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The Birth of the Notebook 3

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THE RISE OF THINKPAD

By all accounts, IBM’s portable endeavors leading up to the early 1990s were a joke. Heavy, underpowered, and just plain broken, IBM portables were in the curious position of having the platform that everyone wanted to emulate with hardware that was half-assed at best.

By 1990, portable computers were a $5.4 billion market, and the future couldn’t have looked brighter. After 15 years of making shoddy portables (see “The Worst Notebooks of All Time,” at right), IBM figured it ought to get its act together. When it did, no one could have expected the degree to which it would quickly dominate the market.

The IBM ThinkPad was the product of a kind of skunk works team that was considerably isolated from the rest of the company. What that group came up with in 1992 made observers’ heads spin: A black notebook, when IBM’s identity at the time was stark white? A funky nubbin in the center of the keyboard instead of a mouse — colored red, the universal symbol for error? And was anyone supposed to take a portable from IBM seriously after so many flubs?

Hell, yes. The ThinkPad 700C ripped apart what everyone had come to expect from notebook computers. The centerpiece: A gargantuan 10.4-inch LCD (an inch and a half bigger than any of the competition’s, and in color). Nothing compared to the 700C, and IBM soon found itself years ahead of the rest of the industry. ThinkPads became the hottest item in tech, so coveted that the company had to ship them in plain brown boxes, because anything with the IBM logo was being stolen from warehouse loading docks in the hopes of getting a ThinkPad. Until the ThinkPad division was sold to Lenovo in 2004, the company sold over 20 million units.

APPLE GETS IN THE GAME

ThinkPads were red hot, but IBM was still a corporate brand for corporate users. College kids and aspiring hackers wanted portables, too: They bought the Apple PowerBook.

Apple had just come off one of the worst beatings in computer history: The Newton had bombed miserably, and the 16-pound Macintosh Portable (see “The Worst Notebooks of All Time”) was a laughingstock of computing.

Apple rebounded from both. Apple designer David Levy, who worked on the groundbreaking 1991 Apple PowerBook 100, notes, “The Macintosh Portable was a black eye for the company. We were Apple! There was lots of pressure to do something that set the world straight on Apple’s ability to design a great product. And we did.”

The Apple PowerBook 100 spawned countless innovations, the most notable being moving the keyboard to the back of the machine and making room for a trackball front and center. In 1995, the PowerBook 500 offered the first true touch pad, expansion bay, PC Card slot, and more. But it was the PowerBook 500’s curvy case that really turned heads, proving that portable computers needn’t look like shoe boxes any more.

In its early ’90s heyday, the PowerBook owned a crushing 40 percent of the portable computing market, until the rest of the industry figured out how to do the same thing, only cheaper.

THE LATE ’90S AND BEYOND

The PowerBook 500 remains the last machine of critical importance before the modern era. By the late ’90s, the notebook formula had pretty much been worked out, and vendors took their eyes off of outrageous new designs and focused on trimming weight while adding power and features such as internal optical drives, bigger screens, and longer battery life.

Noteworthy machines include the 1999 Sony Vaio C1 Picturebook, which was the first to include a built-in camera, and the Sharp RD3D, released in 2003, which pioneered a primitive 3D display. Last year’s OQO Model 01 took computing in yet another new direction, with the first fully functional Windows XP machine that weighed less than a pound.

So where do we go from here? Computing seems to be nearing a terminal weight and size — any littler and you won’t be able to punch the buttons. How could they get any smaller?

Erk, never mind. We all know what happened the last time we said that.

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