2. The Dynabook
This device mock-up is widely considered to be the inspiration for the modern portable computer. Conceived by Alan Kay in 1968 at Xerox PARC, the device was envisioned as undefineda personal computer for children of all ages."
Kay wanted to create a thin, portable device that weighed about two pounds and had a display whose size approximated that of a real page (Kay figured he would need a screen with one million pixels to accomplish this). Unfortunately, the technology required to produce such a device didn't emerge until fairly recently--and even today the Dynabook as envisioned by Kay has not become a reality.
3. Portable Teletype
The computers of 40 years ago filled entire rooms and yet had less computing power than today's smartphones. But the dream of portable computing was already alive. PC World contributing editor Harry McCracken recently uncovered evidence of that aspiration in the annals of Google's Computerworld archives. In March 1968, you couldn't carry a computer around with you, but you could take your Teletype interface, thanks to the Teletype Corporation's KSR-33. This little number dented the scales at 65 pounds, but it let users connect to a Teletype machine, a device for sending typed messages from one location to another, far from their home base. You can watch (and listen to) a KSR-33 terminal at work in this YouTube clip.
4. Osborne 1
Geeks on the run rejoiced in 1981, when the first truly portable computer appeared. The Osborne Computer Corporation's Osborne 1 was a gigantic piece of machinery equipped with a 5-inch diagonal screen, and its own carrying case. The machine, which also had two full-size floppy disk drives, sold for $1795 (software included) and weighed 23.5 pounds.
5. Grid Compass 1100
The 12-pound Grid Compass 1100 (the first computer to use a fold-up, clamshell case) brings us closer to a modern-looking laptop design. Originally designed for NASA and available to consumers in 1982, the Compass 1100 carried 340KB of memory and cost about $8000 including software and a mandatory maintenance agreement. Despite its place in laptop history, the Grid didn't survive long in the marketplace because it wasn't IBM compatible.
6. IBM PC Convertible
In 1986 the IBM PC Convertible hit store shelves. Priced at $1995, the PC Convertible was the first commercially successful laptop, and the first IBM device to carry a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive. The IBM PC Convertible weighed 12 pounds, 2 pounds more than the Grid Compass 1100. It came configured with 256KB of memory, two 3.5-inch floppy drives, an LCD display, printer ports, and a basic software suite.
7. Compaq SLT/286
In October 1988, the Compaq SLT/286 launched. The first computer to use VGA (640-by-480-resolution) graphics, it revolutionised portable displays. The SLT/286 weighed 14 pounds and had a 20MB hard drive, a 12MHz processor, and a keyboard that you could detach from the main body of the machine. It was one of the earliest computers compact enough to fit properly on a (sturdy) airline tray.
8. Apple PowerBook 100
The next big jump in laptops following the Compaq SLT/286 came in 1991, when the Apple PowerBook 100 arrived. Made for Apple by Sony, the PowerBook 100 featured a trackball to serve as the mouse, and a palm rest to make working on the computer more comfortable; soon palm rests became a standard feature on laptops from many other vendors.
In late 1992, IBM took the compact design of the PowerBook's pointing device a step further in its new ThinkPad series, most notably the $4350 ThinkPad 700C which ran Windows 3.1, had a 120MB hard drive, a 25MHz 486SLC CPU, and a large and lovely 10.4-inch colour TFT active-matrix panel. As operating systems advanced and their interface's became more graphical, the need for a mouse increased. Prior to the PowerBook 100, users had to go through the hassle of attaching a mouse to their laptop's keyboard. IBM's solution: a little red stick embedded in the keyboard and dubbed the TrackPoint.
10. The TouchPad
George Gerpheide invented the capacitance-based touchpad mouse in 1988, but the technology didn't appear on a laptop until 1994, with Apple's PowerBook 500 series. Apple called its version the trackpad, and other manufacturers soon developed copycat input devices. The touchpad helped laptops become easier to use and more compact. The PowerBook 500 series consisted of four models: the 520, the 520c, the 540 and the 540c. The basic specs for the PowerBook 500 series included 4MB of RAM with capacity for up to 36MB, a 25MHz processor, and a 9.5-inch grayscale display. Models in the PowerBook 500 series also sported up to 320MB of hard drive space, impressive for the time, but less than one-twelfth the storage capacity of Apple's smallest iPod today.
11. The Lithium Ion Battery
Early in 1994, a year and a half before Windows 95 was launched, Toshiba came out with the first two models in its Portege T3400 series: The $2599 T3400 carried a monochrome screen, the $3900 T3400CT sported an active-matrix colour screen, and both ran Windows 3.1.
Advertised as sub notebooks, the new Porteges had a slim look, a fashionable grey case colour, and a high-powered lithium ion battery, considered "the latest in mobile energy technology." Toshiba said the T3400 would provide up to 6 hours of computing time on a single charge. The battery could fully recharge in 3 hours with the machine switched off, or in 8 to 10 hours with the machine in operation.
The Portege T3400 series models weighed 4 pounds and packed a 486SX processor, 4MB RAM (expandable to 20MB), and a 120MB hard drive. They also featured a PCMCIA expansion slot for extra memory. A contemporaneous Toshiba brochure [PDF] covers the essential points of the machine's appeal: compactness, usability, mobile power, status. Nothing much has changed on that front over the years.
12. The Rugged Laptop
In 1996, at a time when most computer makers were training their efforts on slimmer and faster models, Panasonic aimed for thick-skinned and break-resistant. The result was the Toughbook CF-25, the first model in a line of rugged Panasonic Toughbooks that continues to this day. The CF-25 was designed to survive 2-foot drops and to withstand dust and humidity.
The original Toughbook came in an aluminium alloy case, and came loaded with a 166MHz Intel Pentium I processor, up to 96MB of RAM, and (typically) a sub-1GB hard drive.
Though the laptop's internal specs didn't match its burly appearance, the original Toughbook did enable people to operate a computer at disaster scenes, on battlefields, and in other places where regular laptops might easily expire.
13. iBook G3 and the first Wireless Card
The iBook G3 was one of the many innovative ideas Steve Jobs brought with him when he returned to the helm of Apple in 1996. At the 1999 Macworld Expo in New York, Jobs wowed the crowds by taking the iBook for a spin across stage as he surfed the Internet, launching the first laptop with a wireless card. At its debut, Jobs described the iBook G3 as the second-fastest portable computer in the world (he claimed that the PowerBook was the fastest). The 1999 iBook G3 also freed computers from their boring, square boxes with candy-coloured designs.
Check out this YouTube video for the wireless revelation (it occurs at around the 5:15 mark).
14. The Built-in Camera
Apple thrilled the world with clean styling and wireless networking, but the iSight camera found in today's MacBook has a Windows 98 ancestor. In 1999, Sony unveiled the $2299 VAIO C1 PictureBook. The laptop weighed less than 3 pounds, was quite compact, and included (just above the display) a built-in camera that could capture still images and up to 60 seconds of continuous video. The PictureBook also represented an early stab at what would become known a decade later as a netbook. It was only 1.45 inches thick, and it came without an external floppy or CD-ROM drive. PC World's reviewer complained that the PictureBook's keyboard was "too cramped for any long-term, comfortable typing."
As the 21st century dawned, the push was on for ever-lighter, ever-faster machines. The ultimate expression of that movement was Apple's MacBook Air, unveiled in early 2008. Sporting a newly designed chip from Intel and a nonremovable battery, but no optical drive, the Air reshaped the public's idea of how slender a computer could be. Newsweek technology columnist Steven Levy discovered this when his test machine (on loan from Apple) disappeared. His wife had accidentally tossed the device into a trash compactor amid a pile of newspapers.
Two years before Asus Eee PC, Nicholas Negroponte touted his concept of a $100 laptop at the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Negroponte's dream eventually became the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO, which is meant to put an Internet-capable computer in the hands of every underprivileged child in the world. When OLPC offered the XO in a give-one/get-one scheme in late 2007, the enthusiasm for this little computer skyrocketed. Intel and Microsoft quickly followed the XO down the supercheap, superportable path, and suddenly the netbook was the fastest-growing segment of the computer market. The Asus Eee PC may have reached market first, but the XO is the machine that caught the public's attention.
The Web tablet looks to be the next major evolutionary stage in portable computing. Devices like the Apple iPad returns us to the Dynabook. Conceivably these devices will someday be as powerful as regular laptops. And though we aren't there yet, Alan Kay's vision might finally become a reality with tablets, albeit without a physical keyboard. If so, perhaps one day we'll be discussing milestone Web tablets in a retrospective slideshow.
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