Life & Liberty: Itty-Bitty Wonders


Word processors! I could wax eloquent. They do away with the need to retype to get clean copies (with anything over a page or two long, the time savings are remarkable). Less obviously, word processors also affect the quality of writing by making it easier to make changes in a manuscript.

My work as a writer and an employee of an organization that generates and disseminates information has been revolutionized by the word processor. Indeed, it has had such a profound impact on my occupation that computers have become a competitive necessity in the same way that typewriters had before.

Yet interestingly, there is as strong a resistance to word processors in the publishing business as there is in normal business. Many editors refuse to accept anything printed on dot matrix printers, even though they are cheaper to purchase and operate, faster, more economical, and usually just as easy to read as impact printers. But we often try to disguise the fact that something was composed on a computer instead of a typewriter. Some traditions, like Gutenberg's type, change slowly.

The area in personal-computer evolution that is most exciting right now is the miniaturization of hardware. Since the first transistorized computer, size constraints have been forbiddingly large. Suddenly, that has changed. The human hand is now the limiting factor in a new breed of machine about the size of a loose-leaf binder. Some of these "lap computers" are actually too small for efficient typing. They are designed instead for entering and processing relatively small amounts of data or providing quick analyses or demonstrations in the field. They represent the future of personal computers.

In the long run—and goodness knows what that means when we're talking about computers—even the limitation of the keyboard is likely to disappear as more efficient ways of entering data are developed. But for now, computers already have the potential for being smaller than ergonomics would indicate is useful. And computers that small are very portable.

There is a whole range of lap computers available—true portables, as opposed to transportables—with a dozen out now and more appearing almost daily. The machines cost from $500 for the most modest to the ultimate personal computer at about $9,000. But they all have a few things in common.

First, they can all be lifted easily and fit into a briefcase. Because of their size, they use liquid crystal diode (LCD) screens that are as thin as a good digital watch. The LCD screens often fold over the keyboard when the computer is not in use. Almost all of them operate on batteries. And most of the better machines are easily adaptable to telecommunications functions, so you can use a lap-size computer to call another computer or an information network of some sort.

What are the advantages of such radical portability? The marginal utility of itty-bitty personal computers is the same as that of a notepad. You can keep one in your briefcase, beside the bed, on the train or plane, next to your favorite chair, in the bathroom, or any place that you would want to record notes or more. The difference between truly portable computers and transportable computers is the difference between a notepad that you can put in your pocket and a heavy slate tablet.

I am writing this on a Compaq portable computer. It is similar to many other fine transportables like the Kaypro, the new Apple products, and the IBM portable. But they aren't all that portable, any of them. They need to sit on stable surfaces, and they are chained to electric outlets. I bought mine with some trepidation. But I liked the idea of the desk-top system looking sleek and powerful in my office. I had no intention of taking my computer to the office or on a business trip. And the Compaq portable was the most computer for the money that would run a specific program I chose.

I had originally wanted a big screen—preferably one that takes a projector, the kind you watch football games on in trendy bars. But then I noticed that some of the newest desk-top machines, like the Hewlett Packard 150, use the same size screen as my portable. I was ready to buy a large screen monitor to go with it but, like many other people, have since discovered that small screens are actually pleasant (ergonometricians say you have to move your eyes less with smaller screens).

Among the truly portable, the lap-size computers, there are some that hold only a few pages of data and others as much as several IBM PCs. That, as usual, is a matter of economics. The $9,000 Grid Compass is used as a backup system on NASA Space Shuttle flights. It is the Rolls Royce of personal computers, equipped with more bubble memory than the average user would ever need.

But the less-expensive models have their uses, especially in conjunction with another personal computer. Portables act as terminals to the personal transportable mainframe, and they can be used in transit, in the park, in the field, or in front of the television. (Some, however, cannot actually be used on your lap, because they get too hot.) Most come with capacity for telecommunications, so 30 pages of data can be constantly replaced as long as you have access to a telephone.

Eventually, you will be in constant contact with your own mainframe through radio terminals. Input will probably be voice-actuated (or even, it is exciting to speculate, cerebrally entered). But that is the future. For those who appreciate technology and the personal power that computers bring, the lap-size portables available now are more than tools. They are toys with symbolic importance, because they give us access to a worldwide network of information and the capacity to control anything that can be reached by microwave or radio-telephone service.

They are useful, without a doubt. But the market also serves other functions. In this case, it serves a fascination with gadgets that have approached the level of art form.

Patrick Cox is public affairs director of the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research. He is also a free-lance journalist and science-fiction writer.