It wasn't just a high price that kept businessmen away from early portable computers.
The legendary designer Bill Moggridge died this weekend and is being properly memorialized around the web. Among the many things Moggridge is known for, he built what seems to be the world's first recognizable laptop, the GRiD Compass. Though it sold decently well for an $8,150 computer (that's 1982 dollars) to the military, it did not exactly catch on among businesspeople.
The first and most obvious reason for that is the price. We're talking something like $20,000 in today's dollars, depending on how you calculate. The second obvious reason I would guess was its weight. The GRiD Compass weighed 11 pounds.
But Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and Handspring (makers of the Treo), was there in 1982 and he told a different story at the Computer History Museum a few years ago during a panel on the laptop. For him, the problems were not exclusively in the harder domains of currency and form factor. No, sociological and psychological reasons made the GRiD Compass hard to sell to businessmen.
Here's the sociological reason:
This is an amazing fact. We had this product. It was designed for business executives. And the biggest obstacle, one of the biggest obstacles, we had for selling the product was the fact -- believe it or not -- that it had a keyboard. I was in sales and marketing. I saw this first-hand. At that time, 1982, business people, who were in their 40s and 50s, did not have any computer or keyboard in their offices. And it was associated with being part of the secretarial pool or the word processing (remember that industry?) department. And so you'd put this thing in their office and they'd say, "Get that out of here." It was like getting a demotion. They really were uncomfortable with it.
Though Hawkins doesn't quite say it. There is a distinct gendered component to this discomfort. Typing was women's work and these business people, born in the 1930s and 1940s, didn't scrap their way up the bureaucracy to be relegated to the very secretarial work they'd been devaluing all along.