A PowerBook Retrospective, Part 1: The First PowerBooks

The first Apple PowerBook, the PowerBook 100, was released fifteen years ago, and while there are clearly substantial differences between that machine and the last of the PowerBooks, the PowerBook G4, these two machines just as obviously part of the same family of computers. While it is certainly true that Apple didn’t invent the notebook computer, the influence of the design of the PowerBooks on the computer industry generally have been profound.

Early portable computers were large, weighty, awkward to use, and very expensive. A key problem was that no one really knew what a portable computer would be used for. Some of the more popular ones were similar to the PDA devices used today and came with their own, proprietary applications such as databases that allowed the user to perform useful tasks on the go, but the majority were essentially used as moveable workstations. It was assumed that the majority of users would be professionals such as salesmen, accountants, and engineers who would need to take their computer to an office away from their home base to give presentations or otherwise display information and ideas. There really wasn’t much sense that people would actually use their computers on trains and planes, or that there was a market for small, inexpensive portable computers that students and home office workers might use.

The Mac Portable… what went wrong?

The very first portable Apple computer, the dubiously named Mac Portable (released in 1989), exemplified much of the fuzzy thinking that went into the design of portable computers during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Weighing in at over seven kilos (about sixteen pounds) this brute was essentially a Mac SE with a built-in battery. While it had a nice monochrome screen and enough processing power to make a usable workstation for writers and other professionals on the go, its weight made it simply unusable as a laptop. At best, it could be lugged around by car or airplane from one office to another.

Surprisingly enough, it was not Apple that was making the headway at this stage in the evolution of the notebook computer. In 1989, Compaq released a computer that can reasonably said to be the first true laptop. Whereas the Mac Portable, and many other early portable computers, was based on the idea of fusing a full sized keyboard, computer, and monitor into a mobile package, the Compaq LTE was very different. About the size and shape of a large book, resulting in the now-familiar “clamshell” design featuring the screen in the top half and the keyboard in the bottom. Other key innovations included a built-in modem and a tiny joystick-like input device of the type still seen today on some IBM ThinkPads. Compared with the Mac Portable, the Compaq LTE was also substantially cheaper, a mere $4,500 instead of the whopping $6,500 needed for the Mac. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it was the best-selling portable computer at the time.

Given that the Mac Portable and the Compaq LTE are computers of the same vintage, how is it that Apple got things so wrong? As so often at that time, Apple misjudged the market. Jean-Louis Gassée, at that time head of the Macintosh development at Apple, believed that any portable Mac would need to convey the same quality of experience as their desktop machines. The Compaq machine, for example, had a fuzzy, passive matrix 640 x 200 pixel screen; no sound capabilities of any kind; and a battery that would only last a couple of hours. Gassée insisted that the Mac Portable have a razor-sharp, active matrix 640 x 480 pixel screen, the same sound output capabilities as the desktop Macs, and a battery life good enough for a full day’s work. Getting the required screens and batteries proved to be difficult. By placing a demand for high-quality LCD screens, Apple spurred the manufacturers into designing and building new factories, which may have been good for the industry generally, but meant that the Mac Portable was going to be hideously expensive. The battery problem couldn’t be solved at the time except by using a large (and therefore heavy) lead-acid battery, which meant of course that the Mac Portable itself would have to be large and heavy as well.

Apple finally get in right

It wasn’t that Apple lacked good, small, portable computer designs; since the mid 1980s German design company frogdesign had been producing models of possible portable Macs much more like the Compaq LTE notebook than the Mac Portable behemoth. The ideas were there, it was simply the lack of direction that had taken Apple’s first foray into portable computing down an expensive dead end. By 1990, the Industrial Design Group (IDG) had had a change of leadership and was given the mission of creating a portable that would ship in the autumn of 1991 but wouldn’t be a failure this time.

As it happened though, part of the winning formula came from an Apple employee outside of the IDG. Jon Krakower created a model that combined a clamshell design with a smaller version of the trackball used on the Mac Portable. A key innovation was placing this trackball not off to one side, but centrally, making it equally usable for both left- and right-handed people. The Mac Portable had been equipped with a trackball assembly that could be installed on the left or right hand side of the computer as the user preferred, but Krakower made the trackball much smaller and integrated it an empty space in front of the computer that acted as a palm rest. Krakower worked with the IDG and together they came up with what became a key element of the standard PowerBook design.

The trackball certainly helped to mark the portable Mac apart from the various portable PCs of the time; but it also needed to be separated from the desktop Macs as well. The IDG chose a medium grey colour instead of the platinum at that time standard across the Macintosh line. A very curious part of this story was that uniquely, Apple farmed out the manufacturing of one of its Macs to another computer company, Sony. Shortly after the design process had begun, it was decided that there were to be three models, ultimately called the PowerBooks 170, 140, and 100. The PowerBooks 170 and 140 would be essentially identical except that the 170 would be slightly faster and have a better, active matrix, screen. The PowerBook 100 would share the same basic design as its siblings, but would be smaller and even slower than the 140. Both the 100 and the 140 used a passive matrix screen, which helped to keep the cost of these machines down. The idea was that the PowerBook 100 would be the “consumer level” portable, aiming for the same gap in the market as the low-end desktops of the time, like the Mac Classic. The 140 would cater to the middle market, providing most of the power of the 170 but with less of the flair, and the 170 would be the no-compromises model for the power users. Apple concentrated on the PowerBook 170 and PowerBook 140; Sony was given the PowerBook 100.


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