IT News & Technology update

Provide comprehensive update related to Computer, technology, software, anti virus and another electric device

Geek Trivia: Lapping the competition

Written by IT News on 5:35 AM

What was the first portable computer labeled a laptop?

onventional wisdom among the IT crowd holds that the laptop computer is a derivative of the desktop PC, but students of computing history know that, in many respects, the reverse is true. In fact, the earliest laptop concepts inspired the first functional PCs. It all began -- as did so many underappreciated computing concepts -- at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the early 1970s.

Our story begins with a man named Alan Kay, who envisioned a device called the Dynabook while working at the PARC. The Dynabook was a hybrid laptop/tablet computer intended for children. Kay conceived the device as an audio-visual creative learning platform, which would let children express themselves through a graphic user interface running atop Kay's Smalltalk object-oriented programming software.

While the Dynabook never made it past the mockup stage, the GUI and the Smalltalk software development led to the Xerox Alto in 1973, the first personal computer with a graphic user interface and a mouse. And that's how the first seriously attempted laptop, the Dynabook, led to the creation of the first modern PC, the Alto. Since then, desktop models have been the dominant venue for personal computer development.

The first commercially available portable computer was the Osborne 1, which debuted in 1981. One would hesitate to call it a laptop, since it weighed almost 24 pounds and was the size of a small suitcase. (Incidentally, the Osborne 1's design came more from the NoteTaker, another PARC-developed functional prototype computer that never saw production, than the Dynabook.)

The first commercially available mobile IBM-clone PC was the Compaq Portable, which hit the market in 1983. It was even bulkier than the Osborne -- evoking comparisons to a portable sewing machine -- though the "luggable" design was successful enough to spawn a series of successors. And so, the portable computing market was born.

The first mobile computer that looked like a modern laptop -- including the clamshell design where the screen folds to cover the keyboard -- was the GRiD Compass, which debuted in 1982. It wasn't a PC clone and ran its own proprietary OS, and nobody called it a laptop.

In fact, no one would formally call any portable computer a laptop until 1983, when the first mobile computer marketed as a so-called laptop hit the streets.


What was the first portable computer labeled and marketed as a laptop, giving an official name to the now-ubiquitous breed of mobile PCs?

The answer is the Gavilan SC, which included many features common to modern laptops: A clamshell design, rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries (which the company claimed offered a nine-hour battery life), graphic user interface, LCD screen, and a touchpad pointing device. It ran MS-DOS on a 5-MHz Intel 8088 processor and came standard with a 48-KB hard drive, a floppy drive (originally a 3-inch microfloppy, though later versions had a 3.5-inch drive), and a 300-baud modem -- all for the low, low price of $4,000.

Unlike its luggable portable competitors that weighed more than 20 pounds, the Gavilan SC came in at a mere nine pounds. This made the machine extremely popular among the nascent portable computing crowd -- so much so that the company couldn't meet demand and filed bankruptcy in 1985.

Nascent is the operative term to describe the laptop marketplace at the time; there wasn't a large-scale portable computer market until the late 1980s, and that was largely due to government intervention. The U.S. Air Force put out a Request For Proposal in 1987 for a large lot of laptop-type computers for its service personnel. How large? About 200,000 units -- enough to ensure that whichever company got the deal would instantly become the largest laptop manufacturer in the world the following year.

The RFP had every major computer manufacturer scrambling to develop a viable laptop to win this serious contract, eventually awarded to Zenith Data Systems (which had previously garnered a similar but smaller contract with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service). The contract was the impetus for several companies to think seriously about laptop development, and it's somewhat ironic that the Gavilan SC wasn't around (or, at least, still in production) to see it.

Of course, it's also telling that the Gavilan company was defunct in 1987 because of supply chain issues, as one of the major strengths of the Zenith Data Systems RFP bid was its partnership with an Asian original equipment manufacturer, Tottori Sanyo. Until that point, all other major laptop-makers manufactured their own hardware, but Zenith's OEM deal would be more commonplace than revolutionary today.

It seems that as computers themselves have shrunk in size, so have in-house manufacturing arms of the companies on their nameplates. That's not just an intriguing computing history factoid, that's a size-changing slice of Geek Trivia.

Get ready for the Geekend

The Trivia Geek's blog has been reborn as the Geekend, an online archive of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant -- unless you're a hardcore geek with a penchant for science fiction, technology, and snark. Get a daily dose of subcultural illumination by joining the seven-day Geekend.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the April 25 edition of Geek Trivia, "Stunt double to the stars." TechRepublic member kwitzell corrected my description of the Cassini space probe.

"I found your discussion of the Death Star interesting, but I must quibble with the following statement: 'These same comparisons would reappear in 2005, when the Cassini probe made another pass by Saturn and grabbed still better pictures of Mimas.' The Cassini probe is in orbit around Saturn and has in effect become a moon of Saturn in its own right -- unlike its cousins Voyagers 1 and 2 [that] flew by. Cassini therefore passes by the many moons of Saturn in its orbit about the planet."

The reader made a fair point about my calling Cassini's mission a flyby. Great catch, and keep those quibbles coming!

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

Read this full article here

Related Posts by Categories

Widget by Hoctro | Jack Book
  1. 0 comments: Responses to “ Geek Trivia: Lapping the competition ”

Search This Blog

Ads and Sponsored by:

Want to subscribe?

Subscribe in a reader.