End of an era: No more Apple PowerBooks

I've read scads of coverage of Apple's new MacBook, but so far I haven't seen anyone dwell on one side effect of its debut: With the discontinuation of the 12-inch PowerBook, Apple has put an end to one of the longest-running hardware lines in its history. (And in computer history in general, come to think of it--in 1991, when the first PowerBook appeared, even the venerable IBM ThinkPad didn't yet exist.) It was an obvious fait accompli that the PowerBook name would go away when Apple announced the MacBook Pro in January; now it's reality.

The first PowerBooks appeared in October of 1991, and they were the first true Macintosh notebooks--the famously bad Macintosh Portable being an 15.8-pound monster.

They arrived to good reviews and lots of attention, in part because of innovative design that pushed the keyboard towards the display to make room for a wrist-rest area and a big trackball that served as a mouse substitute. The keyboard location was so instantly stolen by almost everyone else that it's hard to remember how unusual it seemed at the time. And the trackball was an attention-getter in part because many PC notebooks of that era had no pointing device at all. (Hey, much of the PC-using world was still living in DOS at the time; it wasn't a given that every computer user needed to mouse around.)

Looking at the page for the PowerBook 100 over at Apple-History.com is a nostalgic kick and an object lesson in how far we've come: The 100 had a 16-MHz, 16-bit CPU, 2MB of RAM (which could be maxed out to a roomy 8MB), a 20MB hard disk, a passive-matrix monochrome screen with 640-by-480 resolution, and a mono speaker. All for $2500, which wasn't a bad price for a portable computer at the time.

Compare that to today's entry-level Mac notebook, the new MacBook: The most basic version costs well under half what the PowerBook did, yet it's got 256 times the memory, 4000 times more disk space, more than three times the screen resolution in brilliant color, and stereo sound. And the 2-GHz Intel Core Duo is faster than the 100's CPU by so many orders of magnitude that I don't even know where to begin doing the math.

There were a gazillion PowerBook models over the years, but the most famous thing about the line probably wasn't the computers themselves--it was the mid-1990s "What on Your PowerBook" ad campaign. Apple fan site The Different District has a bunch of the TV commercials available for viewing. (It's one of numerous sites that carefully archives old Apple promotional material--is there even one site that does the same for Windows ads of yore?)

Note that while a jazz musician plays some tinny digital music, most of the answers to "What's on your PowerBook?" involved word-processing documents, spreadsheets and databases, and maybe the odd bar chart in scintillating 1-bit monochrome. Exciting stuff for the time, I guess--those ads undoubtedly sold a lot of PowerBooks. (Wikipedia says they held 40 percent of the entire notebook market at one point--an amazing stat if it's true.)

But ask the same question of someone about a modern notebook, and you might hear about beloved photographs, entire music collections, high-definition movies, and a whole lot more. Computers haven't just gotten more powerful; they've also gotten vastly more personal.

Not to mention the fact that in 2006, unlike 1991, much of what's important about PCs lies not on them but around the world on the awesome distributed information and communications network known as the Internet. (In 1991, a fair percentage of PowerBook owners didn't even have an e-mail address.)

Anyhow, I'm not that attached to the PowerBook name. Still, this is a little as if Toyota had discontinued the Corolla...which would be a Significant Moment even though the early Corolla bore about as much resemblance to the 2006 model as that PowerBook 100 did to the last PowerBooks that rolled off the assembly line.

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Harry McCracken

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