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Portable computing, then and now

Comparing the technologies between 1981 and 2011 can be a reminder of just how good we have it. Slashdot linked to StormDriver on a comparison of the Osborne portable computer and a modern iPad2. The Tech Archive: 30 years of mobile computing. The occasion is the 30th anniversary of the Osborne.

The bar charts are rather lopsided. Price and weight have the iPad 2 nearly invisible. CPU speed, storage, and RAM have the Osborne almost invisible.

Osborne’s three apps pale in comparison to iPad’s array of pre-installed stuff, and hundreds of thousands of programs in App Store.

Battery life? There was no battery in Osborne, the user was supposed to hunt for power sockets whenever he wanted to use his machine. Not really surprising, as you needed a sturdy desk to set it up anyway.

Screen? Five inches of monochrome real estate, 52 characters in 24 lines (yes, back then resolution meant basically a number of letters that can fit on the monitor). Ipad is only twice as large with its 9.7 inch touchscreen, but a 24bit color allows it to display exactly 16,777,216 colors – instead of two that Osborne is capable of.

And the price? Osborne 1 cost $1795, and it was actually considered cheap, even though taking inflation and other factors into account, today’s price would be around $4000. Priced at just $499 for the entry level model, iPad easily steals the show.

The company had a short life, boom and bust. My Dad bought a Kaypro knockoff of the Osborne and I picked up a TRS-80 model 4P that was similar. But these Z80 machines were at the tail end of the first generation PC’s (1G in cell phone talk). The Osborne 1 was released in April 1981. The IBM 5150 PC was released August 12 of the same year. The XT, with an internal hard drive, was released in March 1983, the year Osborne finally folded and the year Stallman announced his GNU project on September 27- and the year Microsoft Windows was announced (10 Nov 83).

The first consumer computers showed up in 1974 but the 1978 introduction of VisiCalc and WordStar in 1979 put them on the map. The 8 bit machines with 64 KB of memory had the market for about four years before the IBM PC ushered in the next generation with 1 MB CPU addressing capabilities. 1985 was when Gateway opened shop and CAT 1 wiring was introduced.

The 80386 was introduced in 1985 and by 1990 it was common in PC’s allowing for more than 1 MB of addressable space. This set the stage for the 90’s when the technology started to mature. By the end of the 90’s, we had hardware running at GHz speeds with GB RAM and hard drives in the 100 GB range. The software also went from rudimentary single user oriented with cumbersome GUI to fully network capable with polished GUI interfaces and the ability to handle many tasks simultaneously. – Remember when it was a big deal in the early 90’s to be able to download a file from a 30k modem network connection, work on a document, and print a document all at the same time reliably and without hassle using OS/2. Since the turn of the century, things seem to have settled down and evolutionary has replace revolutionary.

From the first popular PC’s in the late seventies up to the early 90’s, a decent PC cost $3,000. In today’s currency, that $3k in 1980 is equivalent to $8k in 1980. A 1990 $3k computer was like $5k today. Today’s computers for common use typically run well under $1000.

30 years. That’s about a human generation. And the PC is just one expression of an enabling technology. The PC is just the tip of the iceberg.

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