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Power in Mobility - the Laptop Computer

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Essay title: Power in Mobility - the Laptop Computer

"Alan Kay has remarked that had Vannevar Bush enjoyed working in all-night coffee shops, he would have invented the portable computer." (Press, 1993, p.31)

The laptop computer has had a tremendous impact in the areas of business, education, government, and personal use. The emergence of portable computing and the laptop computer can be traced to the introduction of the personal computer itself. In 1975, the MITS Altair 8800 was introduced. The Altair is recognized as being the first commercially successful personal computer and the launching point for the personal computer revolution (Sysop, n.d.). Almost simultaneously, the idea of portability (in particular for the business-person) became a major focus in the industry.

This new desire for computing portability introduced a number of new challenges. Factors such as cost, weight, power source, screen & keyboard size, overall size, and included software presented great challenges to computer system designers. There is some debate regarding which machine holds claim to being the first portable computer, as portable was a relative term used quite liberally. The earliest portables, while heavy by today’s standards, shared the common characteristic of integrating a keyboard, memory, processor(s), display, and expandability potential into a single unit able to be transported.

In 1975, about one month after the Altair’s debut, IBM introduced the 5100 – dubbed the IBM Portable PC. There were few personal computers available around this time, making the powerful 5100 very attractive as a complete portable system (Sysop, n.d.). At almost 60 pounds and a cost of $9,000-$20,000 however, it was attractive to a small audience. It was designed specifically for professional and scientific problem-solvers. Several years later saw the introduction of what most historians refer to as the first truly portable computer, the Osborne 1 (Bellis, 2005). Released in 1981, the Osborne 1 weighed about 24 pounds and sold for $1795. While the unit itself was still rather bulky, it contained a fold-out keyboard, 5 inch monitor, and two floppy disk drives. Its biggest value however, was the $1500 worth of software that came with it. Unlike the IBM 5100, the Osborne 1 optionally ran on battery packs, enabling true portability. Advances in technology saw the decrease in size of portable computers, as well as an increase in computing power. The Epson HX-20 released in 1982 (and considered by many as the first notebook computer) clearly displays this fact. It weighed 3.5 pounds and came in a small plastic carrying case.

GRiD Systems recognized the potential applications of portable computers, and subsequently designed the GRiD Compass for NASA, to be used aboard the Space Shuttle. Released in 1982, the Compass was also used by paratroopers in the Special Forces (Spence, 2005). By 1986, IBM had released their first computer that ran on batteries, the 5140 Convertible. Apple released its first portable computer in 1989, the Macintosh Portable. Portable computers would continue to evolve into the familiar laptop and notebook computers of today, which in turn are evolving into ever smaller computing devices as technology continues to rapidly advance.

The sudden arrival of the personal computer revolution simultaneously ushered in a desire for computing portability that continues today and into the foreseeable future.

Although the portable computer began as an idea for expanding the productivity of the business person, it has been embraced by a broad spectrum of society. Today you can find laptop computers in the hands of such people as: students, police officers, firefighters, military personnel, utility workers, oil-rig technicians, and game enthusiasts. Academia have also clearly benefited from the use of laptops.

In 2001 at a particular university, aging desktop computers for faculty were replaced with wireless laptops. A survey was conducted in 2003 to both assess the impact of laptop use on teaching and productivity, and determine whether replacing the laptops upon reaching the end of their warranty period would be justified. The results of the study showed nearly one-hundred percent of those faculty who returned the survey felt that the university’s decision to switch from desktops to laptops was a success. Two-thirds of the respondents stated that their laptop had become their primary computer (Savery, & Reed, 2006). The study also found an increasing number of faculty were bringing their laptops to classes, as it allowed instant access to online materials that supplemented the lecture in real time. This is certainly true in my experience, as the instructors in the majority of my college courses find their laptops indispensable.

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