Message: 42
Date: 12.1.96
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Laptop Envy

Henry Ford would be amazed by today's automobile ads. He'd find no mention of horsepower or acceleration. Instead, he'd find references to seemingly trivial accessories - automatic door locks, dimming mirrors, built-in cup holders, and the like. But he would have little cause for alarm. Form over function is often the path of mature products. It isn't necessary to mention basic features like the engine. Instead, lesser details creep to the foreground and provide character and uniqueness.

Shortly, that shift will transform portable computing. My guess is that our children will never see a laptop characterized by the speed of its processor. Already we see that the form factor - the machine's physical shape - is more important than the speed of its microprocessor.

My first laptop was a Sony Typecorder, released in early 1980. This svelte machine weighed 3 pounds 4 ounces, ran endlessly on four AA batteries, and offered a full-sized keyboard and built-in tape drive. Its most noticeable drawback was the one-line LCD, but I quickly got used to it. The Typecorder expected a market with journalists. And for this reason, the modem only uploaded - it literally had just one suction cup for attaching to a telephone mouthpiece.

Pretty primitive, but, boy, did I get a lot of work done with it. I suddenly found use for the interstices of life, the little wasted times, where I might otherwise nod off, doodle, or daydream. In fact, I used my Typecorder to write almost every proposal to fund the Media Lab's construction.

In those days, though, a laptop often became an attractive nuisance. Working on an airplane was difficult, as people interrupted me to ask what the device was. It became easier to use pencil and paper during short flights until I perfected my body language to provide an easily readable Do Not Disturb sign.

In 1983, a young Japanese genius, Kay Nishi, designed the next-generation laptop, marketed simultaneously by Olivetti, Tandy, and NEC and first built by third-party Kyocera. These too were lightweight machines with full keyboards, powered by four AA batteries. But Kay's design had an eight-line display. Though none of the models had the same brushed-aluminum elegance of the Typecorder, they were several steps ahead and included support for a full duplex modem. I used my NEC PC801A for almost 10 years before switching to a PowerBook 180, which I still use today.

But the evolution of laptops has gone somewhat downhill.

Common PINs
Now when I travel, almost everyone is pecking away at a keyboard. The one-line monochrome message has evolved into a full-color, 12-inch display. That is enormous progress, but at a powerful price. I now carry eight to ten battery packs during long trips. I won't even consider a laptop design that includes unstackable batteries. The fact that most batteries don't indicate their charge state is pathetic. It's as if the designer assumed that the laptop would always be used plugged in, and that people would travel with one spare battery at most.

While advising a large Japanese firm on its future laptops during the late 1980s, I discovered that Japanese designers viewed them as movable desktops. Small homes and offices made it necessary to put a machine away and take it out again. They were designing machines that would never see a lap and would fit perfectly into a culture that drew hard lines between home and office, work and play.

But portable computers are also for peripatetic, digital people. These are people who need more than a high-octane computer - they need a constant digital presence. Under these conditions, the value of some features suddenly changes. For example, lightness counts, but ruggedness counts more. I have abandoned PC card modems because their connector is too delicate; I prefer shoving the RJ-11 into the back.

Today, flight attendants don't ask me what's on my lap; they ask me if it has a CD-ROM - in which case the FAA says I can't use it inflight. I doubt laptops radiate a big enough electrical field to be hazardous, but I'm certainly not going to argue, even if this falls on the ridiculous side of the safety issue. And forbid that laptops should be fully prohibited (as they were for a while on Korean Air). If that happens, there will be something new to envy and market: tempested laptops, the machines the intelligence community uses to avoid radiation leaks (so spooks and counterspooks cannot snoop from a distance).

Real envy
Laptop form factors have approached their limits. Face it - keyboard size is driven by the size of your hands: you don't want your machine to be less than 11 inches wide. The screen probably ought to be about 8 inches tall, hence the machine needs to be 8 inches deep. And, if the machine gets too thin, it will become structurally awkward, if not uncomfortable. In fact, you want a certain amount of weight so it won't slide around.

Even the display has limits. You really don't need more than 100 pixels per inch. Today, display brightness and contrast are more important than resolution - so there goes power again (until somebody invents a good reflective display).

But I do have one new requirement - something that planes and boats have and cars soon will. I want my laptop to know where it is. At a basic level, this means knowing about time and time zones. However, I mean something much more refined, including the ability to correlate longitude and latitude with cities, so that my laptop will know what town it's in, what language to use, what local telephone numbers to dial, and what protocols to use for Net access. Let it worry about changing dial tones or the need to use pulse versus touch tone.

Computer vendors: You have the form factor about right. Stop producing smart-looking, power-hungry machines, and move toward simple-to-use, smart-acting machines. A simple start is letting my laptop know where it's situated.

Next Issue: The Future of Paper

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[Copyright 1996, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 4.12 December 1996.]