Today in Apple history: The first portable Macintosh arrives

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The Macintosh Portable presaged Apple's move into mobile
Remember the Macintosh Portable?
Photo: MacWorld

September 20 Today in Apple history September 20, 1989: Apple releases the Macintosh Portable, its pre-PowerBook attempt at introducing the world to a battery-powered Mac you could take on the move.

At a time when Tim Burton’s Batman is flying high in theaters, and Madonna is shocking audiences at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, this ahead-of-its-time product lays the groundwork for Apple’s later laptop revolution.

The Mac goes mobile

Development on a portable Mac actually predates the launch of the original Macintosh. Mac project innovator Jef Raskin envisioned the Macintosh being a portable computer.

However, as Steve Jobs took over work on the project, this ideal receded into the background. The only nod toward portability on the 1984-era Macintosh as shipped was a carrying handle.

MacP2
The Mac Portable was way above most laptops at the time.
Photo: The Register

Jobs tried to convince the Apple board to develop what he was then calling a “BookMac” in April 1985. However, he left the company before this could amount to anything. The idea eventually got revived, however, resulting in the Macintosh Portable.

A theoretically portable Mac

Compared with today’s ultra-slim Apple laptops, the Macintosh Portable appears almost comically overweight. It weighs in at a lap-deadening 15.8 pounds. The first portable Mac also measured more than 4 inches thick, and took up 225.7 square inches of desk (or lap) real estate.

Like many Macs — particularly of its time — the Macintosh Portable occupied a so-called “high right” quadrant of the market. It delivered advanced technology, but at a premium price.

The device cost $6,500 in 1989 dollars, the equivalent of more than $12,600 today. This rose by $448 if you added a hard drive and modem.

Fortunately, the Macintosh Portable brought impressive specs by the standards of the time. And the price wasn’t actually too unreasonable if you wanted to get hold of a rival computer with comparable performance.

Macintosh Portable specs

In terms of spec, the 16 MHz 68000 CPU Macintosh Portable was actually faster than the Mac SE and Macintosh II, which were then ruling Apple’s desktop class computers. It also included a gorgeous 9.8-inch active-matrix LCD display, offering 640-by-400-pixel black-and-white graphics. A later upgrade brought backlighting to the Mac Portable, although this also cut battery life in half.

This was also the first Mac to come with a preinstalled operating system, which comes standard today.

Mac Portable
The first Mac you could carry in a (slightly heavy) bag.
Photo: Apple

Mirroring Apple’s post-Jobs strategy with the Macintosh, the Mac Portable was easily upgradable thanks to expansion slots. In stark contrast to today’s Apple devices, opening the Macintosh Portable was as straightforward as pressing two buttons on the back of the case. That popped the lid off without the need for even a screwdriver.

The Macintosh Portable isn’t without its critics, however. Like the original Mac, it fared better critically than it did commercially. It wasn’t until the later launch of the PowerBook that Apple really started finding its groove with mobile computers.

The Mac Portable also suffered from some odd quirks, such as the fact that it wouldn’t run on AC power alone — although the monstrous battery could keep going for up to 10 (!) hours on a single charge.

Mac Portable: Futuristic but flawed

Ultimately, the Macintosh Portable is like a lot of Apple products from that time: innovative, slightly flawed, but beloved among a certain group of users. Sadly, they didn’t represent enough of a market segment at the time to make it a hit.

Nonetheless, given that the overwhelming majority of Apple’s revenue today comes from mobile devices, it would be difficult to argue that the company wasn’t following the right path with this product … just a few years too early (and a few pounds too heavy).

Do you remember the Macintosh Portable? Leave your comments and recollections below.