Sunday, March 7, 2010

Laptop (R)Evolution: Where Size Does Matter… A Whole Lot!

It is funny how a couple of things can look so similar yet so different. You might still frown upon Darwin’s Evolution Theory, but the term has almost become synonymous today with anything that, with time, improves itself dramatically.
Yet unlike Darwin’s own theory which started from the tiny to the large, the evolution of laptops has been the other way around- from the gigantic weightlifting equipment to pocket tablets that can slide into your jeans. The principle remains the same- the fittest and the best continue while the weak are eliminated.
collage Laptop (R)Evolution: Where size does matter... A whole 
Portability is the key word for laptops as performance was already on offer in the form of relatively advanced desktops. After portability and size came an ability to perform. Sleek, stylish, powerful and sexy of the today’s modern notebooks came from the bulky, heavy, barely performing ancestors which were conceived less than three decades ago. From the dumb Goliath to the smart David, it was the far too familiar path of NASA and military research that gave the idea of a portable computer.

1970 – 1981 : First Ideas Regarding Portability

There is a point of contention with many till this date about what exactly was the first laptop ever. In 1970’s the idea of a portable personal computer was first thought up by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC. The guy even went ahead and published a paper on that, but that is about as far as the idea got back then. Picked up soon by the others, the generally agreed upon first laptop ever was the Osborne 1. Produced first in 1981 by Adam Osborne, an ex-book publisher founded, it weighed in a whooping 11 kg. If you are surprised, then there is more. The giant came with an unbelievably tiny 5-inch screen, something of a giant cell phone-sized display in a machine that challenged your strength.
osborne1 Laptop (R)Evolution: Where size does matter... A whole 
Osborne 1
Image by Purdueriots
Osborne 1 came with an electrical connection with an optional backup battery, used two 5 ¼” floppy drives, a modem port, the keyboard, a battery pack and a price tag of $1,800 attached to it. So how well did it do, you ask? Well, as well as a Sumo wrestler in a 100 meter sprint; this was not a laptop in any true sense. While it offered portability, you would have to be Shwarzy to carry it around all day.

1981 – 1984 : Gavilan’s First Tries And IBM

But then the Gavilan Mobile Computer came in. Not only one of the very first prototypes to look similar to the current laptop design with a clamshell case, but weighing only 4 kg and with a 9 hours running on nickel-cadmium batteries, for 1983  it was way ahead of the others in both performance and design. Plus, it was Galvin who first introduced and marketed their mobile PC under the term ‘laptop’.
gavilan mobile computer Laptop (R)Evolution: Where size does 
matter... A whole lot!
Gavilan Mobile Computer
Image by Dvorak
Since the advent of Osborne 1 was a vital development as someone had opened up a market that was untapped into earlier, this led to one Bill Gates to come up with an idea of a portable computer with the latest display technology of that time— LCD screens. Kazuhiko Nishi of Microsoft took the prototype to Radio Shack who jumped on the idea and hit production. Weighing in at 2 kilos, Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 Mobile Computer came with a modem, a telecommunications program, a text editor and a program written by Microsoft.
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 Mobile Computer
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 Mobile Computer
Image by Wikimedia
While Radio Shack took the first step towards making laptops look like laptops, IBM successfully managed to take it back by a decade or so by releasing the Portable PC 5155 in 1984. But what did they got so hideously wrong? Nothing much, apart from the fact that its “Portable” weighed in at a breezy 13.6 kilograms had a 9-inch screen that did little of great note and costed a very generous $ 4000. More to it,  you had to plug it in for charge as it had no batteries inside. Okay, so the 5155 was in fact just a movable desktop and thankfully IBM put an end to this monstrosity within a year.
IBM Portable PC 5155
IBM Portable PC 5155
Image by davidmontse

1984 – 1988: Compaq Steps In

Progress in coming years was slow with each company setting its own unique standard and having its own definition for a laptop, but Compaq put an end to most of that nonsense and broke away from the pack in 1988 by shattering the graphics barrier. Achieving VGA resolution with the Compaq SLT 286, it housed a 1.44 floppy drive and 286 processor, but weighed a good 6 kg.
Compaq SLT 286
Compaq SLT 286
Image by Kiberpipa

1989 – 1993:  NEC, Zenith’s MinisPORT and the First Macintosh

That’s when NEC come in and altered the weight trend with their NEC UltraLite model— the first full-function MS-DOS-based portable computer, which astonishingly weighted only 4.4 pounds. The next step on the evolution ladder and the real revolution came as we started to head into the 90s. It started in 1989 with Zenith Data Systems bringing out the Minisport with 640 kb of ram, a 1.44-inch floppy drive, a 2400 baud modem and a 20MB ESDI hard drive. Okay, so you might be laughing at it today, but just remember that this was 1989 and with color LCD display (though not very great), the Minisport was fairly well received.
MinisPORT by Zenith Data Systems
MinisPORT by Zenith Data Systems
Images by DigiBarn
The final step up came from new comers (at the time) Macintosh and their Macintosh Portable— no less than a hefty 8-kilos. It was pretty high-end and truly revolutionary for its time with a 9.8-inch active matrix display at a resolution of 640 x 400 pixels and even a trackball. After the Macintosh Portable, the 90’s started to kick in some real pace and gave complete technological facelift to the world of laptops. By now, most makers had agreed upon what commonly constituted a laptop and what were the things that needed an improvement.
Macintosh Portable
Macintosh Portable
Image by Engadget
By 1993, 256-color screens were already an one good example was PowerBook 165c. But then things went further. We ended up getting millions of colors on the screen, better and lighter notebooks, with even greater flexibility in design and most importantly performance add-ons like the CD-ROM and its evolutionary steps forward. However, to make them popular, there was still one component missing. By the late 90’s laptops had advanced enough to meet the needs of people, but the price could not meet their pockets. Technology was there, but you were scared to even think about buying one, unless you were loaded with cash. The ThinkPad’s and the MacBook’s were here, but who would really buy them?
Powerbook 165c
Powerbook 165c
Image by Excite(Japan)

1996 – 2003 : ToughBooks from Panasonic and Intel processors

It was in 1996 when Panasonic stepped up and introduced a new line of notebooks that would concentrate on the robust mobile computer market segment— the first “true” Toughbook (CF-25). Built to survive falls from heights of up to 70 cm (2.3 feet) and to resist, dust and humidity, it was clear that Panasonic was trying to revolutionize the whole laptop notion. Designed for a definitely new market share (like the military for example)  the new CF-25 had an aluminum alloy case with a solid handle for better carrying and was performing great in demanding environments and extreme surroundings.
panasonic toughbook cf 25 bullets Laptop (R)Evolution: Where size 
does matter... A whole lot!
Panasonic Toughbook CF-25, Bullets Inside!
Image by Myself248
But then 2003 came and the final piece of the laptop puzzle was put together by Intel and it was packing a magical low-power Pentium M processor. That forced a new trend that not only improved laptops immensely, but along with other global factors slashed the prices down and ensured that you got quality at a fair bargain.

Nowadays .. Light as Air, tiny as (Net) Books

Later on, most laptops got Wireless connectivity— be it Bluetooth or Wi-Fi,  DVD drives, advanced graphics cards, wide-screens or “pocketables”, all these making the first Osborne 1 look like an over-weight fool. With Tablet PCs and ultra mobile PCs also just starting to come in, things are only likely to get smaller, sleeker and a lot cooler than ever before.
MacBook Air
Apple Macbook Air
Netbooks emerged during 2007 and represent mini laptops, primarily made for handling simple web applications like email and web browsing. Never meant for prolonged work (anything less than 13.3″ will not really make it) Netbook is an ideal gadget to carry in your messenger bag around the city while surfing the coffe shops and hot spots.
Asus EEE PC S101
Asus EEE PC S101
But the future seems to hold a lot more. A different direction for laptops, with greater variety, portability and some incredulous features that look today  just like a MacBook Air would have looked 20 years ago.
The concepts include Laptops like the Canova Dual Screen Laptop which sports uber-cool two screens, a multi sensitive touch screen and is just like a book that you can open up and read. Then there is DesCom that fits right into your desk, not very fancy, but still pretty innovative. Also, ultra-thin sliding OLED screens could also be the next step with concept models like Compenion and the LG Ecological Laptop.

And the future …

However, our ultimate favorite is definitely Vaio Zoom, a concept that uses  holographic technology inside a thin glass form factor. When shut down, the screen becomes completely transparent while the keyboard stays opaque, but when you turn it on the whole feast begins. That’s right, the future of laptops could be an imaginary display in thin air…
Sony VAIO Zoom

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