Histories    |     Facts    |     Archives    |     About Us    |     Contact Us

Technology on the Go

The History of the Laptop Computer

In this day and age, computer technology develops so rapidly that it seems there is no end to the possibilities of the miracle machine. Computers, once monstrous behemoths that could dominate whole rooms, can now be compacted into lightweight, portable notebook systems. The laptop computer was likely unimaginable when computers were first created more than 60 years ago, but today it features incredible technology in a very small package. 

The Idea Is Born

The idea of a portable, technically complete computer system was first conceived of as early as the 1970s. While the technology of the laptop would not be feasible until the next decade, researchers at Xerox were experimenting with a type of portable computer, called the Dynabook, in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Wurster 2001). The Dynabook was intended to be a type of tablet computer (with a screen that did not fold down as the screens of most modern laptop computers do) that could run on nearly eternal battery life. Unfortunately, technology in the 1970s was not advanced enough to support this idea, and the concept of the Dynabook was never developed into an operational unit.

Earliest Laptops

Portable computers first became commercially available in 1981 with the Osborne 1 system (Wilson 2006). This computer was about the size of a portable sewing machine, featured a tiny monitor, and could not be run on battery power. However, it revolutionized the business world, allowing business professionals to carry their computer data with them for the first time, even on airplanes. But due to the unwieldy size of the Osborne I and its inability to run on battery power, the system never really took off in the commercial market, though it would remain a vanguard of technological advances to come.

The first true laptop computer, which featured a flat display screen that could fold down on the keyboard, was introduced in 1982. Termed the GRID Compass, the computer featured the clamshell design that is still used for most modern laptops and could be run on battery power (Wilson 2006). However, its incredibly high price and IBM incompatibility limited its attractiveness in the commercial market, and it was used primarily by only the U.S. military and NASA.

Two other portable computers, introduced in 1983, would prove to be slightly more successful in the commercial market. The Compaq Portable and Epson HX-20 featured revolutionary changes that would make them much more viable for business use. While the Compaq system required AC power, it was the first portable computer to be compatible with the MS-DOS operating system and IBM software, allowing for ease in data transfer from desktop computers. The Epson HX-20, while fairly simple in its programming, was relatively inexpensive and could be run on rechargeable batteries.

By late 1983, the market for laptop computers was wide open, and traveling business people were hungry for improved technology. Correspondingly, this year saw the launch of one of the most popular early laptops, the Kyocera Kyotronic 85 (Wilson 2006). This product was first introduced in Japan and experienced relatively slow sales, but American computer engineers quickly saw its potential and began marketing it in the United States with substantially increased commercial success. The laptop featured an internal modem and several programs designed by Microsoft. It was also capable of running on regular AA batteries. Although it did not feature the clamshell design most common in today’s laptops, it was about the size of a standard paper notebook. The computer’s low price (as little as $300) and convenient portability made it a bestseller among journalists and correspondents. 

IBM-Compatible Laptops

Despite the relative success of some early laptops and the clamor by business people for more portable computers, laptop producers encountered some difficulty gaining overall popularity for their systems that were not IBM compatible. Because IBM was the major platform for most desktop computers, it became essential that laptop computers were IBM compatible in order to promote the transfer of data from one computer to another. To fulfill this need, two IBM-compatible laptops were launched in 1986 and 1987 to moderate success (Wilson 2006). Produced by IBM and Toshiba, the units were fairly limited in their operating capabilities but they were light enough to be carried in a backpack, could be run on batteries, and included a pause feature that allowed users to resume work between sessions without restarting. While the IBM-compatible systems were useful, they were still limited in their viability and did not experience large-scale commercial success.

Laptops Experience True Success

By 1987, several laptop manufacturers had emerged on the market, and competition was fierce to produce the first, truly successful laptop computer. In that year, a contract from the United States Air Force for the purchase of 200,000 laptops was up for grabs, and computer manufacturers competed heavily to win the contract. Each company rushed to develop prototypes that would secure the deal, with Zenith Data Systems (ZDS) eventually emerging as the victor. On the strength of the contract from the Air Force, ZDS became the largest manufacturer of laptop computers in the late 1980s (Wilson 2006). 

In order to capitalize on its leadership role, ZDS partnered with a Japanese equipment supplier that would speed the design and manufacturing process of its laptop computers. Soon, other laptop manufacturers followed suit and began working with Japanese equipment suppliers. However, as Japanese currency became stronger in the early 1990s, the profit margin of U.S. companies decreased, and many manufacturers began to turn to Taiwan as the major source of equipment (Wurster 2001). Companies that formed partnerships with Taiwanese suppliers (including Dell, Gateway, and Micron) quickly began to rise to leadership positions in the laptop market. By this time, laptop computers had become quite popular among business people, and suppliers rushed to furnish the growing market with lighter, faster, and more viable machines.

Apple Enters the Market

Apple Inc., while quite prominent in the desktop computer market during the 1980s, was relatively slow entering the market of laptop computers. It was not until 1989 that the company released its first portable computer, the Macintosh Portable (Wilson 2006). The computer was praised for its incredibly clear display and long battery life, but it was too bulky and heavy to be truly competitive with other available laptop computers. Because Apple had not yet provided a truly successful Macintosh laptop, several other suppliers began producing compatible machines; however, copyright law required that the user of one of these laptops must also purchase a new or used Macintosh computer to supply the necessary Mac ROM images.

While Apple was slow to enter the market and was unable to provide a truly successful laptop model on its first attempt, the company’s 1991 PowerBook series revolutionized laptop technology. Computers in the series were the vanguard of several standard features in today’s laptop computers, including the placement of the keyboard, the touchpad mouse, and built-in network adapters.

Microsoft Standardizes the Laptop

Perhaps the most significant event in the history of laptop computers was the release of the Windows 95 operating system by Microsoft in 1995 (Wurster 2001). Prior to this, operating systems for laptops varied widely, and suppliers experienced a great amount of flexibility in the design of their computers. The introduction of Windows 95 as the most prominent operating system served to standardize and stabilize most aspects of laptop design. It was also during this year that CD-ROM drives, Intel Pentium processors, and floppy disk drives became standard features on nearly all laptops. Leading laptop suppliers like Dell, Gateway, and Toshiba quickly released models that complied with the expected features of a standard laptop computer. 

As technology has developed since 1995, the popularity and viability of laptop computers have greatly increased. Improved battery life, displays, processors, and network connectivity have all served to increase the ubiquity of laptop computers. Today, the average laptop computer is a far cry from the heavy, bulky portable computers of the early 1980s. Indeed, there is no telling how the laptop will continue to develop in future years as computing technology advances.

-- Posted May 5, 2007

References

Wilson, James E. 2006. Vintage Laptop Computers: First Decade: 1980-89. Outskirts Press, Inc.

Wurster, Christian. 2001. Computers: An Illustrated History. Taschen.