Apple leaps, and Wallaby hops, into portable computers

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser Mar 1989 (guess) - scanned

With Apple's launch of a portable computer still a couple of weeks away, it is with great apprehension that I embark on this week's column. By the time you read it, you will have the wisdom of hindsight. You will know exactly what the company has announced. I am currently trapped in the pre-launch world of speculation and rumour.

None of my pals who have seen and touched the thing will tell me anything useful. Desperate for information, I started to roam the world's bulletin boards searching for the key words 'Macintosh" and 'portable'.

Eventually, I found what I was looking for on a Silicon Valley board. Some chap claimed he'd just been to a product preview and proceeded to spill the beans. At first, I thought this might be an Apple attempt to throw us off the scent. In the end I decided it must be more or less accurate. I mean, who'd claim a lead acid battery and a measly 68000 processor if it wasn't true?

He talked of a black and white LCD display that could be viewed from 'almost any angle' and which 'wasn't backlit'. He must have been wrong about the LCD, because the viewing angles with that technology are very limited. But I'll stop speculating and turn to the question of portable computers in general.

We've had portable computers for years in the non-Apple side of the PC business. Adam Osborne would claim the first, when he stuck a suitcase handle on the back of an otherwise substantial PC. This relied on an external power source, as did a multitude of followers, the most successful being Compaq and Toshiba. These machines appealed to two types of user - those who genuinely needed to cart personal computer power around with them, and those who regarded a portable as a status symbol.

The battery powered portables arrived in two flavours; those which aspired to the full functionality of their big brothers and sisters - the IBM PC in particular; and those which tried to give convenient portable (usually laptop) computing. Toshiba has done quite well in the former category and companies like Tandy, NEC and Cambridge Computer have scored in the latter. I used an NEC'notebook'computer for years before replacing it with the Cambridge Computer Z88. This is my constant companion and, back at base, I am able to pump information from it directly into either the Macintosh or the PC.

I love the lightness, compactness and long battery life of the Z88. It takes no more space than a bumper A4 pad and probably weighs about the same. Although the display is a useful 80 columns wide, it lacks the clarity of more expensive machines. I use it almost exclusively for typing in words, not even wordprocessing. It has a spreadsheet built in and even its own BASIC programming language. I'm sure that others exploit the machine's considerable resources more effectively but, for writers, the machine justifies its purchase for the wordprocessor alone.

This brings me to wondering exactly what other people on the move do with their portable computers. I guess the notebook users are like me. They use it primarily as a data capture device, ready for uploading to the real computer when they reach their destination. The PC-compatible types probably try to continue with regular office work until the power fails, usually after two or three hours. And the plug in power types simply lug their machines around like a portable office.

When I was in Boston recently, I stumbled across an outfit called Wallaby Systems Inc. They had a really neat Macintosh laptop which would run off batteries or from the mains. It weighs less than 10 pounds, contains a floppy disk, (20Mb hard disk optional), 1 Mb RAM and is expected to retail for just under $3000. It lacks the Macintosh ROMs but the answer is simple - you get a technically minded friend or non-Apple dealer to take the ROMs out of your present Macintosh Plus or SE and stick them in the Wallaby.

The Wallaby can use your existing Macintosh as a peripheral - access its hard disk, use the screen as a second display and so on. But you can unplug it and compute on the move. A removable battery lasts three hours. The company is, presumably, hoping that existing Macintosh owners who crave a portable will prefer this option to that of buying a complete Apple portable.

But, returning to Apple's portable, if the bulletin board report is correct the screen will blow your socks off. Wallaby's is a traditional backlit LCD, although it is very high quality. The Macintosh one sounds as if it has come close to emulating printed paper. This means that people can sit around it and share what's on the sreen. Its battery is rumoured to last from seven to 20 hours with a two to three hour recharge time. That's good enough for just about anyone (and even if it isn't, you could carry a spare). A 40Mb hard disk option means that you could have Macintosh SE style computing in your office, on the move and at your destination.

So Apple's machine looks as if it matches all the requirements of portable computer users. And they get the Macintosh useability thrown in. It's a fairly basic machine, so Macintosh II users would probably regard it as a useful accessory. Mac Plus and SE users will have to agonise over whether to buy one or maybe risk a Wallaby. And new users with a genuine need for portable computing could well decide to consider this as their first and only Macintosh.

Of course if I've been misinformed, I'd like to think that Apple included a full-colour screen and a built in CDROM player.