Monday, May 27, 2024

Refurb weekend: Canon Cat

It's the Memorial Day holiday weekend and it's time for a little deferred maintenance, especially on those machines I intend to work on more in the near future. So we'll start with one that's widely considered to be a remarkable cul-de-sac in computing history: the Canon Cat.
Many people take a casual glance at this machine and say, "Isn't that an overgrown word processor?" And one could certainly think so, in part because of its keyboard-centric operation, but mostly from the utterly uncomprehending way Canon advertised it in 1987. Canon dubbed the Cat a "work processor" because of its built-in telecommunications, modem and word processor even though Jef Raskin, its designer, had intended it as a "people's computer" that could be inexpensive, accessible and fully functional — all things he had hoped to accomplish at Apple after first launching the Macintosh project, prior to departing in 1982.

Canon, however, never fully grasped the concept either. Apart from the tone-deaf marketing, Canon sold the device through their typewriter division and required the display to only show what a daisywheel printer could generate, limiting its potential as a general purpose workstation. There was also an infamous story where Canon engineers added a hard power switch not present in the original prototype, believing its absence to be an oversight — over Raskin's objections, who intended the machine as an always-on, instantly useable system. The Cat nevertheless launched at an MSRP of $1495 ($4125 in 2024 dollars) in July that year to many plaudits and design awards, but alleged corporate shenanigans and uncertainty within Canon doomed it internally, causing them to dropkick the product after just six months and 20,000 sales. In the wake of the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash Raskin's investors subsequently pulled the plug and the company closed in 1991.

But what was actually under the hood was a unique all-in-one 68000 machine with a bitmapped display and a full Forth environment hidden in its ROM-based, fast-start operating system. There's no hard disk, just a single 3.5" floppy drive to save your documents and the current Forth dictionary. Although the default mode is the built-in word processor, its tForth ("token-threaded Forth") dialect was easily unlockable and Information Appliance, Inc., Raskin's company that produced the Cat and licensed it to Canon, published substantial documentation on how to enable and program in it.

We'll have more to say about that in a future entry when we get into the guts of the OS. Today, we have two tasks: replace its settings battery and shore up the nearly unobtainium custom Canon floppy drive, its most common point of failure. It's time for a Refurb Weekend.

Commodore does the iPad "crush" concept right ... in 1985

I get what Apple was trying to say with their infamous Crush ad, even though they made it a little weird. They should have simply done what Commodore did for the C128 — ironically, competing with the Apple IIc. Notice the emphasis on audio and sound, plus the Commodore 64 perched on top. And no musical instruments were flattened in the making of this ad, though it looks like a number of keycaps were traumatically separated.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

With PowerPC, Windows CE and the WiiN-PAD slate, everyone's a WiiN-er (except Data General)

Telemedicine (and mobile health generally) accumulated a hunk of public mindshare during the pandemic emergency, but speaking as someone with a day job in public health for almost two decades, it's always been a buzzword in certain corners of IT with enough money sloshing around that vendors repeatedly flirted with it. Microsoft, of course, is no exception, and on at least one occasion in the late 1990s pitched Windows CE at this space. After all, WinCE was oriented at low-power portable devices perfect for medicine on the go, and like perennial predictions of "the Linux desktop" finally taking off, Microsoft's eager sales team was certain the day of the portable physician's device had come as well.

And, well, no. I can't think of a single product from that particular salvo that actually survived, let alone thrived. But we've got one of them here — and, as you might expect, there's a few odd things about it. First off, it's a slate. (We call them tablets now, kids.)

Not a vanishingly rare form factor for a Windows CE device, though hardly the most common. It's also got a full-size dock, a camera and ... a Data General badge? The Nova-AViiON-CLARiiON-Data General/One Data General that put two I's into everything?
Yup, it's really that Data General with that naming convention. In fact, as the history will show, the Data General WiiN-PAD is quite possibly the last computing device DG ever produced before EMC bought them out and shut (most of) them down in 1999. (No, near as I can determine, the name WiiN-PAD has nothing to do with the unreleased Microsoft WinPad.)

But that's not the really wacky part. Check out the CPU it's running.

That's right: it's PowerPC, the most unloved of the architectures CE ever ran on — in fact, this is the first PowerPC Windows CE device I've ever found, and I'm the self-described biggest pro-PowerPC bigot in the world. Here's an unusual form factor Windows CE device, running on the operating system's least used CPU, from a storied computer company near the end of its run, intended for medical applications, produced in very small numbers and cancelled within months.

What are we going to do with it? Well, what do you think we're gonna do with it? We're going to program it, so that we can finally have some software! And, of course, since this wacky thing was there at the bitter end, we'll talk more about the last days of Data General and what happened next.