For years, one of the greatest ironies about portable computers was that nobody was taking them anywhere.
Back in the early 1980s, many of these machines were the size of sewing machines and weighed a hefty 20 pounds. They were called "portable," but they were barely so. "Luggable" was a more accurate description. Consequently, they were carried as rarely as possible. Many people used their portables as desktop computers.
By the late 1980s, the situation had improved dramatically. Development of lighter keyboards, disk drives, screens and batteries had slimmed most portables down in size and weight.
But the typical laptop computer still weighed in at a less-than-svelte 12 pounds. "Laptop" in this context is a relative term; anyone who tried to use one on his or her lap would lose thigh circulation in half an hour.
Little wonder then that in 1989, when Zenith Data Systems commissioned a survey of portable computer users, the great majority of the respondents said they used their machines at home or in the office but rarely on the road.
Based near Chicago, Zenith Data assembles portable computers at a factory near St. Joseph, Mich., and is a leading manufacturer of portable computers.
That was then. Today portable computing has taken another quantum leap in the smaller, lighter direction.
Today there's a whole generation of affordable machines with bright screens, decent battery life and full-size keyboards, each the size of a ream of typing paper and weighing five to seven pounds. These are called "notebooks." And, for once, the name fits.
"The notebook category has grown the quickest in the last two or three years," said Matt Mirapaul, Zenith Data Systems spokesman. "The notebook is a 5- to 7-pound computer that delivers functional performance but isn't a high-end machine."
It also isn't perfect. As a person who carries a 7-pound notebook computer to work every day, I can tell you I'm always glad to put my notebook down after a long walk. Even so, it is light enough that I don't groan at the thought of having to take it with me.
So it doesn't surprise me that this year, when Zenith Data repeated its survey of portable users, it found that as portables have gotten lighter, they have become much more widely used.
Compared with the earlier survey, twice as many people reported they use their portables in plants or warehouses, 25 percent more use their machines in indoor customer sites and 50 percent more use their machines at outdoor customer sites. Higher percentages of users also reported using their machines on airplanes and trains.
And more than three times as many respondents said they use their portables in "other locations," including field research labs, outdoors near homes, libraries, schools or training sites, in field inspections, and so forth.
The differences become even more dramatic when you break out the same statistics for salespeople, who Zenith Data acknowledge are at the heart of the notebook market.
In 1989, just 2 percent of salespeople reported using their machines in plants or warehouses, compared with 13 percent in 1991. Use in hotels or motels soared from 30 percent to 50 percent of respondents. While 17 percent used their machines in airports in 1989, 50 percent reported doing so in '91. Use at indoor and outdoor customer sites and "other locations" all were up dramatically.
Mr. Mirapaul, the Zenith Data Systems spokesman, said the survey results reflect interesting trends in computing, trends that suggest computers are making U.S. business more productive and efficient.
"One thing we think this demonstrates is that as people learn how to use portables and the sorts of applications that work on them, we see them working more and more in new places."
We are seeing more and more executives writing speeches on their notebook computers while flying on airplanes. We see more clerks using computers to take inventory. More salespeople are sealing deals by calling up boilerplate contracts on a twisted crystal screen, then printing them out using 3-pound battery-operated ink-jet printers.
Ergonomic factors make it unlikely that portables with keyboards can get much smaller. I recently tried to take notes using the latest 1-pound palm-top manufactured by the British-based Psion Inc. I had to type with my thumbs. It was a cross between playing Nintendo and eating a sandwich.
But it seems safe to assume that as notebook computers become still lighter, they will become a still more common sight in still more places.