The laptop turns 35

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Weighing in at a hefty 23.5 lb (10.7 kg), the Osborne 1 was the world's first commercially successful laptop(Credit: Bilby/CC BY 3.0)

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April 3, 1981 marked the introduction of the Osborne 1, the first mainstream portable computer. Three-and-a-half decades later, computers are now much more portable – but how do modern-day laptops compare to the deeper vision that sparked them, and what lays ahead? Gizmag talks with Dr. Alan Kay, the personal computing visionary who came up with the notion of a notebook computer, and Lee Felsenstein, designer of the first commercially successful forerunner to the laptop, to get their views.

The vision

Dr. Alan Kay is a pioneer of personal computing and one of the most influential thinkers in the industry – some of his quotes include the Steve Jobs favorite, "People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware," and "the best way to predict the future is to invent it."

Dr. Alan Kay showcasing a Dynabook prototype(Credit: Marcin Wichary/CC 2.0)

In 1968, then a doctoral student at the University of Utah College of Engineering, Kay was introduced to the innovative way in which the LOGO programming language was being taught to children at a Massachusetts private school. To him, this was the realization of the words of JCR Licklider, a psychologist at ARPA, who had posited that "it is the destiny of computers to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for all people pervasively networked worldwide." (In the early 60s, computer interactivity was very much a new concept.)

On the flight back from his visit, pondering how the classroom experience he had just witnessed could be embodied in an electronic device, Kay quickly concluded that children should not be tied down to a desk. Remembering a 16-by-16 pixel flatscreen display prototype he'd seen earlier that year, he developed the idea of fitting transistors on the back of a notebook-sized display to create a "notebook computer."

Two years later he joined Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where he was a key figure in the development of graphical user interfaces and object oriented programming, among numerous other things. In 1972, while at Xerox, he drew on his earlier ideas to write a proposal for "Dynabook" – a wireless, highly interactive portable computer that would help children learn, create, and think for themselves.

Original illustration by Alan Kay showing children using the Dynabook to learn about orbital dynamics(Credit: Alan Kay)

We asked Dr. Kay about the ideas surrounding the Dynabook concept, including some of the alternative form factors that were being considered at the time.

"In the late 60s, I had the privilege of helping a bit on Ivan Sutherland's first VR system," Kay tells us. "This was a natural future form for a Dynabook (the electronics would be in one's pocket, the displays would be on chips). This is a real destination today, especially given that it supplies wide angle vision in a way that is difficult for a tablet.

"The other main idea that was starting to happen around that time, and especially in the early 70s, was Nicholas Negroponte's ideas about 'the computer as your environment' embedded everywhere in the world. You would only have to carry a small piece of electronics that would tell the system who you were and where you were pointing (Nicholas thought of it as being part of a wrist watch). This is happening more and more today, and Nicholas' research group produced some very compelling demos [video] in the late 70s and early 80s."

Ivan Sutherland's "Sword of Damocles" was an early VR system that Kay helped develop(Credit: University of Utah)

To Kay, the physical form factor of a notebook was never nearly as important as the concept of "service," which roughly translates to the content of a human-computer interaction along with its larger goals. The service model he initially devised for the Dynabook was to "facilitate children 'learning the world by constructing it' via an interactive graphical interface to an object oriented, simulation oriented LOGO-like language."

Once Kay devised the notebook format, he quickly built a cardboard mockup with room for a keyboard and stylus, and experimented with size and weight by placing lead pellets in the hollow frame. In the years to come, the Dynabook design would inspire the computer industry's push toward portable computing.

The Osborne 1

Kay's ideas soon inspired the Xerox NoteTaker, a 1978 prototype developed at PARC meant to showcase the best possible implementation of the Dynabook with the technology available at the time. The NoteTaker featured a then-impressive 256 KB of memory, but also weighed in at a not-too-portable 48 lb (22 kg) and never got past the prototype stage.

But on April 3rd, 1981, something did: the Osborne 1. Named after Osborne Computer Corporation founder Adam Osborne, this was the first commercially successful portable computer and was designed by computer engineer and Homebrew Computer Club moderator Lee Felsenstein.

Lee Felsenstein, designer of the Osborne 1 portable computer(Credit: cellanr/CC 2.0)

"I knew of Kay's Dynabook, and had taken the 'back door tour' of Xerox PARC as of 1973," Felsenstein tells Gizmag. "As a founding board member of Osborne Computer Corporation I proposed that we attempt to build a Dynabook as defined by Kay, but could not find display and memory technologies at necessary prices."

Meanwhile, Apple engineers Blair Newman and Trip Hawkins had come up with the idea for a CP/M portable computer that would feature two floppy disk drives, a CRT monitor and a case that would seal up when closed. But the pitch was rejected by Steve Jobs, and the idea was soon picked up by Osborne to build a business-oriented portable computer. (Hawkins would later go on to found videogame giant Electronic Arts.)

The Osborne 1 designed by Felsenstein exceeded Adam Osborne's specifications. For instance, although the display was only supposed to have a 40-character line, Felsenstein's design had 52 characters.

The Osborne 1 was a commercial success, but the product was short-lived(Credit: Tomislav Medak/CC 2.0)

The Osborne 1 was well received and soon in high demand, but a series of mismanagement issues meant the company grew haphazardly, while Felsenstein was forced to focus on low-level problems rather than the bigger picture.

"I was given 24 percent of the company's founding stock in exchange for the design, and I was named VP of engineering – neither Adam nor I knew what that required," he says. "I acted as if I were the chief engineer, which is a different set of responsibilities, and as a result the necessary engineering input to corporate strategy was given by Adam.

"Osborne's philosophy of product design was 'adequacy is sufficient - everything else is irrelevant', as Adam often proclaimed. At one point, out of Adam's hearing, I quipped that we were 'setting new standards in adequacy.'"

From "luggable" to portable

These problems, along with fierce early competition drawn by the Osborne 1's commercial success, meant it was discontinued in 1983. The Compaq Portable, which first shipped in January 1983, had become its biggest competitor. It was somewhat optimistically named, weighing in at a hefty 28 lbs (13 kg), about 20 percent more than the Osborne, and requiring mains power, but it ran MS-DOS and was the first legal IBM clone.

One of the first truly portable laptop that users could easily carry rather than risk throwing their back out lugging around was 1982's GRiD Compass 1101. The Compass was the first to adopt the "clamshell design" with the screen folding over the keyboard and sported an impressive 320x200 pixel display, but it also came with a premium pricetag of US$8,000 -10,000.

The GRID Compass, shown here with Astronaut John Creighton aboard a Space Shuttle Discovery mission in 1985(Credit: NASA)

"The 'GRiD Compass' was one of the very first flat-screen display portable computers," Kay tells us. "It was in quite a different and higher class than the Osborne. It was done by John Ellenby (who had been an engineer at Xerox Parc), Bill Moggridge, et al. This was a first attempt to do – as they said themselves – a 'Dynabook.' The software on it was less impressive [than the Osborne 1's], but I was able to run Digitalk's Smalltalk on it in an all night restaurant early in the 80s, and that was a thrill."

The following year saw the introduction of the highly successful TRS-80 Model 100, which came with an 8 x 40 character LCD screen and internal modem, weighed in at under 4 lb (2 kg), and was powered by four standard AA batteries. Then, after the success of models like the Toshiba T1100 and the Kaypro 2000, in 1989 Apple decided it was time to enter the portable computer market.

Apple's Powerbooks featured a built-in trackball with palmrests on either side(Credit: Dana Sibera/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Apple's first entry, the Macintosh Portable, was widely seen as a disappointment, but the company would recover two years later with the introduction of the Powerbook series, which introduced a built-in trackball pointing device with palmrests on either side that would later evolve into the trackpad.

Windows 95 and the modern laptop

Windows 95 introduced game-changing advanced power management features that could be controlled from within the operating system itself. This was controversial at first, with manufacturers lamenting that they could no longer fully optimize battery life; however, this apparent limitation also helped create stable standards and practices for most aspects of laptop design.

As the industry quickly gained steam and competition stiffened, laptops underwent frequent but incremental changes. The high-end Toshiba Portégé ("Dynabook Portégé" in Japan) was the first to use lithium ion batteries, Windows 98 introduced robust USB support, and Apple's iBook series was the first to feature Wi-Fi connectivity; Compaq, Toshiba, HP, Acer, Fujitsu, NEC, Apple and Panasonic all shared a piece of the pie.

The One Laptop Per Child no-profit manufactured rugged and inexpensive portable computers to assist children education(Credit: Marcin Wichary, released under CC BY 2.0)

Standing out from the rest was the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which was first announced in 2005 and proposed selling a $100 sturdy and relatively capable laptop to help educate children around the world. As the project shared goals with the original Dynabook idea, Alan Kay got involved.

"When OLPC was starting, I lobbied vociferously for a number of things," Kay tells us. "One was to make a system that could teach any child to read in their native language without the help of an adult. Another was a comprehensive 'cradling' tutor for Etoys [an intuitive visual programming environment], especially the first hour's experience or so." (Later on, OLPC would switch focus to the tablet form factor.)

Tablets, netbooks, and the computing revolution that's yet to come

The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and of the iPad in 2010 changed the game once more. Suddenly, the rise of "post-PC devices" and the laptop's many variations – netbooks, two-in-ones, and so on – gave users many more form factors to choose from, and that is where we stand today.

But even though all of these devices have made it easier to stay connected and consume content on the go, they are really just a more convenient way of perusing old media, while content creation remains a challenge.

"It's worth noting that after many years, both the MicroSoft Surface and the iPad Pro have arrived at needing both a stylus and a keyboard," Kay tells us. "Why was it so easy to do this thinking in the 60s to come to this conclusion for the Dynabook and why did it take decades to finally realize this in just the last few years?"

The iPad Pro adds keyboard and stylus to the tablet format(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

To Kay, the promise of a true Dynabook still hasn't been realized. When he first conceptualized a notebook computer, he looked past the specific form factor and envisioned personal computers as the greatest invention since the printing press. In Europe, Kay says, it took 150 years after its invention to understand the true potential of Gutenberg's revolutionary invention: in much the same way, these days we still find ourselves in the gap between the invention of the personal computer and the realization of its true power to change the way we think and learn.

To end, we thought it fitting to ask the designer of the first commercial laptop whether he believes the laptop still has a future.

"The laptop form factor – which we were approaching at Osborne – will be with us for quite a while – one may say as long as there are laps," Felsestein says. "Fingers cannot be miniaturized, displays can only be reduced so far (but they can be projected to the outside world and viewed while retaining privacy). Even so, fingers remain exquisitely expressive and are conveniently located, as are eyes."

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