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The Mac Portable—an Apple flop that led to great things—turns 30 today

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20.09.2019

On September 20, 1989, Apple product chief Jean-Louis Gassée stood on a stage in Universal City, California, and unveiled a new computer, the Macintosh Portable. It was Apple’s first battery-powered Mac, and the goal, Gassée declared, was to build a portable Mac that was every bit as powerful and usable as the familiar desktop models: “No subset of applications, no Mac Jr., no compromise.”

As he promised, the Mac Portable was a really good Mac. Its most eye-grabbing feature was the screen. It measured 9.8″—larger than the screen on a classic desktop Mac—and was a monochrome active-matrix LCD, which made it highly legible by the standards of the time, even though it wasn’t backlit. The computer used a lead-acid battery, which sounded like old technology even then but helped deliver marathon battery life: Apple claimed 10 hours on a charge vs. the two to three hours that was common at the time.

The machine had a complete set of ports and a full-sized, full-travel keyboard. You could put the built-in trackball on either side of the keyboard, making the Portable one of the only computers ever made that not only acknowledged the existence of left-handed people but catered to them. It even came with a fancy carrying case with a shoulder strap.

What the Mac Portable wasn’t was all that . . . portable. In the evocative parlance of the time, it was a luggable, weighing in at 13.75 pounds without a hard drive and 15.75 pounds with one. The starting price—again, without a hard disk—was $5,800, or more than twice the $2,495 that the Mac had debuted a half-decade earlier.

Though Apple fans had been eagerly anticipating the Mac Portable’s debut—word of its development had leaked all the way back in February of the previous year—it landed with a thud. It never sold well, got only minor upgrades, and was gone two years later. But it still served a useful purpose. By building a portable Mac that was so clearly the wrong machine for the........

© Fast Company