Apple is expected to release a series of three computers this October that will be the first Macs that deserve the name "notebook computer." That doesn't mean, though, that the rest of the industry should hold its collective breath!
Outbound Systems Inc. has had a popular alternative to the heavier, more expensive Macintosh Portable for over a year now, and a special agreement negotiated with Apple allows them to ship Apple ROM chips, taken from used Macs, in Outbound portable computers. Their new product, the Outbound Notebook System, will give impatient Mac users an alternative to this fall's Apple offerings.
The new six-pound Outbound Notebook System shows quite a bit of promise. It can hold both an internal high density floppy disk drive and an internal hard drive, as opposed to the low-end Apple notebook, which will contain one or the other. A proper notebook, the new Outbound will fold down to 8.5 by 11 inches. I am skeptical of Outbound's assertion of a new-and-improved pointing device, which looks an awful lot like it's just an IsoPoint with a new-and-improved name. Given that there's no room on this machine for a trackball, I suppose the "TrackBar" (their new device) will be a reasonable substitute.
The truly stunning notebook computer in the news this month is NCR's System 3125, a pen-based 386 portable that weighs less than four pounds. No, it's not a Mac or a Mac-compatible, but this machine will show us what might be down the road for Mac users.
The 8.5 by 11 inch 3125 has no keyboard, which means there's lots of room for the 640x480 greyscale liquid crystal display. Instead of typing, the user enters data and controls the system using an included pen, with either GO's PenPoint operating system, or Microsoft's competing PenWindows. (The computer comes with one or the other operating system, but not both.) This means the NCR notebook isn't quite suited to every computing need, but it would certainly be good for data entry tasks such as inventory management, appointment scheduling, and address/phone databases. Of course, computer users who have never liked keyboards will be pleased by the option of using this handwriting-recognizing technology.
What does this mean for the future? Aside from a vague resemblance to Apple's Knowledge Navigator dream computer (you may have seen the video tapes of the computer that talks to you... and understands spoken commands) the NCR 3125 is really just a rearrangement of existing technology. Sony has been selling their "palmtop" computer, a personal organizer with handwriting recognition technology, for about a year, and of course iconic, windowing operating systems aren't new. The key to NCR's product release is the combination... solid handwriting recognition in a real computer that's light enough and small enough to use anywhere.
Apple's three upcoming notebook computers are a step toward the same "next generation" category. They are much lighter and smaller than the existing Macintosh Portable models, and when closed at least, are notebook sized. The keyboard on the Macs, though, will mean that Apple will always seem to be behind the pack in notebook technology. I'm not saying that I want to see a Mac without a keyboard... at least not until they can replace it with a method of text entry that's just as fast and accurate! However, the industry is going to start wondering where Apple's REAL notebooks are.
NCR Corp. -- 513/445-6160 -- 800/225-5627
Outbound Systems Inc. -- 303/786-9200 -- 800/444-4607
BYTE -- Aug-91, Vol. 16, #8, pg. 37
MacWEEK -- 30-Jul-91, Vol. 5, #26, pg. 1