The need for a Portable Macintosh
We take our MacBooks for granted today, tossing them into our bags without much of a second thought. But when exactly did Apple make its first foray into mobile computing? The answer lies with the fascinating tale of the Macintosh Portable, Apple’s first (and worst) attempt to make a mobile Mac.
Our story begins in 1989. Four years have passed since Steve Jobs was forced out of Apple Computer. Apple II’s, once considered the company’s cash cow, were now close to obsolete. Despite the success with the newer Macintosh line, there was still clearly a gap in Apple’s product lineup. The rise of portable and laptop computing in the MS-DOS-based PC world had left Mac users empty-handed. They demanded a portable Macintosh and would not settle for crudely designed, third-party devices which struggled to garner mass appeal. Apple knew it time was running out for them to bring the Macintosh from desk to lap.
It was, therefore, with great enthusiasm that Apple debuted the Macintosh Portable in 1989. Jean-Louis Gassée, who had been appointed by John Sculley to replace Steve Jobs as the head of Macintosh Development and President of Apple Products, was the natural choice to showcase what Apple had been working on. He introduced the Macintosh Portable on stage at a shareholder’s meeting, just as Steve Jobs had done for the original Macintosh in 1984.
In a slightly strange but nevertheless entertaining presentation, Gassée assembles a Macintosh Portable on stage without any tools. By doing so, he highlighted the Macintosh Portable’s unique construction – an entire computer held together through a complex system of plastic tabs and catches. There was not a single screw involved. Gassée at one point proudly states: “This is the most complex piece of plastic we have ever constructed” – Though I am not entirely sure why Apple thought that was a selling point to investors or consumers. I highly recommend watching the presentation for yourself – it is fascinating to watch the introduction of an Apple product that would be remembered for being one of Apple’s few flops.
An underpowered portable or an unportable laptop?
As Gassée “builds” his computer on stage, his portable Mac grows less and less portable. He pulls out a 35 cm by 40 cm (11.8 by 15.7 inch) square ABS plastic base. He adds a thick plastic chassis. And then a full-size trackball mouse. A full travel keyboard. A 3 lbs LCD module. And to top it all off – a 3 lbs, sealed lead-acid battery – similar to the kind used in cars. The result? A Macintosh that weighs almost as much as a typical A/C-driven, desktop Macintosh.
Perhaps that comparison is slightly unfair as the weight of the Macintosh SE does not include the keyboard, but the point remains: what would compel Apple to design a computer that looks like a laptop but is just as heavy as a desktop? To answer that question, we need to understand the portable computer market in 1989.
The Portable Computer Landscape in 1989
In the late 80s, one could choose from three general types of portable computer. There were the luggables/portables that usually needed A/C power. These offered near-desktop performance but were typically heavy, bulky, and not really all that portable (despite many brands, including Apple, naming them as “portable”). Available also were battery-powered laptops which were slightly more portable, but as a trade-off, had less functionality and computing power. Finally, there were the proto-notebooks & tablets, which, whilst appearing tempingly portable, had severe limitations in functionality and computing power.
As you can see, computer shoppers at the time had quite a selection to choose from. Apple, arriving late to the portable computer market, was trying to stand out in a very crowded room. Each class of computer had distinct advantages and disadvantages and specialized towards certain customers’ needs. For example, some ultra-portable computers like the NEC Ultralite were extremely lightweight and portable but had very limited functionality (no in-built floppy drive, no hard drive, and was quite slow). Others, like the briefcase-shaped IBM P70, were not very portable at all but were as powerful and feature-rich as most desktops.
At the forefront of the portable computing revolution were the laptops. These computers were in the “Goldilocks” zone – just the right balance of power and portability. They were more powerful and functional than the ultra-portable proto-notebooks and palmtops and yet were much more portable than the A/C-powered luggables. Though the portability offered by early battery-powered laptops was a welcome development, they were notorious for quickly running out of juice. Laptop battery technology was relatively unsophisticated in 1989, and most laptops could barely manage 90 minutes of continuous use on a single charge. Technology had only advanced so far and had yet to deliver a battery-powered truly mobile portable laptop that was as feature-rich & powerful as a desktop – such a computer would not arrive until 1992 with the introduction of the IBM Thinkpad 700c.
A Portable Identity Crisis
We can see how the limited battery life of laptops at the time could rationalize Apple’s decision that a long-lasting battery would be a necessity for a battery-powered Mac. Solving this “battery paranoia” (as termed by Gassée), was viewed as crucial for success. It seems, however, that Apple may have overshot the mark. The Macintosh Portable offered an insanely impressive 10-12 hours of battery life, which was possible by using a lead-acid battery (along with a special low power, Motorola 68HC000 CPU and low-power RAM chips). The catch? The lead-acid battery weighed over 3 lbs, the CPU was slow, and the RAM chips were expensive.
The resulting Macintosh Portable has an unusual mixing and matching of features. It borrows design elements normally only found in laptops (a low power consumption CPU and a battery) and yet doesn’t incorporate a typical portability-enhancing design. In fact, the defining features of the Macintosh Portable, from its amazing-to-use full-size, full-travel keyboard, large trackball mouse, full selection of ports, internal expansion slots, and general lack of miniaturization, are typical of a luggable. The resulting blend is a machine with a conflicted part-laptop, part-luggable identity that did not fully appeal to those seeking portability nor to those seeking performance.
It is indeed a paradox – the large-capacity battery indicates portability, as it was to be used anywhere, for long durations with no mains power. Yet having the full “Macintosh experience” (full-travel keyboard, the full selection of ports, and general lack of miniaturization) inhibits portability. Furthermore, the built-in trackball suggests that the portable was intended to be used on a lap, away from a desk where a traditional mouse would be more appropriate. In essence, we have a laptop that doesn’t care for portability, or we have a luggable that is trying so very hard to be a laptop (in shape) but with fully uncompromised, chunky, desktop characteristics. .
Whilst one might get the idea to put this desktop-sized laptop computer in their lap, they would quickly learn of their mistake. At 7.2 KG (16 Lbs), using the Macintosh Portable like a laptop causes waves of pain to slowly emanate from your knees (trust me, I tried). Unless you’re a bit of a sadomasochist (or, perhaps, just training your legs), it is obvious in reality this computer went from desk to desk, and not from lap to lap. Though the name is accurate – it is after all called the Macintosh Portable (as in luggable), not the Macintosh Laptop.
This confusion in identity persists to this day, with websites often referring to the Macintosh Portable as “Apple’s first laptop”, which as we can see, is just not really true.
A Marketing Misunderstanding?
Although the design philosophy of not compromising on full-size features for greater portability is obvious, it’s evident that communicating this idea was not easy. Developing a marketing strategy for the Macintosh Portable would have been understandably problematic – selling a computer with a seemingly oxymoronic name must have been immensely challenging.
In its promotional video, released as a mock documentary to demonstrate the portability and features of the Macintosh Portable, showcases 3 strange users: A fireman, a police detective, and most bizarrely, an extreme-environments film producer. His segment is the best: at one point the Portable is being casually toted up a sand dune, and in another, all 16 lbs of it are being swung onto a rock for spontaneous mid-desert data entry (all the while looking suspiciously lightweight). I’d be willing to bet that Macintosh Portable in those scenes had the lead-acid battery and hard disk removed. The film producer attempts to convince us of its portability further with appropriate late 80s marketing puffery: “We had to climb 90 feet up into the jungle canopy… In addition to bringing a camera, it would be just as easy to bring the Portable Mac“. Yeah, right. Check it out for yourself below:
The Blame Game
Perhaps the most perplexing question, therefore, is why. Why did Apple manufacture a dated luggable-portable, instead of a slightly feature-compromised but more modern and compact laptop? Surely, this would be something that Mac users really wanted? Why did they seemingly not bother with portability much, if at all? And why did Apple not know how to market what they had made? How had so much gone wrong?
Well, we will never know exactly what happened, as Apple closely guards its secrets then and now, but we can piece some things together. Gassée claims at the time he already thought of the Macintosh Portable as being too clunky and had already wanted to approach Sony to assist Apple in miniaturization:
“Another project, the Mac Portable, isn’t as successful. Convinced it’s going to be too big and heavy, I want to bench the project lead and ask Sony to partner with us to develop a much smaller portable Mac. It seems like a perfect marriage: Sony is already a well-liked Apple partner, and their talent for miniaturization, aesthetics, and good manufacturing is indisputable. I get strong push back on the proposed moves, complete with accusations of being anti-American. I lose my nerve and capitulate.”Excerpt from: MondayNote.com (full article here)
We don’t know who gave the “strong push back” exactly – though he implies it was John Scully, judging by the rest of the blog post. Of course, this is only his side of the story and I must say I find it a little hard to believe that the Head of Macintosh Development would have simply capitulated in allowing Apple’s first mobile computing device to be as heavy as a desktop. There has to be more to his story than he has shared.
Whatever happened, it didn’t end well for Gassée, as he was forced out of Apple a year after the Macintosh Portable was launched. John Scully and the board were apparently dissatisfied with Gassée’s performance at delivering new products and forced his removal. So who’s telling the truth? Who was actually responsible for the development of the Macintosh Portable? (If you know, please leave a comment below!)
It seems, one way or another, either through mismanagement or a lack of understanding, the Macintosh Portable was developed as a backward-looking 1980s portable, and not a forward-looking 1990s laptop.
Price of the Bleeding Edge: The Active-Matrix Display
Though the Macintosh Portable was hefty both in weight and price, it did pack a punch with new technology. The Macintosh Portable dazzled people with its display and was the most technologically advanced at the time. It was the world’s first commercially available active-matrix LCD, setting the Macintosh Portable apart. All other portables & laptops were passive matrix – a slight step up from the calculator-like LCD screens of early portable computers but had poor contrast and were notorious for image blur & ghosting. Apple’s active-matrix LCD was revolutionary as each pixel could be toggled and refreshed rapidly, independent from neighboring pixels. This resulting sharp image, even with on-screen movement, allowed for a superb user experience when coupled with the Mac OS GUI. In the end, active-matrix became standard technology in all LCDs (even to this day) due to its superior performance.
Though there is always a drawback to using cutting-edge technology – it’s expensive. Lack of economies of scale and low production yields on the new technology contributed significantly to the Macintosh Portable’s astronomical price. Another side-effect of pushing the technological envelope is supply chain unpredictability. Product ship dates for absolute cutting-edge tech are a closely guarded secret precisely for this reason. It must have been a nightmare for Apple, when, in one of the earliest “Apple leaks“, news broke about an Apple employee releasing internal documents outlining the Macintosh Portable in February 1988.
After the un-intended publication of its plans, Apple took a devastatingly long one-and-a-half years to bring the Macintosh Portable to market (release date: September 20, 1989). Apple had broken the cardinal rule with new tech and had waited too long for it to be perfected. When the Macintosh Portable was finally released, it was already seriously dated. Most manufacturers were shifting focus to laptops, and the remaining portables and luggables on the market were more powerful and portable than Apple’s offering. It almost seems like Apple had forgotten that they were in the fast-paced, high-tech world, where computers were out of date within 18 months. The LA Times summarised it best, by noting at launch: “This machine would have been OK 12 months or 18 months ago. But not today“.
The Problem With Extended Family
In addition to the lengthy delays, Apple also priced what remaining customers they had out of the market. The Macintosh Portable launched with a list price of US$7,499 (equivalent to over US$15,500 in 2021). US$7,499 was a tough pill to swallow for many Mac users – especially since the Macintosh Portable was similar in functionality to a CRT-based Macintosh SE/30 – priced at US$4,369, some $3000 less. It also didn’t help that all Compact Macs had a built-in carrying handle, and were treated as luggable “portable desktops” by many. The only meaningful differentiator of the Macintosh Portable was battery power, but that came with an additional trade-off as, to conserve power, the launch version of the Macintosh Portable had no backlight, greatly limiting its appeal further.
To top it off, the Macintosh SE/30 sported a state-of-the-art 68030 CPU, which could run circles around the Portable’s 68000. Existing Mac users did not see their desires for portability met, and those thinking about getting into Macs balked at the Portable’s astronomical price. Resultingly, stating demand as lackluster would be an understatement for the Macintosh Portable, and Apple sold less than 10,000 units in its first quarter of release. This led to Apple slashing the price of the Macintosh Portable by $1000 in April 1990, just 7 months after launch. The fire-sale tactics could not save the Macintosh Portable and it was quietly discontinued in 1991.
Apple did try to improve the appeal of the Macintosh Portable midway through its retail life by releasing an updated model that incorporated a backlight into its LCD along with a further reduced price tag in 1990. An upgrade option was also available to allow existing users to swap out the non-backlit display for a backlit one (though it cost $1165 for the upgrade). Sadly, this attempt to fix a flaw of the Macintosh Portable did not help much – as though it left the Portable with a much improved backlit display, it reduced the battery life by up to half, resulting in the Portable having a battery life similar to much more portable competing laptops.
If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try, Try Again
A year on from the departure of Gassée, Apple released the Powerbook 100 series of laptops with great success in 1991. The PowerBook was what the Macintosh Portable should have been, and set the stage for modern laptop design in the coming years. With its shallow, condensed keyboard, appropriately sized and repositioned trackball, miniaturized components, and compact footprint, the Powerbook is Apple’s first “true” laptop (one that you could actually use in your lap!).
Not everything in the new PowerBook, however, came from a clean slate – the cutting edge screen module on the Macintosh Portable had been ported over to the top of the range Powerbook 170, and the low-end Powerbook 100 used the same basic circuit design as the Macintosh Portable, with Sony assisting in miniaturization to fit it in the smaller footprint. The PowerBook was truly a laptop for the 1990s, capturing 40% of the laptop market with its updated design and true portability. This left the poor Macintosh Portable looking even more dated than it already did at launch – it is hard to believe that both of these computers were sold retail at Apple in the same year within 6 months of each other.
Though the Macintosh Portable was a commercial failure, it was an essential stepping stone marking a critical juncture in Apple’s history. It marks the point when Apple recognized portable computing would be the shape of things to come and incorporation of that idea into their strategy. All of Apple’s world-transforming products, from the MacBook to the iPod to the iPhone, can trace their roots back to their hefty great-grandfather, the Macintosh Portable.
Whilst the Macintosh Portable might have been a commercial failure, I actually love using mine as a desk-bound Mac:
Why the Macintosh Portable is Actually Amazing – with a tour around the exterior and running Mac OS 7.5.5
Taking a Look Inside the Macintosh Portable – taking the portable apart (with no tools!) & exploring the internals