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The Mac Portable turns 30 and reminds us of a past of antediluvian laptops

Jean-Louis opened a briefcase for a laptop but there was no laptop: there was a glass of water. The audience laughed with the occurrence, but above all I was expectant at the announcement of the Macintosh Portable , the first Apple portable computer with integrated battery that wanted to be a team without compromises.

But there were a lot of compromises. In 1989 they had to be done, of course, because technology gave what it gave. Still seeing Gassée assemble the equipment from start to finish as if it were a modular laptop – something unthinkable today on Apple computers – is priceless. That Mac Portable makes clear how the evolution in this segment has been spectacular , clearly surpassing that suffered by desktop computers.

Jobs had nothing to do

That Apple was very different from the one we have today before us. John Sculley had taken the reins of Apple in 1983 after leaving Pepsi. He had done so with unique decisions, such as allowing other manufacturers to create “Macintosh conversions” and manufacture clones of Apple equipment.

Jobs had convinced him with the famous “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life?” and that executive would end up following a path too similar to the one that the greats of the PC industry maintained.

That was noticeable on September 20, 1989. We saw Gassée with a shirt and tie, very formal, presenting a portable computer that did not differ much from those first commercial laptops that had appeared years before the hand of manufacturers such as Compaq, HP or Toshiba

A “modular” laptop with many curiosities

The Mac Portable was not too different in the format of those machines, but logically it had a big difference: it finally offered Apple users an alternative to their desktops.

In that team stood out its 9.8-inch monochrome LCD screen, but also a unique lead-acid battery that was an adaptation of those used (and used) in our cars and that allowed to enjoy a surprising autonomy of about 10 hours according to Apple when the normal time was 2 or 3 hours.

It also surprised another detail: its trackball could be placed to the left or right of the keyboard, allowing both right and left handed users to handle this peripheral comfortably.

There were even hidden Easter eggs inside : when you opened the device you could see how the case had been engraved with the signature of the people who were involved in the development of the equipment.

Precisely that ability to place the trackball on one side or another was one of the clear hallmarks of a laptop that we could describe as “modular.”

During the presentation, in fact, Gassée assembled the entire team from its main modules , and ended up turning the screen so that the entire audience could see that the assembly had been a success: the Mac Portable showed the message on the screen “Ta Da!” before an audience totally delivered after that demonstration.

Portable, little

However, the Mac Portable was not especially portable. Its weight was just over 7 kg with the hard drive connected.

In fact, the price was another major obstacle for users: without a hard drive, the price of the equipment was $ 5,800 at the time , a huge figure that made it clear how difficult it was to bring the benefits of a desktop to a computer laptop.

The team never succeeded, and although Apple lowered its price, it was wrong with the marketing of a team that guided small transfers instead of that initial message that invited users to use it – don’t miss the ad in minute 4 : 24 of the previous video – by climbers, by construction workers or by an elegant executive who smiled while carrying effortlessly with that “draggable”.

That message was actually common to other laptops of the time that sold those machines as substitutes for the traditional PC without any commitment .

The Mac Portable was not the first portable Mac as such: manufacturers such as Dynamac, Intelitec or Colby bought parts legally from Apple to assemble their own clones, and among them were Mac OS-based laptops.

As they point out in Fast Company, sales were very small . Dataquest consultancy estimated that Apple sold between 8,000 and 10,000 units of the Mac Portable in its first quarter for sale, and months later the figure would go down even more: it was estimated that Apple sold 1,000 units per month.

The reality was very different, and the laptops that the manufacturers sold us -Apple included- had little laptops , were far from the benefits that much cheaper desktops could offer and their features were only usable by a small minority of users , mostly business.

That failure was a lesson for Apple , which in late 1991 presented its first PowerBook. Those teams no longer aspired to be substitutes for the powerful desktop of the Apple era, and were less powerful, less heavy and less expensive with prices starting at $ 2,500.

Not that it was a small amount, but for many that team did pose a good option. The trackball was placed in the center, under the keyboard – a position that would also end up using the laptop manufacturers of the time then we would adopt with the touchpad – and in a year Apple managed to sell 400,000 of those machines .

That success raised an evolution that was gaining in benefits and turning laptops into easily transportable machines. Then they would arrive their iBook and later the MacBook, and with them a fundamental change in equipment that definitely ceased to be “draggable” to become machines that were no longer “that second computer” to take from one place to another when they needed it.

The laptop was already so good that for many it became the first and only computer they needed in their lives.

Until the smartphone arrived, of course, but that’s another story .

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