In 1985, the laptop was dead and buried, apparently

18 Jan 2016

Back in 1985, the internet was still something only used by the military and universities, but some involved in the tech industry had already predicted that the concept of portable computing was as good as dead.

There’s no denying that misguided tech predictions are always an absolute joy to look back on with your biggest pair of hindsight glasses, in particular ones that have dismissed a future of instantaneous global communication, such as a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) saying that satellite communications wouldn’t take off.

Or how about Steve Ballmer back in 2007 who deserves a massive facepalm for suggesting that Apple would never be able to corner much of the mobile phone market share with something called the iPhone.

But we’re looking at one piece of journalism that equally falls into this misguided category written by journalist Erik Sandberg-Diment over 30 years ago with the boring title, The Executive Computer.

‘The portable computer is a dream machine for the few’

As I sit here writing on my laptop, which I use every day, along with my other laptop, mobile phone and tablet, Sandberg-Diment asks: “Whatever happened to the laptop computer?”

Oh, Erik. Of course, to give it context, at the time that this article was written there were very few personal computers at all, let alone one you could take on-the-go, and it was even just before the first proper release of the first true widespread operating system, Windows 1.0.

Which is also funny due to the fact that, a year before, Sandberg-Diment had dismissed any hopes of Windows becoming a success.

Anyway, in the article, he cites the example of his annual trip to Comdex in Las Vegas (oh, how CES would look to them now) where a year earlier his flight would have contained other people with portable computers, yet a year later, they had all disappeared.

“Was the laptop dream an illusion, then?,” Sandberg-Diment mused. “Or was the problem merely that the right combination of features for such lightweight computers had not yet materialised?

“The answer probably is a combination of both views. For the most part, the portable computer is a dream machine for the few.”

Taking a laptop fishing?

Let’s give him some credit here; at the time the technology and hardware sizes were just nowhere near the small scale that we have achieved today, thereby making laptop computers more like sewing machines rather than powerful calculators.

Also citing costs of thousands of dollars and no reputable software (again, just missing out on the launch of Microsoft) he says that a future where laptops are used was still possible, but only in limited sectors.

“Where these machines could shine is in such specialised field applications as those required by the military, the Internal Revenue Service, accountants and sales representatives.

“The largest of these markets is probably sales, and special software to meet the needs of sales representatives is beginning to dribble into the marketplace.”

And yet, the beautiful hindsight that we can now all enjoy lies in his last sentence which says that personal computing will be left to the niche audience rather than … people who fish?

“Because no matter how inexpensive the machines become, and no matter how sophisticated their software, I still can’t imagine the average user taking one along when going fishing.”

I must remember to take my laptop out fishing next time.

Gigglebit is’s daily dose of the funny and fantastic in science and tech, to help start your day on a lighter note.

Retro laptop image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic