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Tales In Tech History: The Compaq ‘Luggable’ And Portable Computers

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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In March 1983 Compaq introduced one of the first portable computers, and the first to legally clone IBM’s PC – setting the stage for the PC revolution

In a day when people commonly carry around tiny Internet-connected supercomputers in their pockets, it’s difficult to recall the excitement caused by the Compaq Portable when it began shipping in March 1983.

Commonly known as the “Compaq luggable”, it was one of the first IBM PC-compatible computers, made all the more flash by the fact that you could attach the keyboard to form the base of the machine, and then carry it around like a suitcase using the built-in handle.

compaq-portableCarry-on baggage

Resembling a portable sewing machine when folded up, the device was designed to be usable as carry-on luggage on a plane, back when such an idea was a marvelous novelty.

You would need to be fairly fit to make such a voyage, however, with the gadget weighing 28 pounds.

It followed not long after the Osborne 1, generally considered the first commercially successful portable computer, which had launched in 1981 using the CP/M operating system.

Both took their design inspiration from Xerox’s NoteTaker, a prototype developed in 1978 that had never entered production.

Panels on either side of Compaq’s beige machine slid down to reveal connector ports and the AC power socket.

Storage was initially limited to the built-in 128k of RAM and 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, although a software upgrade soon added support for a 10MB hard drive.

It ran Intel’s 8088 processor, which delivered a whopping 4.77MHz of processing power.

IBM PC compatible

But the Portable – Compaq’s first product – had an ace up its sleeve: not only did it feature an all-in-one design, it also ran essentially all the software written for the IBM PC, which had been introduced in 1981.

IBM had instantly become a front-runner when it entered the personal computer business, but at it had underestimated the importance of the computer’s operating system, DOS.

It had licensed DOS from a little-known third party called Microsoft after being unable to form a deal with CP/M maker Digital Research, and more importantly, it had allowed
Microsoft the option of licensing MS-DOS to other computer makers.

Compaq’s engineers were able to reproduce all of the IBM PC’s features based on its technical documentation, and after licensing MS-DOS there was only one missing link, IBM’s copyrighted BIOS providing the underlying boot-up and runtime services.

Compaq solved this problem by writing its own BIOS, and did such a good job of it that the resulting machine essentially worked the same as an IBM PC – something few competitors could manage until Phoenix Technologies and others began selling reverse-engineered BIOSes the following year.

compaq logoSales boom

The Portable thus had two big selling points – it could run IBM PC software without an IBM PC, and it was easy to carry around.

The first of those two factors spurred the PC explosion that continued for 30 years, from IBM PC in 1981 until tablets and smartphones began outselling them in 2012.

The second feature would later inspire the development of ever-lighter laptops and netbooks, and more recently ultra-portable gadgets running the likes of iOS or Android.

Like smartphones today, Compaq saw huge interest in the Portable – sales broke US business records for its first three years.

And it could be argued that the ingredients that made it popular, portability and access to a readily available library of software, are still those driving the growth of iOS and Android today.

Legacy

As for Compaq – whose name is a portmanteau of “Compatibility” and “Quality” – it went on to become the biggest PC maker of the 1990s, and was so important that it negotiated the extension of Highway 249 from central Houston out to its massive rural campus in the late 1980s, with the tech companies that appeared along the route becoming known as the “249 corridor”.

In 2001 it was overtaken in sales by HP, which bought the company the following year and finally discontinued the Compaq brand in 2013.

The Compaq legacy lives on, however: its former headquarters, northwest of Houston, remains one of HP’s largest facilities – even after part of the campus was sold to the Lone Star College System in 2009 and two eight-story concrete office buildings, a 1,200-car parking garage and a central chiller plant were demolished in 2011.

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