Since 1968, when a designer at Xerox PARC conceived of the first prototype laptop - the Dynabook - the computer industry has witnessed a breathtaking succession of innovations in mobile computing.

This year, for the first time, laptop sales will exceed desktop sales, according to market research firm iSuppli.

We've taken a look back at the biggest technology breakthroughs in the evolution of laptop computers since geeks first dreamed of taking their beloved desktops with them wherever they wanted to go.

The Dynabook

This device mock-up is widely considered to be the inspiration for the modern portable computer. Conceived by Alan Kay in 1968 at Xerox PARC, the device was envisioned as "a personal computer for children of all ages".

Kay wanted to create a thin, portable device that had a display whose size approximated that of a real page (Kay figured he would need a screen with 1 million pixels to accomplish this). Unfortunately, the technology required to produce such a device didn't emerge until fairly recently - and even today the Dynabook as envisioned by Kay has not become a reality.

Photo credit: Dynabook IEEE Computer Society

Portable Teletype

The computers of 40 years ago filled entire rooms and yet had less computing power than today's smartphones. But the dream of portable computing was already alive.

In March 1968, you couldn't carry a computer around with you - but you could take your Teletype interface, thanks to the Teletype Corporation's KSR-33.

This little number dented the scales, but it let users connect to a Teletype machine - a device for sending typed messages from one location to another - far from their home base. You can watch (and listen to) a KSR-33 terminal at work in this YouTube clip.

Photo credit: Portable Teletype John Davin

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NEXT PAGE: Osborne1

  1. These devices have helped shape the way we used laptops today
  2. Osborne1
  3. The IBM PC Convertible
  4. The PowerBook 100
  5. The reveolution that was the touch pad
  6. The rugged laptop
  7. The built-in camera
  8. Netbooks


From the first portable computer in 1968 to netbooks, we take a look at 16 different devices that have helped shape the way we use laptops today.

Osborne 1

Geeks on the run rejoiced in 1981, when the first truly portable computer appeared. The Osborne Computer Corporation's Osborne 1 was a gigantic piece of machinery equipped with a 5in diagonal screen, and its own carrying case.

The machine, which also had two full-size floppy disk drives, sold for $1,795 (£1,088) (software included).

Photo credit: Osborne 1 Taringa.net

Grid Compass 1100

The Grid Compass 1100 - the first computer to use a fold-up, clamshell case - brings us closer to a modern-looking laptop design.

Originally designed for NASA and available to consumers in 1982, the Compass 1100 carried 340KB of memory and cost about $8000 (£4,850) including software and a mandatory maintenance agreement. Despite its place in laptop history, the Grid didn't survive long in the marketplace because it wasn't IBM www.ibm.com/uk/en compatible.

Photo credit: Grid Compass 1100 public domain

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NEXT PAGE: The IBM PC Convertible

  1. These devices have helped shape the way we used laptops today
  2. Osborne1
  3. The IBM PC Convertible
  4. The PowerBook 100
  5. The reveolution that was the touch pad
  6. The rugged laptop
  7. The built-in camera
  8. Netbooks


From the first portable computer in 1968 to netbooks, we take a look at 16 different devices that have helped shape the way we use laptops today and in the future.

IBM PC Convertible

By 1985, many tech watchers wondered whether the laptop concept would survive. In a New York Times article, Erik Sandberg-Diment asked, 'Whatever happened to the laptop computer?'.

Sandberg-Diment noted a decline in the number of laptops he saw on airline flights to the Comdex computer show in consecutive years between 1983 and 1985, and asked if this "latest fad" was on its way out.

But everything changed in 1986, when the IBM PC Convertible hit store shelves. Priced at $1,995 (£1,209), the PC Convertible was the first commercially successful laptop - and the first IBM device to carry a 3.5in floppy disk drive.

The IBM PC Convertible weighed more than the Grid Compass 1100. It came configured with 256KB of memory, two 3.5in floppy drives, an LCD display, printer ports, and a basic software suite.

Photo Credit: IBM PC Convertible Fred Jan Kraan

Compaq SLT/286

In October 1988, the Compaq SLT/286 debuted. The first computer to use VGA (640x480 resolution) graphics, it revolutionised portable displays. The SLT/286 had a 20MB hard drive, a 12MHz processor and a keyboard that you could detach from the main body of the machine. It was one of the earliest computers compact enough to fit properly on a (sturdy) airline tray.

Photo credit: Compaq SLT/286 Kiberpipa.org

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NEXT PAGE: The PowerBook 100

  1. These devices have helped shape the way we used laptops today
  2. Osborne1
  3. The IBM PC Convertible
  4. The PowerBook 100
  5. The reveolution that was the touch pad
  6. The rugged laptop
  7. The built-in camera
  8. Netbooks


From the first portable computer in 1968 to netbooks, we take a look at 16 different devices that have helped shape the way we use laptops today.

PowerBook 100

The next big jump in laptops following the Compaq SLT/286 came in 1991, when the Apple PowerBook 100 arrived. Made for Apple by Sony, the PowerBook 100 featured a trackball to serve as the mouse, and a palm rest to make working on the computer more comfortable; soon palm rests became a standard feature on laptops from many other vendors.

Photo credit: Powerbook 100 Danamania

ThinkPad

In late 1992, IBM took the compact design of the PowerBook's pointing device a step further in its new ThinkPad series - most notably the $4,350 (£2,746) ThinkPad 700C, which ran Windows 3.1, had a 120MB hard drive, a 25MHz 486SLC CPU, and a large and lovely 10.4in colour TFT active-matrix panel.

As operating systems advanced and their interface's became more graphical, the need for a mouse increased. Prior to the PowerBook 100, users had to go through the hassle of attaching a mouse to their laptop's keyboard. IBM's solution: a little red stick embedded in the keyboard and dubbed the TrackPoint.

Photo credit: IBM ThinkPad André Karwath

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NEXT PAGE: The reveolution that was the touch pad

  1. These devices have helped shape the way we used laptops today
  2. Osborne1
  3. The IBM PC Convertible
  4. The PowerBook 100
  5. The reveolution that was the touch pad
  6. The rugged laptop
  7. The built-in camera
  8. Netbooks


From the first portable computer in 1968 to netbooks, we take a look at 16 different devices that have helped shape the way we use laptops today.

The touch pad

George Gerpheide invented the capacitance-based touch pad mouse in 1988, but the technology didn't appear on a laptop until 1994, with Apple's PowerBook 500 series. Apple called its version the track pad, and other manufacturers soon developed copycat input devices. The touch pad helped laptops become easier to use and more compact.

The PowerBook 500 series consisted of four models: the 520, the 520c, the 540, and the 540c. The basic specs for the PowerBook 500 series included 4MB of RAM with capacity for up to 36MB, a 25MHz processor, and a 9.5in grayscale display.

Models in the PowerBook 500 series also sported up to 320MB of hard drive space -impressive for the time, but less than one-twelfth the storage capacity of Apple's smallest iPod today.

Photo credit: PowerBook 500 Danamania

The Lithium ion battery

Early in 1994, a year and a half before Windows 95 debuted, Toshiba came out with the first two models in its Portege T3400 series: The $2,599 (£1,576) T3400 carried a monochrome screen, the $3,900 (£2,364) T3400CT sported an active-matrix colour screen, and both ran Windows 3.1.

Advertised as sub-laptops, the new Porteges had a slim look, a fashionable gray case colour, and a high-powered lithium ion battery - considered "the latest in mobile energy technology".

Thanks to the new battery, Toshiba asserted that the T3400 would provide up to six hours of computing time on a single charge. The battery could fully recharge in three hours with the machine switched off, or in eight to ten hours with the machine in operation.

The Portege T3400 series models packed a 486SX processor, 4MB RAM (expandable to 20MB), and a 120MB hard drive. They also featured a PCMCIA expansion slot for extra memory. A contemporaneous Toshiba brochure covers the essential points of the machine's appeal: compactness, usability, mobile power, status. Nothing much has changed on that front over the years.

Photo credit: Toshiba T3400 Ian Johnston

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NEXT PAGE: The rugged laptop

  1. These devices have helped shape the way we used laptops today
  2. Osborne1
  3. The IBM PC Convertible
  4. The PowerBook 100
  5. The reveolution that was the touch pad
  6. The rugged laptop
  7. The built-in camera
  8. Netbooks


From the first portable computer in 1968 to netbooks, we take a look at 16 different devices that have helped shape the way we use laptops today and in the future.

The rugged laptop

In 1996, at a time when most computer makers were training their efforts on slimmer and faster models, Panasonic aimed for thick-skinned and break-resistant.

The result was the Toughbook CF-25 - the first model in a line of rugged Panasonic Toughbooks that continues to this day. The CF-25 was designed to survive 2 foot drops and to withstand dust and humidity. The original Toughbook came in an aluminum alloy case, and came loaded with a 166MHz Intel Pentium I processor, up to 96MB of RAM, and (typically) a sub-1GB hard drive.

Though the laptop's internal specs didn't match its burly appearance, the original Toughbook did enable people to operate a computer at disaster scenes, on battlefields, and in other places where regular laptops might easily expire.

Photo credit: Toughbook via eBay

The iBook G3 and the birth of the wireless card

The iBook G3 was one of the many innovative ideas Steve Jobs brought with him when he returned to the helm of Apple in 1996. At the 1999 Macworld Expo in New York, Jobs wowed the crowds by taking the iBook for a spin across stage as he surfed the internet, debuting the first laptop with a wireless card.

At its debut, Jobs described the iBook G3 as the second-fastest portable computer in the world (he claimed that the PowerBook was the fastest).

The 1999 iBook G3 also freed computers from their boring, square boxes with candy-colored designs. Check out this YouTube video for the wireless revelation (it occurs at around the 5:15 mark).

Photo credit: iBook G3 James C. Benedict

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NEXT PAGE: The built-in camera

  1. These devices have helped shape the way we used laptops today
  2. Osborne1
  3. The IBM PC Convertible
  4. The PowerBook 100
  5. The reveolution that was the touch pad
  6. The rugged laptop
  7. The built-in camera
  8. Netbooks


From the first portable computer in 1968 to netbooks, we take a look at 16 different devices that have helped shape the way we use laptops today.

The Built-in camera

Apple thrilled the world with clean styling and wireless networking, but the iSight camera found in today's MacBook has a Windows 98 ancestor. In 1999, Sony unveiled the $2299 (£1,818) VAIO C1 PictureBook. The laptop was quite compact, and included (just above the display) a built-in camera that could capture still images and up to 60 seconds of continuous video.

The PictureBook also represented an early stab at what would become known a decade later as a netbook. It was only 1.45in thick, and it came without an external floppy or CD-ROM drive.

Photo credit: Sony PictureBook Sean from Livesmallbag.com

Ultraportables

As the 21st century dawned, laptops were getting much faster, with bigger hard drives and better graphics. In the third quarter of 2008, laptops surpassed desktop PCs in sales for the first time, and the push was on for ever-lighter, ever-faster machines.

The ultimate expression of that movement was Apple's MacBook Air , unveiled in early 2008.

True, the Sony VAIO X505 of 2004 was an impressive achievement in thin-and-lightness, but the Air reshaped the public's idea of how slender a computer could be. Sporting a newly designed chip from Intel and a non-removable battery - but no optical drive - the Air delighted the crowds at Macworld 2008.

Newsweek technology columnist Steven Levy discovered just how slim the Air was when his test machine (on loan from Apple) disappeared one day. At first Levy thought that someone had stolen the machine, but ultimately he concluded that his wife had accidentally tossed the superthin device into a trash compactor amid a pile of newspapers. No doubt that particular Air ended up even thinner.

Photo credit: MacBook Air Apple

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NEXT PAGE: Netbooks

  1. These devices have helped shape the way we used laptops today
  2. Osborne1
  3. The IBM PC Convertible
  4. The PowerBook 100
  5. The reveolution that was the touch pad
  6. The rugged laptop
  7. The built-in camera
  8. Netbooks


From the first portable computer in 1968 to netbooks, we take a look at 16 different devices that have helped shape the way we use laptops today and in the future.

Netbooks

The Asus Eee PC is widely recognised as the computer that sparked the netbook craze in late 2007. But in 2005 - long before the Asus Eee PC came out - Nicholas Negroponte was touting his concept of a £100 laptop at the World Economic Forum (a Swiss nonprofit foundation) in Davos, Switzerland.

Negroponte's dream eventually became the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO, which sells for £275 and is meant to put an Internet-capable computer in the hands of every underprivileged child in the world.

The public responded positively to the idea of a laptop with a hand crank that would sell for so little money. When OLPC offered the XO in a give-one/get-one scheme in late 2007, the enthusiasm for this little computer skyrocketed.

Intel and Microsoft quickly followed the XO down the supercheap, superportable path, and suddenly the netbook was the fastest-growing segment of the computer market. The Eee PC may have reached market first, but the XO is the machine that caught the public's attention.

Photo credit: OLPC's XO One Laptop Per Child

Tablets

The web tablet looks to be the next major evolutionary stage in portable computing. Such tablets have yet to emerge, but at least one real product, the CrunchPad, is getting close.

Reportedly the device is a dead simple web tablet with a custom-built Linux OS, an Intel Atom chipset, two USB ports, a webcam, and microphone. The CrunchPad could arrive as early as this summer.

Apple is rumoured to be working on a tablet of its own, the Apple Tablet, rumored to be set to debut in 2010.

The web tablet returns us to the Dynabook. Conceivably these devices will someday be as powerful as regular laptops. And though we aren't there yet, Alan Kay's vision might finally become a reality with web tablets, albeit without a physical keyboard. If so, perhaps one day we'll be discussing milestone web tablets in a retrospective slideshow.

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See also: PC Advisor's ultimate guide to buying a laptop

  1. These devices have helped shape the way we used laptops today
  2. Osborne1
  3. The IBM PC Convertible
  4. The PowerBook 100
  5. The reveolution that was the touch pad
  6. The rugged laptop
  7. The built-in camera
  8. Netbooks