Laptop Technology Comes of Age

Analysis of News Events
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Dell's announcement this week of new laptop designs marks the state of the art in a long and arduous road toward building the ideal portable computer.


This week's announcement by Dell that it's introducing a new line of Latitude and Precision laptop and mobile workstation computers that extend battery life, increase durability with Flash RAM drives, and sport backlit keyboards (so we all can take notes in the movie theater and write reviews like Roger Ebert) likely will be this year's entry into laptop history.


The announcement was the culmination of two years' work and a million engineering hours perfecting laptop design and was the result of an enormous amount of consumer research. The company synthesized feedback from more than four thousand customers on everything from unit and cord/converter weight to keyboard-touch in its design criteria. Besides coming in a rainbow of colors, the Latitude weighs in at a mere 2.2 pounds (for the E4200 with a 12.1-inch screen), offers up to 19 hours of battery life (for the E6400), and has advanced management, security, and instant-on features. The leading supplier of business laptops for more than 10 years, Dell sees the form factor as becoming the de facto computing standard for a class of business users who, it says, are becoming "digital nomads." Their office is wherever they happen to be at the time.


Coinciding with the introduction of the new laptops, Dell launched a new community site called Digital Nomads. It's designed for individuals who are defined not by the four walls in their office or home, but by a desire to always be connected for work and play, no matter their location, the company says. So, if you're still going to "the office" every day, you may be out of step with tomorrow's mobile professional.


Dell's announcement prompts us to look back a few years at what is still a very young industry. When we consider what computers were like 30 years ago, you have to be impressed by the progress. The trend today is heading toward the iPhone type of converged PDA, but as long as we are tied to the keyboard for inputting data and users over 40 years old prefer those large calculators because we can see the numbers, the laptop will have its place.


By comparison to today's laptop, think of the SAGE (semiautomatic ground environment) computer of 1958. Built to link radar stations in the U.S. and Canada as part of an early-warning system to detect the threat of a bombing attack on North America, the SAGE computer contained more than 55,000 vacuum tubes. According to writer Martin Sargent, the computer, which is believed to be the largest in history, consumed more than a million watts of power. It ran so hot it was thought that, should its air conditioning system ever fail, it would self-destruct in 60 seconds. Talk about demonstrating a need for green computing, this was it! Ironically, a top hand-held calculator today probably would have more computing power than the SAGE.


Fast-forward to 1977 when the Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80 began the era of mass-market personal computers, and you now have the environment for games, word processing, and spreadsheets. Laptops were not technically feasible then, but Alan Kay and Xerox PARC conceived the idea of the "Dynabook" in the early 1970s. In 1976, the company developed what is likely the first portable computer, the Xerox Note Taker, but only a handful of prototypes were built. Perhaps the first commercially available portable computer was the Osborne 1 released in 1981. It used the CP/M operating system and had a tiny five-inch CRT monitor. Although it couldn't run on batteries and had to be plugged into an AC outlet, it was about the size of a sewing machine and thus small enough for business users to carry aboard an airplane.


Between then and the introduction of the Compaq Portable in 1983 that ran MS-DOS, Kaypro introduced the Kaypro II with a nine-inch monitor, Epson came out with the PX-4 (HX-40) and PX-8 (Geneva), and NEC introduced its PC-8401A and PC-8500. All ran on the CP/M operating system. Epson's HX-20, announced in 1981 but not sold widely until 1983, was a handheld unit that ran on rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries. Its LCD displayed four lines of text with only 20 characters per line.


In 1982, GRiD Systems Corp., (later bought by Tandy) came out with what some have argued was the first laptop. The GRiD Compass 1101 had today's familiar clamshell design in which the display folds shut against the keyboard. It was expensive, but the U.S. military and NASA used it during the early 1980s. Other clamshell designs of that era include the Ampere, the Dulmont Magnum from Australia, the Sharp PC-5000, and the Gavilan SC, which perhaps was the first ever to be marketed as a "laptop." Not a clamshell, but probably the largest selling early laptop, was the Kyocera Kyotronic 85. It was licensed by several companies and is remembered as the Tandy 100, Olivetti M-10, and the NEC PC-8201.


In 1985, Kaypro introduced the first commercial IBM-compatible laptop, the Kaypro 2000, which resembled laptops of today. The IBM PC Convertible came out the next year, followed by the Toshiba T1000 and T1200 in 1987. Numerous models continued to come on the scene from IBM, Compaq, Toshiba, NEC, and Zenith Data Systems, and in 1991, Apple introduced the Apple PowerBook that included features now standard, such as a palm rest and pointing device (trackball). The following year, IBM came out with the ThinkPad 700C sporting its characteristic red TrackPoint pointing device.


The technological challenges to developing a good laptop have been numerous--from the displays, to the processor, to a reliable and rugged storage medium. As is still true for autos today, battery technology has been slow to evolve. Early portable computers used a small lead-acid battery. This was replaced by the lighter and more efficient nickel-cadmium (NiCd) battery. This was eventually supplanted by the nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, and later lithium polymer batteries.


Technophiles likely will mark this week's laptop announcements by Dell as among the notable milestones in the evolution of these essential devices. East Coast users interested in the history of computing will be pleased to learn that New Jersey will host the next Vintage Computer Festival on September 13-14. The InfoAge Learning Center in Wall Township will be the site of Vintage Computer Festival East 5.0, where author and former IBM-er Watts Humphrey will discuss the MOBIDIC computer, designed by Sylvania in 1956 for the U.S. Army Signal Corps.


Also of interest will be the workshop hosted by kit creator Vince Briel, who will conduct a session in which participants build their own computers, either a replica of the Apple 1 or the micro-KIM (KIM-1). In the festival's exhibit area, individual collectors will have vintage computers on display. For more information, visit