An Obsession With Mobile Computing

It's the B.O.S.S. Kind of.

It's the B.O.S.S. Kind of.

I have always had a bit of an obsession with technology. From a young age, I was consumed with the idea of a portable computer. When I was born in 1980, the very concept was just coming into fruition. The common form of laptop we see today was popularized while I was a toddler.

Truth be told, I think this obsession began because of Inspector Gadget. The titular character’s daughter, Penny, carried with her a computerized book that acted as a bit of a deus ex machina. The bookputer was used to overcome a plethora of tech-related challenges. I was enchanted by this concept, and often pretended that my own books were Penny’s computer-book. (I also had a dictionary that I pretended was Tobin’s Spirit Guide, from Ghostbusters. I like magic plot-device books.) Suffice to say, the idea of carrying a computer with me was always something I dreamed of as a child.

At the time, it was a flight of fancy. Laptops were expensive, and reserved for very important people, or at least people with a particularly large amount of disposable income.The typical starting price of a laptop in the 1980’s was around $8,000. As a child not yet even in middle school, this was a little out of my price range. I made do with my regular books, the occasional note pad, and a great deal of imagination.

There is no greater testament to the technology boom than the fact that by the time I was in seventh grade, I could get a handheld computer-like device. Make not mistake; it was decidedly not a laptop computer. It was a chintzy Royal Pocket Organizer similar to this one. It had so little memory that I actually filled all the available space. I used it to pass notes to a girl I had a crush on during science class. Simply watching the LCD refresh at the push of a button was engrossing. The very concept of holding a wallet-sized computer excited me. I played with it constantly, paging through notes and phone numbers for a ridiculous amount of time. That a seemingly inert piece of plastic could suddenly spring to life and recall the multitude of data I had entered into it thrilled me.

So many buttons! All those pixels! And it even has a calculator!

So many buttons! All those pixels! And it even has a calculator!

The fate of that little organizer is unknown to me. I don’t think I broke it, but at some point I definitely replaced it. Sometime in late middle or early high school, the Royal Personal Organizer was superseded by the Casio B.O.S.S. — that’s a Business Organizer Scheduling System to the uninitiated. Boasting a larger, more versatile LCD and 256 KB of storage, the B.O.S.S. actually looked like a tiny laptop. It was powered not by a simple button cell battery, but two AAAs. I actually attempted home row typing on its little keyboard. The B.O.S.S. could also sync with a PC, but even then I was a Mac guy, and I didn’t know of any Mac software for it. I would likely have loved syncing it to my first computer, a Performa 600.

Although a step ahead of its predecessor, the B.O.S.S. was still hardly a replacement for a real computer. It had many of the same functions computers used at the time, save advanced things like spreadsheets and full documents. As a personal organizer it was top notch, but I wasn’t going to do any real writing on it, and the burgeoning maelstrom that was the World Wide Web didn’t exist to it. With a paltry 256 KB of storage, it couldn’t even hold the folder on my hard drive that contains the articles I’ve written for this site. Indeed, the then-iconic 3.5” floppy disk held nearly six times the amount of data as the B.O.S.S. It didn’t matter to me, though. It was a step closer to my dream: a computer to go with me everywhere.

The summer after I graduated high school, I saved enough money to buy a used PowerBook 5300c. Its battery life was paltry, particularly compared to a low-power device like the B.O.S.S., but it was a real computer! It had a full-sized keyboard, trackpad and ran an actual modern operating system. I upgraded its scant 16 MB of RAM to 48, and its 750 MB hard drive was more than enough to hold my various WordPerfect documents.

The Iconic Lombard PowerBook G3.

The Iconic Lombard PowerBook G3.

I eventually upgraded from the PowerBook 5300c to a PowerBook 3400c. From there, I moved on to a PowerBook G3 (a Lombard version, to be specific), one of my favorite laptops. It had a fantastic display, a great-feeling keyboard, and, for the time, a great trackpad. It had a very interesting industrial design that Apple has not repeated since.

My obsession with handheld organizers didn’t stop when I got my hands on a laptop, however. The idea of holding a small device in the palm of my hand continued to stick with me. When I worked as a cable tech for the now-defunct AT& Broadband, I picked up a Handspring Visor and a GPS accessory for it. I eventually upgraded to a Palm IIIc.

The Lombard's highly-touted bronze keyboard.

The Lombard's highly-touted bronze keyboard.

In a strange way, the personal organizer has been revitalized in the form of smartphones. My earliest smartphone, the Nokia 3650, ran the Symbian OS, synced with my PowerBook G3, and even acted as a bluetooth modem to allow internet access anywhere I went. I eventually upgrading to a Nokia N90, which featured an upgraded version of the Symbian OS and had a high-end-for-the-time 2.1 megapixel camera. The camera pivoted in multiple directions, and though no carrier in the US supported it, it could function as a video phone as well. The Nokia N90 in many ways matched or outperformed the original iPhone, despite being released two years prior. I would go on to own several Android phones: the G1, the Nexus One, and the Nexus S. After standing by T-Mobile for nearly a decade, I switched carriers and got an iPhone 5.

I would have to say that my favorite kind of mobile device is the emerging tablet. Not simply because it is new, but because it is in many ways my childhood imagination coming to life. I use my iPad every day to browse news feeds, watch TV shows, read books and comics, play games, and remote control computers across the network I help maintain. With a bluetooth keyboard paired to it, I can write long articles just as well as I could with my regular laptop. It isn’t quite as flexible as I’d like, but its battery lasts all day and its retina display is sharp and colorful.

Penny wishes her computer book was as cool as one of these.

Posted on April 29, 2013 .