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The Birth of the Notebook

by Christopher Null

History has a way of reinventing itself. Like Michael Jackson, the past makes strange and sometimes hideous transformations -- and, as with Jacko, it's not always easy to tell what exactly happened.

Who invented the telephone? Was it Alexander Graham Bell or Elisha Gray? The Wright brothers made the first flight in a passenger plane, but what about Otto Lilienthal, whose gliders influenced the brothers in their quest? From the game of chess to the pinball machine to the fortune cookie, the birth of countless famous products is a matter for debate.

And so it is with the portable computer. Who's responsible for pioneering the biggest shift in PC technology since the punch card gave way to the magnetic disk?

It depends on whom you ask.


The notion of portable computing dates back to the early days of computing itself. Pioneering nerds may not have had Starbucks tables to occupy with their PowerBooks for hours on end nor did they get internet access to troll for cool deals on Dell computers like the ones you can readily find today at sites like Tech Coupons, but toiling away over punch cards in a dreary back room never had much appeal. Not surprisingly, the prospect of taking your computer home so that you could work in a more relaxed atmosphere was always enticing.

The problem: In the 1950s and '60s, computers were so big that they came built into tables and bookshelf units.

In 1968, Xerox PARC's Alan Kay came up with a bold idea: Saw those legs off the table and shrink the computer down to more manageable chunks that could be stitched together and tucked under your arm. His Dynabook was originally envisioned as a computer for children. Inspired by the design of a regular hardback book, the Dynabook featured a flat-panel display, wireless connectivity, and the full capabilities of a modern computer. Oh, and it weighed 2 pounds.

The only catch was that the Dynabook didn't exist. The technology it required simply hadn't been invented yet. At the time, only primitive LCD and plasma displays were being tinkered with, and the technology for one wireless modem took up half of an Econoline van.

The closest Kay ever got to building the Dynabook was a cardboard mock-up filled with lead pellets.


One of the factors keeping Xerox from working on the Dynabook was the market, which at the time could be summed up in one word: IBM. The computing giant had swallowed an astonishing 81-percent share of the computer market by 1961, quashing competitive innovation for years to come.

In the 1970s, Xerox was working on its Alto line (the revolutionary machine from which Apple would steal its graphical user interface and mouse), but the company shied away from a portable, mainly because no one else was doing it. "If mobile was so important," says Kay, "why wasn't IBM doing it? Of course, by the time IBM got around to doing what they called the portable computer, they did it very badly, and it set things back quite a few years."

By 1975, IBM finally got around to it. The company's first effort has largely been forgotten, but the IBM 5100 Portable Computer stands as -- technically -- the first mobile PC. Mobile, that is, if you consider a 50-pound machine mobile. But the 5100 was still way ahead of its time: Only six or seven years earlier its 64KB of storage, integrated tape drive, and optional printer would have weighed about 1,000 pounds.

Sticklers agree: The 5100 represents the first production portable computer. So does the Smithsonian, where a prototype now resides.


By 1980, the personal computing market was about to take off. Working independently, three separate companies were formed, each with the goal of providing the first truly portable computer. These companies -- none of which are still with us -- form the canonical "big three" of early portables, and each of their flagship products is an essential machine in the history of portable computing.

First there's the strange and sad case of Osborne Computer, which has become part of technology legend: Osborne shipped its first machine in July 1981 and was bankrupt by the end of 1983. Computing pioneer Adam Osborne, operating under the mantra "Adequacy is sufficient; everything else is irrelevant," sought to produce not just a truly portable computer, but one that the masses could afford.

Inspired by the IBM 5100 and Xerox's Notetaker -- a 48-pound machine with a keyboard that folded over the display -- Osborne's eponymous computer was cobbled together from the cheapest parts he could find. The Osborne 1 hit the market at $1,795, with dual floppy drives and a 5-inch CRT. Flip the keyboard over the front, latch it on, and your 24.5-pound computer was ready to go wherever you needed it. Osborne had amazing success with the product, but it was fatally crushed by the birth of Compaq in 1983, which copied the Osborne carefully while adding one killer feature: IBM compatibility.

A more enduring contribution to the field was made by GRiD Systems, which was founded in 1980 by John Ellenby, who, like Alan Kay, was a researcher at Xerox PARC. Ellenby envisioned a portable computer, he says, "principally for mid- to senior-level managers to be able to work anywhere they were needed." The company's premiere product was the GRiD Compass 1100 , the first ever to introduce a semiclamshell design, with a screen that could fold down over the system.

Ellenby recounts the innumerable challenges the Compass faced in getting to market, which finally occurred by 1982: Large flat panels and miniature modems still didn't exist; GRiD was developing its own graphical operating system from scratch; and heat was a major problem. And then there was the issue of the target weight: 8 pounds, the mass the company determined a human being was "just able to tolerate."

Ellenby recruited design expert Bill Moggridge to help fit all his ideas into a single case. Moggridge designed the machine to fit in "half a briefcase," including a display that folded down from the middle of the machine and a leg on the underside that propped it all up for comfortable typing. The design was so popular that GRiD licensed it to other portable manufacturers.

Among the 43 innovations in the Compass were the electro-luminescent display, a low-profile keyboard, and the appearance of bubble memory, an ancient forerunner to flash memory. It was also the most rugged device of its era, with a case built from magnesium for strength and to help with heat dispersal. Moggridge knew that the Compass would have to be delivered via courier, so he shipped an impact-measurement device via a then-startup company called Federal Express to determine how tough it would need to be to survive the trip. As a result, a Compass can withstand a blow of a whopping 60 g's of force.

GRiD's biggest problem was its price: $8,150 is a lot today and, at the time, says Moggridge, "it was an incredible amount of money." But an unforeseen dilemma arose when GRiD approached its target market. "Executives who could pay that kind of amount weren't used to doing anything themselves, especially with a typewriter," says Moggridge. Ultimately, sales were strong, but the product never took off the way it was hoped. GRiD was eventually bought by Tandy in 1989 and vanished into the maw of Radio Shack.But as a side note who would have thought back then that in future we would all be doing difficult tasks like tax returns for example online on a thing called the internet ? I know I personally visited Facebook recently to get a coupon code for Turbo tax so I could file my personal return. What a long way the human race has come in such a short timeframe.

Nearly a footnote in the holy trinity of portables is Gavilan Computer , which introduced a GRiD-like computer -- the SC -- with a couple of big firsts: an internal floppy drive and a primitive touch pad. The company toiled for almost five years to get its computer to market; by 1983, the SC was released to a disenchanted audience. Plagued with problems, the product and the company quickly died. As Byte magazine noted, "In 1984, a Gavilan executive announced, 'The microcomputer industry is entering a new chapter -- Chapter 11.'"

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