Today in Apple history: PowerBook 100 series is a smash hit

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Oct21
The mid-level PowerBook 100 series laptop.
Photo: Dana Sibera/Wikipedia CC

 21October 21, 1991: Apple launches its PowerBook 100 series, the most important laptops in Apple history — and one of the most important tech gadgets of all time.

Making notebooks into a mainstream technology, Apple’s subsequent success in this category — whether it’s the current MacBooks or even the rise of mobile devices like the iPhone — owes a debt of gratitude to the PowerBook 100 series.

The first successful Apple mobile devices

By modern standards, the PowerBook 100 series is the first true laptop Apple released. It wasn’t the first portable computer it launched, however. In September 1989, Apple launched the Macintosh Portable, a battery-powered Mac you could take on the move. The Macintosh Portable didn’t fare too well, though — which isn’t too surprising considering it cost $6,500 in 1989 dollars.

PowerBook
The PowerBook 100 series.
Photo: Low End Mac

By comparison, the October 1991 PowerBooks came in three different configurations: the low-end PowerBook 100, the mid-level PowerBook 140, and the high-end PowerBook 170. These ranged in price from $2,300 all the way up to $4,599.

Unlike the Mac Portable, which tipped the scales at 15.8 lbs, the PowerBook 100 notebooks weighed just 5.1 lbs. This made them practical in a way the Mac Portable had never been.

The PowerBook 100 looks somewhat different in design to the PowerBook 140 and 170. There’s a good reason for this: while Apple designed the latter two models, the former was designed by Sony. The PowerBook 100 shipped with 2 MB of expandable RAM (up to 8 MB), and a 20-40 MB hard drive.

Users wanting a floppy drive could buy one as an external peripheral, although this shipped as standard with the two higher end models. Only the highest-end PowerBook 170 came with an active matrix display. All three models came with a built-in trackball for controlling the cursor, which was much remarked-upon at the time.

An unexpectedly big hit for Apple

The PowerBook 100 series proved to be something of an unexpected hit for Apple (which had been burned by its previous attempt at mobile computing.) Then-CEO John Sculley gave the project a marketing budget of $1 million, which was considerably less than the money available to the makers of Apple’s desktop Macs.

It paid off, however, by quickly capturing 40 percent of all laptop sales. In its first year, the PowerBook line generated more than $1 billion of revenue for Apple, and cemented itself as the computer of choice for traveling businesspeople — which is a market the Mac had always struggled to reach. In 1992, PowerBook sales helped generate a fiscal year revenue of $7.1 billion, making it Apple’s most successful year to date.

While the PowerBook name is no longer used by Apple today, there’s no doubt that it fundamentally shifted the way laptops look and work — and helped kick-start the mobile computing revolution in the process.

Did you own a PowerBook 100 series notebook? What was your first ever Apple laptop? Leave your comments below.

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  • Paul

    the power book 100 was my first computer. I added 8 megs of ram. My favorite lap top was the pismo

  • ParaLaUAZ!

    My first was a Powerbook 160, which I connected to an external colour display to do webpage design back in the early ’90s. Too cool to code on the internal display, with the Mosaic browser on the colour external :) My hands-down favourite laptop was the 540c, until the aluminum unibody machines arrived. My current Retina MacBook Pro is an awesome machine….

  • FrankeeD

    I had one. It replaced my Mac Plus. For its time, it was a great computer – 20 MB hard drive, 6 MB of RAM and the external floppy drive. Replaced it with a PowerBook 5300, which was a big mistake as almost everything that could broke on that computer eventually.

    Loved the trackball and still use one with my desktop at work. It wasn’t until the large glass trackpads appeared on MacBook Pros that I forgave them for getting rid of the trackballs (^_^) on their laptops.