In the first of three articles on MIT, Jane Bird looks at the progress being made to make portable computers as easy to use as the telephone.
Forget the Filofax, the essential accessory of the future is a portable computer - the go-anywhere machine that is your diary, address book, mobile phone and work tool all in one. The portable is the natural consequence of the industry-wide trend towards miniaturisation. It is now possible to get the equivalent of an ageing mainframe in a clamshell device that fits in your pocket. Not surprisingly, sales are rocketing.
There has always been a market for mobile computers. The problem was that the technology could not deliver. When Adam Osborne launched the first portable a decade ago it was the size and weight of a sewing machine, and earned the nickname "luggable". There followed a host of similar machines which were carted from one location to another by travelling businessmen, and plugged in to the mains.
But the watershed came towards the end of the 1980s, when advances in microprocessors, liquid crystal screens, disk drives and batteries made it possible to make much smaller machines that could do almost anything that a desktop PC could. For the first time, these "laptops" fitted comfortably into a briefcase. Pioneered by companies such as Toshiba, Compaq and Zenith Data Systems, they triggered a booming market. European laptop sales grew from 458,000 units in 1989, to 725,100 in 1990, according to Dataquest, the market research company.
The smaller the personal computer, the bigger its appeal. Laptops have now been overtaken by "notebooks" which weigh less than 7lbs and take up little more desk space than an A4 notepad, and are priced from about £1,000. Toshiba has remained in the forefront, and Compaq's more expensive models have slipped back, while aggressive players such as Nippon Steel, NCR and Dell have entered the market. Last October saw the launch of the PowerBook from Apple, which combines the friendly and high-performance Macintosh software with a revolutionary keyboard incorporating wrist-rests and a rollerball pointing device.
Dataquest expects that by 1994, annual notebook sales worldwide till top 6.5 million units, while laptop volumes will plunge to around half this level. Overall, portables could account for around half of annual PC sales by 1995, Dataquest predicts.
A portable allows time to be used productively that might otherwise be wasted in airport lounges, or trains. It means you can take a task with you anywhere in the world and continue to work on it. Geoff Vincent, business development manager at PA Consulting, travelled to Hong Kong recently with a PowerBook. "Once I arrived, I had to do the work, write a report, and give a presentation to the client all in the space of a week. Without the portable computer it would have been impossible."
But to make the most of mobile computing it is vital to have accurate telecommunications links. A financial adviser may want to call up life policy premiums from the client's sitting room, or a fertiliser-seller may require the latest product availability and pricing details from the company mainframe while in his customer's office.
This presents problems. The representative could plug his portable in to the client's phone socket to make the computer-call, but this does not look very impressive and would cost the client money. Cellular phones can be used to send and receive data, but the poor quality of the links has made this impractical for many users. It may be frustrating to have a dropped or crackly call when you are speaking but imagine what havoc such interference could play if it occurred during data transmission. An alternative is the data-only radio networks being set up in the UK by companies such as Hutchison, Ram and Cognito. These provide reliable transmission cheaply - a line which would be entirely occupied by one voice can carry 10 sets of computer data simultaneously.
When you get back to the office, communicating with your desktop PC may be no easier. You probably need to switch off both machines while wrestling with cables and sockets to connect them. Swapping disks in and out is another method, but this is cumbersome. One solution is the "docking system" which allows portables to be plugged into superior screens and keyboards when in the office and avoids duplicating processor boxes. Such systems are available from companies such as Compaq, Unisys, NCR and Olivetti. But there is still much work to be done on improving portable communication.
This issue is the most urgent on the portable computing agenda, reckons John Sculley, chairman of Apple Computer. "Communications is one of the biggest problems facing the industry," he says. Last year Apple signed a series of collaborative agreements with industry-giant IBM, all of which were related to computer communications. Conventional radio and infra red wavelengths are among the technologies under development. Sculley also hopes to use his PowerBook as a Trojan Horse because it is capable of running IBM-style disks. The goal is to persuade managers with IBM PCs on their desks to opt for an Apple portable. "We've found that in large organisations people often have more say in choosing their own portable than they do in selecting a desktop pc. Portables are more of a status product - when you carry one around it says something about what sort of person you are," he says. His hope is that once managers discover the friendly Apple Macintosh software, they will put pressure on their bosses to instal Macs on the desktop too.
Another problem with portables is that they are power-hungry - battery technology is not keeping pace with advances in microelectronics. If electronic notebooks are to rival their paper predecessors, the user has to be able to switch off in mid-application and be sure that the machine isn't going to run out before he can get to a recharging socket. Current battery technology may give only one hour of intensive use, although improved versions should provide a 30% longer life between recharges without additional weight. However, a better solution may be the low-consumption processors under development at Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, which make more efficient use of the battery power available. The other vital ingredient for making portables universal, reckons Sculley, is user-friendliness. "This is especially important in the mobile market, because if you are on your own at home or in a hotel room, there may not be anyone down the corridor to help when you get stuck."
Apple pioneered ease of use. Its mouse-pointing device and on-screen icons mean the non-expert can explore the machine's facilities without having to enter lots of complicated instructions via the keyboard. The Power Book range have incorporated these features.
Portable computers have escaped from the fixed screen and keyboard format of their predecessors. Variants include electronic pens, bar-code readers, text scanners and wearable devices. Phone-line or gaspipe engineers could, for example, carry a small one on their backs as they climb poles or go down manholes.
In the past, most portables were bought by pioneering individuals. Now an increasing number are selling to large companies. However, research suggests that the image of the dashing executive using precious minutes in the train, plane or airport lounge, has yet to be realised on a large scale. A survey by the UK subsidiary of AST, the US computer company, found that 37.4% of portable computer use was in the office, 33.8% at home and 19.3% in other offices. Only 9% of owners used their portables while on the move.
The rapid expansion of this market during the next few years will be good for users because prices are bound to fall still further. But advancing technology gives each generation of machines a shorter life in which to generate profits to fund future research. Already many of the big computer names merely put their own badge on portables made in the Far East. Manufacturers will have to move even faster from design concept to production - Hewlett-Packard started assembling its HP 95LX palmtop just 10 weeks after it was first conceived on the golf course.
Apple's chances look good, partly because it has the entire Macintosh base to sell to, and the machine has the bonus of also running IBM PC disks. Sculley's strategy is to combine user-friendliness and communications: "That is the killer combination that we're obsessed with at the moment. Today a computer is something you go to for a certain number of hours per day. Five years from now, it will go with you, carried in your pocket or purse. The aim is to make a portable computer as easy to use as a telephone."