By Jason Snell
December 21, 2020 9:00 AM PT
20 Macs for 2020: #2 — The original PowerBooks
Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.
In the early days, using a computer was something you did in a space dedicated for that task. You went to the computer lab. You sat at a computer desk. You had to get back to the office to write up that memo or story at the computer. Long after the earliest computers filled large rooms, personal computers were large boxes, usually with large displays set atop them, anchored to a desk or a table.
It should have been obvious from the very beginning that the final form of the personal computer would need to be portable. Why go to a designated computer location when you could do those things wherever it was convenient?
The drive toward portable computers started relatively early in the life of the PC, and by the early 1990s 13 percent of PC sales were laptops. PCs were at the beginning of a long, slow transition that would transform them from devices anchored at desks to ones that could travel wherever the user would take them. In the fall of 1991, that transition was spurred on by a new line of portables from Apple: the PowerBooks.
Apple was late to the mobile computing scene in 1989, offering a “luggable”—the Macintosh Portable—just as the makers of PCs were shifting to thinner, lighter models. The Mac Portable was a flop, but from its ashes rose one of Apple’s greatest triumphs ever.
Unique challenges, unique solutions
Apple faced a challenge with its laptop design that PC makers didn’t. The Mac’s mouse-driven interface required a pointing device, while PCs of this era largely ran DOS and only required a keyboard.
For the Mac Portable, Apple decided that the right approach to adding a pointing device was to flip the mouse upside-down and offer a trackball, so a user could push the cursor around on the Mac screen. It worked well, but placing the trackball to the side of the Mac Portable’s full-sized keyboard was one contributor to the device’s enormous size.
Apple gave the problem a bit more thought the second time around, and came up with a winner. The trackball was effective and could stay1, but it needed to move somewhere else. The PC laptops of this era kept their footprints small by building around their keyboards; the edges of a laptop keyboard went to the sides, and the bottom of the keyboard was at the front edge.
It’s a completely logical design decision that seems ridiculous today, because of course there’s a wrist-rest2 space containing a pointing device between the keyboard and the edge of the laptop. It’s a fundamental of laptop design—and it was invented by Apple out of necessity, because it needed to place a pointing device somewhere and there wasn’t room next to the keyboard.
So the trackball moved beneath the space bar, with mouse buttons above and below in order to accommodate multiple clicking styles3. The rest of the keyboard was directly above, and Apple abandoned the (spectacularly good) keyboard from the Mac Portable to save more on space and weight. At the time, reviewers complained that the keys were slightly smaller than a standard Mac keyboard, though it’s so subtle that I never really noticed! They’re also quieter (good for a portable computer) and mushier (welcome to the world of mobile keyboard compromises).
A complete Mac, mostly
A lesson Apple could have taken from the failure of the Mac Portable was to not try to replicate an entire Mac in a laptop shape, but slim it down into an almost-Mac, something that could be used on the go, but which needed to sync up with a truly capable big brother back at the office. Fortunately, Apple didn’t go down this road: the PowerBook was a real Mac, through and through. When you bought a PowerBook, it became your Mac—not an accessory.
However, Apple didn’t replicate every port on a desktop Mac, pin for pin. On the PowerBook 140 and 170 there were still two serial ports for modems or printers, one ADB port for an external keyboard or mouse, audio in and out jacks, and a slimmed-down SCSI port that required the use of an adapter4 to attach SCSI peripherals. Missing from the first models were any sort of port for an external display; Apple would rectify this in 1992.
Apple’s most clever addition to the PowerBook was an internal slot for a modem. The laptops didn’t have modems by default (in those days, not everyone needed to get online!), but you could buy a modem card, unscrew the bottom of the PowerBook, pop in the modem, pop out a little plastic cut-out next to the SCSI port, and boom, you’ve got a computer with a built-in modem.
To make the PowerBooks more affordable than the Mac Portable, Apple offered lower-end models with a “passive matrix” display, meaning that it refreshed more slowly and briefly displayed after-images—most commonly a ghostly trail that followed a moving pointer. The first models in 1991 were straight-up black-and-white, though future generations offered grayscale and ultimately color. Trading the active matrix display of the Portable and the high-end PowerBook 170 for a less capable display saved $1700—the 170 cost $4599 and the passive-matrix 140 only $2899.
Of course, Apple hadn’t really designed the Mac operating system (it was System 7 in those days) with laptops in mind. The PowerBooks were good, but one thing that made them great were a new set of utilities by clever Mac developers that gave users more control over them. The gold standard was CPU (Connectix PowerBook Utilities), which let you extend battery life by putting the PowerBook’s hard drive to sleep (“spinning it down”) with a keystroke and setting other power-saving settings. It was basically what we think of as the Battery pane in System Preferences today, but in an era where that concept just didn’t exist. I can still remember the keystroke I assigned to spinning down the hard drive (command-shift-delete), and the willpower it required to not type command-S to save what I was writing while the hard drive was asleep, because it would wake it right back up!
These original PowerBooks were thin and light, too—at least by 1991 standards. A PowerBook 140 measured 9.3 inches deep and 11.25 inches wide—”footprint roughly the size of a sheet of paper,” wrote Russell Ito in MacUser—were 2.25 inches thick, and weighed 6.8 pounds. A whole Mac that fit in your backpack and weighed less than seven pounds? That was amazing.
An outlier in our midst
I’m here to sing the praise of the PowerBook 100 series, but there’s one major caveat: I am not here to praise the PowerBook 100 laptop itself. As I detailed in my piece about the Mac Portable, the PowerBook 100 shares the external appearance of the PowerBook 140 and 170, but it’s actually a very different computer.
The PowerBook 100 was essentially a Mac Portable, redesigned and built by Sony to fit inside the new PowerBook enclosure. It was a cult product because while it was slow and lacked a floppy drive, it was smaller and lighter than the other PowerBooks at the time. I appreciate cult products as much as the next person, but I can’t endorse the PowerBook 100. It was a warmed-over remix of Apple’s first failed portable Mac, and didn’t meet the much higher standards of the other PowerBooks.
Apple’s buzz product
The PowerBooks were a revelation, and not just for Mac fans. It seemed to me at the time that it was the first time the Mac had really broken through into the broader public consciousness, or at least the first time since that famous ad aired during the Super Bowl in 1984. People weren’t talking about the Mac, they were talking about the PowerBook. Do you have a PowerBook? I got a PowerBook. I was typing this out on my PowerBook, when…
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Ken Auletta’s New Yorker profile of entertainment mogul Barry Diller, “Barry Diller’s Search for the Future.” The article places Diller’s PowerBook, and Diller’s love for his PowerBook, at the center of a story about a restless executive who is trying to figure out how technology will transform his industry:5
When Barry Diller, the former chairman of Fox, Inc., speaks of his Apple PowerBook, a laptop computer, he grows rhapsodic…. Lifting up his PowerBook, he explained, “I learned it to leave Fox.” A tutor taught him how to use it. The machine’s allure was that it promised a certain kind of freedom—from secretaries, meetings, memos, press leaks. Diller used it to compose his resignation statement; to fax draft copies of the statement to Murdoch and to his own closest friend, the clothing designer Diane Von Furstenberg; to list things he must do before issuing the statement; to sort from his copious address book the three hundred people he wanted to have received the resignation statement before they heard or read about it; to jot down notions of what he might like to do next and whom he might consult. The PowerBook went with him everywhere. Diller punched keys in the middle of meetings, while others were left to stare at the top of his bald head or to listen as he related the many extraordinary feats his machine could perform. “He’s had an unbelievable love affair with his computer,” Von Furstenberg says. “It has expanded his horizon. No question that his relationship with his little screen—which is irritating to everybody in the room—has altered his life.”
Among other things, the machine helped Diller better understand the new video democracy. Through it he could see how technology, with incredible speed, was transforming dumb television sets into smart ones, making it possible for viewers to select, organize, and interact with programming and information rather than passively consuming what was offered on fifty, or even five hundred, channels. The PowerBook became for him a means of looking into the future, for he uses the laptop the way Apple Computer, which makes it, hopes that people will use a book-size machine, referred to as a personal digital assistant, that is right over the horizon.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more enthusiastic ambassador for a technology product than Barry Diller was for his PowerBook. And while Diller’s love was extreme, it wasn’t that extreme. The PowerBook may have been the first laptop that was easy enough to use to reach a huge new audience who had never really seen the value in personal computers before. The 1990s were an era when mobile devices weren’t in every lecture hall and coffee shop like they are today, but in the era’s own terms, you saw PowerBooks everywhere—and in spaces where you had never seen a computer before.
In the fall of 1992, I moved to Berkeley to go to journalism school, and brought my Mac SE with me. Those first few weeks of the school’s boot camp course—required for every incoming student—we all basically acted as if we were working for a metropolitan daily newspaper. You’d come in, get your assignment, head out (I spent a lot of time on BART going to cover events in San Francisco), do your reporting, head back to the newsroom, sit down at a bank of DOS PCs running WordPerfect6, and write your story.
Then I got my copy of MacUser magazine in the mail and saw that there were new PowerBooks on the way. And I started to imagine… writing my story on the BART ride back to Berkeley. Writing in a more comfortable part of North Gate Hall rather than the newsroom. Writing… wherever I wanted.
By the end of that semester, I had bought a PowerBook 160. And like everyone else who had come to believe that using a computer meant that you went to where the computer wanted you to be, it was transformational. Like the wrist rest at the bottom of the keyboard on a laptop, the ability to take your tech with you wherever you wanted to go seems so obvious today. But in the early ’90s it was revolutionary.
The inevitable laptop
Viewed from the perspective of 2020, it’s very hard to look at the history of the personal-computer industry and not see the laptop as the ultimate form of the PC. Those people making Apple IIs and TRS-80s and IBM PCs might not have known it, but in order to reach the masses, computers were destined to evolve into forms that served those masses better.
The original PowerBooks didn’t start that trend. But they were an important part in popularizing laptops, and contributed some design changes that would become the standard for the entire category. They were that rare combination of legitimately great at the time and incredibly influential in hindsight. I love them.
Barry Diller knows what I’m talking about.
I’ll see you next week with number one.
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