A Brief History of Mobile Computing

This is the English version of the posters at a booth I presented at VCFB+Classic Computing 2017 in Berlin Germany.

This small exhibition aims at giving an overview on the development of Mobile Computing using computer models that were the “first” implementing relevant new aspects to the field. Often, also the second models are mentioned. These computers are sometimes not the most often sold models at that time (as often, they were quite expensive because they offered something new in a time that this new feature was not commonplace and required expensive components), but, by and large, they at least sparked competition and created markets.

Let’s start in the not-mobile field.

B1981These are, of course, a small selection of the most popular models of the early home computer era (yes, there are some important models missing, but that’s not the point here).

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These are the two first representants of computers that were meant to be transported and that, therefore, made compromises in terms of e.g. screen sizes for the sake of size, compactness, and weight.

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In contrast to the computers of the last poster, these computers were also meant to be used without a need for a power socket nearby. People are often baffled by the HX-20 to be the first one that integrated a battery because it looks still quite modern by its very compact form factor and the number of features it includes. The HX-20 also was a very popular computer and you will have no problems getting one from ebay for relatively small bucks. The Data General ONE is not the second computer with batteries, but the first PC with batteries.

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These computers now are the first ones that deviate from the traditional usage-by-keyboard to a new paradigm that is more appropriate to truly mobile computers: the pen-and-notepad. The GRiDPad 1900 is (by and large, see the last poster) the first mobile computer using a pen (still with cable), and because it is so early, it is using still a keyboard-oriented Operating System (MS DOS). The pen is used more like a mouse. The NCR 3125 is the first mobile computer meant to be used like a notepad. It’s sleek, timeless design still looks good today, but it’s nowadays on the heavy side of things. Both models are very rare today, with the 1900 being especially rarely sighted.

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1993 is the year where notepad-like mobile computers hit the market in big numbers. They differ from the previous models mainly in size and in price. They all aim at sporting a general Handwriting Recognition function in order to come from handwritten pen input to text the computer can process. Unfortunately, this is often also the problem for these early models. Either it basically does not work (PenPad), or it does not really work (Newton first model, Zoomer), at least it requires strong-for-the-time computing and memory resources (440, Newton) that make them still-too-expensive-for-many-users and still-too-heavy for shirt pockets.

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But then, one small company (called Palm) finds a recipe that compromises pen input and computing requirements by replacing general Handwriting Recognition by a special alphabet users have to learn called “Graffiti”. This allows mobile computers to use much smaller CPUs which drives the price down and requires smaller batteries. In addition, the Palm computer family uses small screens, which makes the system very lightweight.

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The pen remains the most important input device for mobile computers until Apple finds out how a mobile computer can work that uses only a finger. It implements these ideas in the first iPhone in 2007, Google copies this idea for the first Android phone in 2008 (some of you will now that the first Android prototype 2006 was keyboard-based, and that the design was switched as a reaction to the iPhone).

And that’s where we are today.

Let’s conclude with the technical data of the mobile models above.

Technical Data

Manufacturer Model Year Weight Price CPU RAM Disk Screen
Osborne 1 1981 11 Kg $1795 Z80@4 MHz 64 kB 204 kB 5“ CRT
Kaypro II 1982 13 Kg $1795 Z80@3.5 MHz 64 kB 382 kB 9“ CRT
Epson HX-20 1981 1.6 Kg $795 Hitachi 6301@0.6 MHz 16 kB 3.5“ LCD
DG ONE 1984 4.5 Kg $2895 8086@4 MHz 128 kB 1.4 MB 11“ LCD
Linus 1000 1987 4 Kg $2795 NEC V20@7.2 MHz 640 kB 512 kB 9.5” LCD
GRiD GRiDPAD 1900 1989 2 Kg $2370 8086@10 MHz 1 MB 10“ LCD
NCR 3125 1991 1.5 Kg $4795 80386SL@20 MHz 4 MB 20 MB 10“ LCD
Amstrad PenPad 1993 0.4 Kg $400 Z8S180@14.3 MHz 128 kB 4.5“ LCD
EO 440 1993 1 Kg $2000 Hobbit@20 MHz 4 MB 7.5“ LCD
Apple Newton 1993 0.4 Kg $700 ARM610@20 MHz 640 kB 5.2“ LCD
Tandy Z-PDA* 1993 0.4 Kg $700 NEC V20@10 MHz 1 MB 4.8“ LCD
USR Pilot 1996 0.2 Kg $299 Motorola 68328@ 16 MHz 128 kB 3.3“ LCD
Apple iPhone 2007 0.1 Kg $499 ARM1176@412 MHz 128 MB 4 GB 3.5“ LCD
HTC Dream 2008 0.2 Kg $495 ARM1136@528 MHz 192 MB 256 MB 3.2“ LCD

 

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One Response to “A Brief History of Mobile Computing”

  1. Gavin Says:

    Thank you for this well done list. I’m trying to correct a common misperception that the GRiDPad only ran MSDOS, It shipped with a graphic user interface with handwriting recognition called GRiDPen, rebranded as PenRight! for licensing to other computers. PenRight became pretty ubiquitous on early pen computers since it could run on anything that had MSDOS and came with a full set of development tools. It was also ported to Windows.

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