Wednesday, January 6, 2016

AUCNET NIA-2001 - Part 4

The last post ended with one cliffhanger: Japan Business Television had the know-how and a good relationship with ASCII to build a hidden MSX TurboR machine? We never will know for sure, what we can know now is that even if JBTV had these items, they don't use them to build NIA-2001. There is another name in NIA-2001's circuit boards and firmware: Takaoka.

This machine was build by Takaoka Electric, and we don't even know if JBTV have any exclusivity on this hardware.

They had the know-how and good relationship.


Takaoka had experience with computer terminals from 1982, with a Kanji Terminal, produced X-Terminals for UNIX and still have a thin client division, Mintwave. In 1987 they created a CAPTAIN terminal to Kobe Port, and that terminal will be familiar to MSX fans:

NTT CAPTAIN Multi-Station (picture from MSX Magazine 1988/01)

NTT CAPTAIN Multi-Station is a MSX2 and a CAPTAIN terminal and was created by three companies: NTT, Takaoka and ASCII. So, Takaoka had experience with MSX and a good relationship with ASCII. Knowing the NIA-2001 internals, I guess that the hardware of NTT CMS was all done by Takaoka.

Official MSX TurboR were released in 1990. While we know that only one manufacturer release TurboR machines, we also know that ASCII wants to sell their chips (e.g.: R800 and S1990) and wants to license their designs to as many manufacturers as possible. The TurboR reference design probably was licensed to Takaoka, but not the MSX brand. With that, Takaoka got a versatile terminal platform (can be use as text terminal, CAPTAIN adapter, multimedia controller, etc) and ASCII sells their chips.

Hard to know if Takaoka already had the TurboR design and only adapt it to their customers, or if they got this design specifically to create a terminal for JBTV; the evidence suggests that NIA-2001 is a multi-use system.

The external slots, superimposer and modem circuits are on daughter boards, and the mainboard have unpopulated sockets, empty IC places and unused connectors. There is even one connector that can be a internal slot.

The main board, in its bottom right you can see a unused 50 pins connector.

The modem board

The audio/video board with superimposer
To sell it as a Laserdisc controller or as a subtitler, remove the modem board and provide some storage. To sell as a CAPTAIN terminal, change the superimposer board for one with only the output video connectors and keep the modem board. To be a good old 80x25 text terminal, you don't need modem or superimposer, only RGB output and serial port.

While it's shown as the AUCNET's terminal from 1989, we can't know for sure that the terminal in the picture is the one used in 1989, the guy that makes the movie could have selected the first terminal after the satellite system introduction, and we can't know what board is inside the machine in the picture. The JATE certification codes from 1992 points to a late release, and both S1990 and R800 are from 1990.

Even with these signs of a later release, the NIA-2001 could still be released in early 1990. The main board on my NIA-2001 is revision C and the only commands added by MSX-BASIC 4.0 are _PAUSE, _PCMREC and _PCMPLAY, but the NIA-2001 didn't have the additional hardware needed to support for PCM; the first mainboard revisions could come with MSX-BASIC 3.0 or even a version of MSX-BASIC 4.0 still in development. Which is good for a embedded device not always is good enough for a home computer.

The MSX TurboR timeline probably is: NIA-2001, based in ASCII reference design, is released in early 1990 by Takaoka; in parallel Panasonic develops their own TurboR machine, the FS-A1ST. Takaoka updates NIA-2001 with MSX-BASIC 4.0 and with the BIOS with deffective PCM sometime in 1990, at same time, Panasonic fixes the BIOS (or get a fixed one from ASCII) and releases FS-A1ST with a functional PCM implementation... almost in 1991!!!
MSX Magazine from October of 1990, presenting the MSX turboR

The ROM revision in my NIA-2001 have the same MSX-BASIC 4.0 of TurboR A1ST, but the BIOS looks to be an earlier version. While the additional commands are all there, _PCMPLAY gives no sound and the support for _PCMREC is bugged, the machine reboots if this command was called.

Since the MSX-BASIC commands were not usually used in embedded systems, like the NIA-2001, looks like this ROM version was updated until the one that "works" and was not updated in subsequent releases. The firmware was still updated as we can see in the boot screen, at least until 1992, the same year of JATE certification codes. The machine in my hands was built in 1993-12, we can guess that the JATE codes are related with the certification of the mainboard revision C, in 1992, the same date of the updated firmware.

After that, Takaoka continues to do small updates in its terminal, and Panasonic releases FS-A1GT. The relationship of Takaoka and AUCNET with the MSX opens many questions: Did AUCNET terminals from 1985 and 1996 are MSXs, too?  Takaoka made more MSX Turbo R and sold to other customers? Did ASCII licensed the TurboR reference design to other manufacturers?

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