Friday, December 15

The Evolution of Laptop Computers

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It wasn’t until the early 1970s that
“portable” computers finally shrunk in size enough to be truly
considered a laptop computer. The Dynabook, though never built beyond
a semi-operational test model, had the form factor more akin to a
tablet computer than the flip-screen laptop architecture we are so
used to today. Resembling an iPad more than anything else, the
Dynabook had a miniature keyboard built in beneath a rudimentary
screen, and was intended as a personal computer that would be aimed
at mainly children’s use. The designer, Alan Kay, more recently
developed the One Laptop Per Child project, somewhat fulfilling his
dream over 35 years later.

Despite this early design
prototype, it wasn’t until a full decade had passed that the first
true laptop went on the market. The Osborne 1, first released in
1981, was the size of a full briefcase (poorly designed as being just
a bit too large to fit under an airline seat), yet only sported a
tiny 5-inch screen in the middle of its bulky frame. At $2,000, it was
certainly not cheap. However, considering the price of much larger
computers, it was seen as a steal. Although small enough to literally
be used on one’s lap, the computer was not very portable, since it
required power from a standard wall plug to operate.

The Osbourne 1 sold well, and was
imitated wildly by competitors that popped up months after release.
On the success of its premiere unit, the Osbourne Computer
Corporation announced the Osbourne Executive, a new laptop design
that took all the positives from the Osbourne 1 and corrected many of
its predecessor’s flaws. Unfortunately, when they announced the
successor, sales of the former computer plummeted; no one wanted to
purchase a computer that was about to become obsolete. The lost sales
forced the company into bankruptcy, and the Osbourne effect is still
spoke of today as a cautionary tale in when not to announce a new
product line upgrade.

Although some taut the Osbourne 1 as
the first laptop, its sheer size and shape made it uncomfortable at
best for being used on an actual lap. By contrast, the GRiD Compass,
introduced in 1982, sports the clamshell architecture that we all
associate with laptops today. Although few remember it today because
of its failure to sell in the consumer market, the United States
government took it as their standard portable computer, and used it
in locations as diverse as paratrooper backpacks to NASA space

The GriD Compass was truly a laptop in
every sense of the word, and performed very well for its time. The
main reason it did not succeed in the open market was not lack of
features, performance, or portability—it was because it ran its own
operating system, and was not IBM compatible. Data could not be
easily transferred from larger non-portable IBM computers to the GriD
Compass, and consumers didn’t like this.

Laptop computer sales languished behind
their desktop counterparts for the next six years. Users didn’t see a
need to bring computing power on the go, while manufacturers didn’t
bother trying to create a need no one was sure would pay off. It
wasn’t until 1987 when the US Government put in a 200,000 order for
laptops that computer companies first took laptops seriously.
Afterward, the need for laptops was created through innovative
advertising campaigns, and laptops became ubiquitous among computer


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