One of my first memories is watching the first lunar landing, so it’s not surprising I’ve been glued to Apple TV’s For All Mankind, with its alternate history of a space race that didn’t end with Apollo 17.
It’s a fascinating drama, tracing the development of moonbases, space stations, nuclear space craft, and now in the third season, competing missions to Mars as commercial space travel adds itself to the rivalry between the USA and Russia.
It’s an interesting premise, looking at a history where the continuing space race meant the Cold War continued into the 90s, and where cheap energy from the moon has restructured the global economy.
Thirty years of space-driven technology changes have meant that the world of For All Mankind in season 3 is very different from ours, yet still recognisable. Many of the changes appear small, but show that there have been some very fundamental developments in computing and networking that put the show’s computing infrastructure at least a decade ahead of where we were in the 90s, hidden underneath an unchanged design aesthetic.
Some of those changes are reminders of paths that were almost taken, where a shift in investments or in standards could have driven technology in new ways. It’s a storytelling approach reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film the show regularly tips its hat to), where space shuttles took people to space stations and beyond, but where they were flown by the now long-gone PanAm and where videophones were run by the first iteration of AT&T.
The other week I sat down to catch up on episodes and spotted an interesting piece of that background technology: video phones based on Apple’s Newton that clearly aren’t a novelty to the show’s characters. What surprised me the most was a reminder of a long-forgotten project I was involved with back in the early 1990s.
At the time, the Newton was cutting edge-technology, based around an early version of ARM’s RISC processor, with its own NewtonScript programming environment and an object-based file system. Yes, it had handwriting recognition, but that wasn’t what made it interesting to anyone working in the ubiquitous computing field at the time. What was most interesting was that it managed to pack low power consumption (for the time) into a small form factor as part of a platform that was clearly designed to be ready for high-speed wireless networks.
The devices that the For All Mankind production team built for the show (which were 3D-printed shells wrapped around iPhones) are a 90s NewtonPhone, with the addition of cameras and high-speed networking.
Tech advances faster in 1990s @forallmankind_ alt-history! All us @Apple nerds had a blast creating (& playing with) our modified Newton’s removable camera & video calls! Props even fit an #iPhone 12 Pro Max inside. The #Newton POV angles in the show were #shotoniphone#Applepic.twitter.com/wASQcG7Qw9
— Ben McGinnis (@bengmcg) June 23, 2022
And that’s where I come into the story, kind of. The European Union has a programme of research grants designed to encourage the European technology industry. I’d just finished working on a project that investigated whether the early digital cordless phone technology, CT2, could be used to deliver wireless networking in offices, and our group lead asked me to look at how we could work with a consortium of other companies to bid for a grant.
The early 90s were a heady time for the telecom industry. We could see how digital technologies would change how it worked, with a shift from wired to wireless at the heart of the networked world we were building. Every week I’d sit in the lab’s library reading new papers describing new technologies and protocols from IEEE journals as the standards that are the bedrock of today’s global network were being defined.
One of those technologies was HiperLAN. Designed at the same time as the first IEEE 802.11 wireless standard, it mixed a small cell approach to networking with higher data rates than the first 802.11 systems, aiming for more than 5mbps. That might seem slow by today’s standards, but this was 1994. I spent some time working out how we could use Asynchronous Transfer Mode protocol to provide connectivity to wireless devices, using a modification of the KA9Q amateur radio IP networking protocols as they offered a way of managing connections on the same frequency when there is no line of site between many transmitters and receivers.
We worked to propose what my original position paper called a “handheld multimedia device”, which would use HiperLAN to deliver manuals and other documents, using the Newton as the basis of our team’s device.
Towards the end of the first phase of the project I came across the Cornell University’s CU-SeeMe project, the first simple video-conferencing application. It used low-cost video cameras from Connectix to add video chat to Macintosh computers, and could work over low-bandwidth networks. So we threw it into the mix, suggesting that our Newton-based device could be fitted with a camera to allow engineers to show problems to each other and share solutions. It was, I remember thinking at the time, a neat idea.
Then I was offered an enticing job elsewhere, handed in my notice, and headed off to build a piece of the consumer internet. I’m not sure what happened after I left; I suspect the project never got the funding and it got lost in the files.
The Newton was cancelled – too big, heavy and expensive – and so went no further either, even though at one point Qualcomm tried to persuade Apple to put a Qualcomm radio into it to create an early smartphone contender
Over the years I forgot that project, until I turned on the Apple TV stream and saw it there, an alternative version of a device I’d proposed all those years ago, being used to make a video call to a spacecraft.
And now I know what I would have made in that alternate universe.