo 1 differs primarily in the "calculator" keyboard. Typing on these rubber buttons does not work quickly, but the layout is fully consistent with that of a laptop. Because of this, for example, when typing in Cyrillic, there is no problem locating part of the letters in strange and unexpected places.

    Having abandoned the built-in PCMCIA, Philips provided the Velo 1 with two slots for expansion cards: one was designed to increase the amount of RAM, and the second one could insert a non-volatile flash drive. The standard for both types of cards was the same - the now little-known Miniature Card , a failed competitor to Compact Flash and SD / MMC cards.

    When I first met, frankly, it is not clear what was the problem with the devices, why were they relatively poorly sold? Excellent copies of desktop MS Word and Excel, an email client, a built-in browser (which neither Psion nor Palm had, it was necessary to buy it separately). Solitaire finally! In the late 90s, Palm tried to counter Microsoft's marketing efforts. Meeting with partners and industry experts, they compare devices for some practical task, for example, how quickly can I find a number in the phone book? Where Palm requires a couple of strokes with a stylus, Microsoft, due to its heavy interface, requires a whole special operation.

    Philips Velo 1 is interesting just for its versatility: almost like a laptop, only more compact. Direct Internet connection, the ability to work with mail and the web. But do not forget that we are talking about a sub-blind monochrome screen, the memory is only 4 megabytes, and it is used both for running programs and for storing data. In theory, it seems that such a device can become almost the main computer. In practice - well, not really.

    A couple of weeks after buying a vintage PDA, I have a collector's luck: I order an inexpensive second device with a full set of accessories, in a box, but spoiled by a leaked battery. It had to be disassembled and cleaned of oxides, otherwise it would turn on once. It's time to talk about the hardware reliability of these early PDAs.

    I recommend watching this onean archive copy of the site of the owner of Philips Velo 1. He describes in quite some detail his torment with the device, not forgetting, however, to praise him for new features and convenience. Several times he had to change the PDA under warranty because of the "dangling" screen. The metal mount of the display came out unreliable and flew out of the plastic part of the case. Later this problem was solved, but another appeared - over time, the whole mechanism breaks down. Therefore, my Velo 1, the newer one, is not fixed at all in the open position, folding out completely. Judging by the reviews on YouTube, this is a common problem. But this is not all: there were both touchscreen freezes, and data loss. The “standard” feature was the mode of operation of the modem or PCMCIA module - it ate the battery in minutes instead of the prescribed 10-12 hours.

    Windows CE 2.0

    The most important artifact of the second Velo 1 was the upgrade kit to Windows CE 2.0. Philips Velo 1 entered the wide sale relatively late - in September 1997. Already in November of the same year, Microsoft introduced an update. The new version of the OS (more about it here ) introduced support for color screens, TrueType fonts, a portable version of Microsoft Powerpoint was added, and support for PCMCIA cards was expanded. For the first time, support for keyboardless PDAs appeared: they were called the Palm PC, and after a sharp protest, Palm was renamed Palm-size. First-generation devices are outdated in just six months, and not everyone could be updated to the new version. With new features, system requirements sharply increased: now two megabytes of RAM was not enough.

    How much is enough? It seems that at first Philips did not know the answer to this question. Velo 1 owners were recommended to buy a 4 megabyte RAM expansion card. After many did this, it turned out that a 8 megabyte card is required (12 megabytes, given the soldered on the board). As a result, the upgrade kit to Windows CE 2.0 sold for $ 99 and included two expansion cards: 8 megabytes RAM, and ROM from the OS itself. After a rather non-trivial shamanism (you need an external power supply, which I didn’t have, and I had to insert and remove the batteries in a cunning way to enable loading from an external ROM card), you received an updated operating system. But not a color screen.

    Upgrading to Windows CE 2.0 allowed you to go to the final stage of getting acquainted with the PDA: installing crack. Devices on WinCE 1.0 have lived on the market so little that it is quite difficult to find compatible software for them in 2019. For PDAs on Windows CE 2.0 and higher, the McCenter website still has a free crack (I would like to thank them again for saving the archive).

    To synchronize with a computer and install software, H / PC Explorer is required. In 1999, it received the familiar name Microsoft Activesync. The third version of this program, the latest with support for Windows 98, was already installed for my experiments with the iPaq hx4700 . It worked without problems with the old Velo 1, though before that I had to read the instructions and “create a connection” in the settings of the PDA itself (that's why they did it ?!). Since the connection goes through the serial port, the synchronization is extremely slow. But there are no such problems with the encoding of documents in Cyrillic, as on devices based on Palm OS .

    Windows CE in both the first version and the second runs on Velo 1 rather slowly. Delays of several seconds when starting programs are the norm. Compared to it, Palm OS of those years was incredibly fast, and the well-optimized Psion on EPOC32 gave this nice effect of quick response to user commands. Windows CE feels best on keyboards of the latest generation - with processors under 200 megahertz and 64 megabytes of RAM. Velo 1 is a typical pioneer in which the foundations of a universal mobile OS are laid. In theory, he is capable of much, but with specific functions needed for business, he manages a little worse than the competitors that existed at that time. But no worse than that: now all handheld computers of the nineties are perceived as a mobile Middle Ages.

    I plan to further explore the possibilities of Velo 1: connect to the Internet via a modem, and possibly even via Ethernet, to select the appropriate software. I would like to make a museum copy of it, suitable for something useful, albeit by the standards of twenty years ago. Otherwise, from the whole assortment of possibilities there remains only one invariable solitaire “Kosinka”. In the meantime, I put a checkmark in front of the last item on the list of Wishlist of me fifteen from 1997. I could dream of anything then, because I still could not afford anything. But for some reason, most of all I wanted these achievements of science and technology: a laptop , a multifunctional handheld computer, a mini-disc player , a digital camera. The total cost of artifacts in the photo is approximately $ 3,700 then, and almost six thousand in modern money. Dreams come true, you just have to wait a bit!

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