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

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The entry-level PowerBook 100 fueled a laptop revolution.
The entry-level PowerBook 100 fueled a laptop revolution.
Photo: Danamania/Wikipedia CC

October 21: Today in Apple history October 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.

These devices almost single-handedly turned notebook computers 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 huge debt of gratitude to the PowerBook 100 series.

PowerBook 100: The first successful Apple mobile devices

By modern standards, the PowerBook 100 series is the first true laptop Apple released. It wasn’t the company’s first portable computer, 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 well, though — which shouldn’t seem too surprising, considering it cost $6,500.

PowerBook
The PowerBook 100 series.
Photo: Low End Mac

By comparison, the October 1991 PowerBooks came in three configurations: the low-end PowerBook 100, the midlevel 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 pounds, the PowerBook 100 notebooks weighed just 5.1 pounds. This made them practical in a way the Mac Portable had never been.

The PowerBook 100 looks somewhat different than the PowerBook 140 and 170. There’s a good reason: While Apple designed the latter two models, Sony designed the former. The PowerBook 100 shipped with 2MB of expandable RAM (up to 8MB), and a hard drive ranging from 20MB to 40MB.

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.

PowerBooks: An unexpectedly big hit for Apple

The PowerBook 100 series proved 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, considerably less than the money available to the makers of Apple’s desktop Macs.

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

While Apple no longer uses the PowerBook name, there’s no doubt this computer fundamentally shifted the way laptops look and work — and helped kick-start the mobile computing revolution.

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

  • 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.

  • dflor54

    My first laptop was the 2006 Macbook…it lasted me till 2014 when I bought a Macbook Pro. Now I have a 2017 Macbook 12 inch and love it!

  • David Florence

    I had the Power Book 170 when I worked at Novel and then the 170c when I worked at Motorola – we used them because of our development of the PowerPC. My team also use the Powerbook Duo. Had lots of issues – the power cord kept breaking off in the back of the Mac – it was a weird proprietary connector. Later I got the 180c. Then moved on to Wintel based solutions from Compaq, Toshiba, Acer, AST, IBM / Lenovo. Then back to MacBook Pro Unibody, MacBook Air and then current MacBook Pro. Love them much more than PCs – have a Windows 10 Toshiba Laptop as a Wintel box. I run the newest Parallels and it does not suck to run Windows – the 2016 Parallels sucked.

  • jbelkin

    You forgot to mention the other huge big thing – moving the keyboard up so you had a palm rest – yep, believe t or not, every WIN PC laptop put the keyboard at the edge of the lower lid so you have to awkwardly put your wrists on the table. And while WIN PC’s had some sort of trackball – they rolled uneven;y and awkwardly. The IBM nubbin was okay but not neatly as nice as the Apple rollerball and layer accurrate trackpads.