One of my earliest memories is the first moon landing, so it’s no wonder I was hooked on Apple TV’s For All Mankind with its alternate space race story that didn’t end with Apollo 17.
It’s a gripping drama that traces the development of moon bases, space stations, nuclear spacecraft, and now, in its third season, competing missions to Mars as commercial space travel intensifies the rivalry between the United States and Russia.
This is an interesting premise given the history in which the space race allowed the Cold War to continue into the 1990s and where cheap energy from the moon restructured the world’s economy.
Thirty years of space-related technological changes have meant that the world of For All Mankind in Season 3 is very different from ours, but still recognizable. Many of these changes seem minor, but they show that there have been fundamental changes in computing and networking that have put the show’s computing infrastructure at least a decade ahead of what it was in the ’90s, hidden behind an unchanging aesthetic.
Some of these changes are reminiscent of paths nearly traveled where a change in investment or standards could push technology in a new direction. It’s a narrative approach, reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001 film A Space Odyssey, in which space shuttles took people to space stations and beyond, but where they were piloted by now-defunct PanAm and the first iteration of AT&T handled video phones.
Back to grace
Last week I sat down to catch up on episodes and spotted an interesting piece of this technology: Apple’s Newton-based videophones, which are clearly nothing new to the show’s characters. What surprised me the most was the reminder of a long-forgotten project that I participated in in the early 1990s.
At the time, Newton was state-of-the-art, based on an early version of the ARM RISC processor, with its own NewtonScript programming environment and object-oriented file system. Yes, it had handwriting recognition, but that was not what made it interesting to those who were working in the field of ubiquitous computing at that time. What was most interesting was that it managed to pack low power consumption (for its time) into a small form factor device, all on a platform that was clearly designed for networking. high speed wireless.
The devices built by the For All Mankind production team for the show (which were 3D printed iPhone cases) are NewtonPhones from the 90s with the addition of cameras and high-speed networks.
And this is where I enter the story. The European Union has a research grant program to encourage the European technology industry. I just completed a project to determine if the first digital cordless phone technology, CT2, could be used to provide wireless networks in offices, and my team leader asked me to see how we could work with a consortium of other companies to get a grant.
The early 1990s were a boom time for the telecommunications industry. We could see how digital technologies would change the way we work, moving from wired to wireless networks and creating the basic connected world that we were building. Each week, I sat in the lab library and read new articles describing technologies and protocols in IEEE magazines while the standards that form the basis of today’s global network were developed.
One such technology was HiperLAN. Conceived at the same time as the first IEEE 802.11 wireless communication standard, it combined a small cell networking approach with faster data rates than early 802.11 systems, at over 5 Mbps. It may seem slow by today’s standards, but that was back in 1994. I spent some time working on how we could use the asynchronous transfer mode protocol to provide connectivity to wireless devices using a modification of the KA9Q IP amateur radio network protocols as it provided a way to handle connections on the same frequency when there is no line of sight between multiple transmitters and receivers.
We have been working on a “portable media device” that will use HiperLAN to stream manuals and other content, using Newton as the core of our team’s device.
Towards the end of the first phase of the project, I stumbled upon Cornell University’s CU-SeeMe project, the first simple video conferencing application. He used inexpensive Connectix camcorders to add video chat to Macintosh computers and was able to operate on low bandwidth networks. So we included it in the project, assuming that our Newton-based device could be equipped with a camera so that engineers could show each other their problems and share their solutions. I remember at the time I thought it was a brilliant idea.
Then I was offered a good job elsewhere, I notified me and left to build the consumer internet. I’m not sure what happened after I left; I suspect the project was never funded and got lost in the files.
The Newton was canceled—too big, too heavy, and too expensive—and so didn’t go any further, although Qualcomm at one point tried to convince Apple to build a Qualcomm radio into it to create an early competitor to smartphones.
Over the years, I forgot about this project until I turned on the Apple TV and saw it, an alternative version of a device I had devised years ago to video call a spaceship.
And now I know what I would do in that alternate universe.