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Intelligent Machines

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere

The Compass: mother of all laptops.

Laptop computers have become wildly popular in recent years. Their appeal lies in their portability: the light, compact computers can be taken anywhere, liberating busy people from the confines of their offices. Almost eight million PC laptops were sold in the United States last year, and according to Gartner, a market-research firm based in Stamford, CT, over the next four years, laptop sales will grow at approximately twice the rate of desktop computer sales. Yet the laptop’s basic design hasn’t changed much since it was created some two decades ago.

Back in the 1970s, when computers were anything but portable, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) researcher Alan Kay conceived the initial idea for the laptop. He hashed out a design for a notebook-size portable computer he called the Dynabook. It was pure theory, however: the technology did not yet exist to make the Dynabook a reality, and Xerox was unwilling to fund development of the idea. But another Xerox PARC researcher, John Ellenby, decided to give the notebook-size computer a shot. In 1979 Ellenby founded his own company, GRiD Systems. He presented his idea to Bill Moggridge, of IDTwo, a San Francisco design firm. Moggridge and his team soon got to work, and in 1981 the Compass laptop (above) was born.

The Compass was bursting with innovative design ideas, most of which are taken for granted today. Although hefty by current standards, the eight-pound Compass was much lighter than desktop computers of the time. It had a built-in modem, thin-screen display, and protective metal casing. Its most influential feature by far, though, was its hinged design: when the computer was not in use, its screen could be folded over the keyboard, making the Compass compact and protecting it from damage. In fact, the design was so influential that GRiD Systems made some $7 million by licensing its design patents to other laptop makers such as Toshiba and Sanyo.

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Later, Ellenby founded GeoVector, a San Francisco mobile-device technology company. Moggridge cofounded IDEO, the Palo Alto, CA, firm that designed the Handspring Treo, a cutting-edge personal digital assistant. On their heels other laptop makers would make advances, particularly in power supply design and wireless capability. But back in 1983 the Compass was far enough ahead of its time to be used by NASA on Space Shuttle missions: the Compass was the first PC to travel to outer space. Its influence on laptops today continues to be out of this world.

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