Thirty-five years ago, Toshiba created the world's first laptop PC – but this month, the former colossus of mobile computing closes the book on notebooks.
The news landed with the simple, sombre formality akin to a funeral notice. Two years ago, Toshiba sold an 80% stake in its PC business to Sharp (now a subsidiary of Taiwan's hulking Foxconn) for US$36 million.
Sharp renamed the division Dynabook, adopting a brand used by Toshiba, and has since exercised its right to buy the remaining stake, with Toshiba releasing a statement to confirm the deal was completed.
"As a result of this transfer, Dynabook has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Sharp," Toshiba's statement said.
Birth of the Dynabook
The original Dynabook was a concept developed by US computer scientist Alan Kay as far back as 1968 – turning a large, heavy desktop terminal into a compact carry-friendly device with its own screen and a battery, based on the footprint of a notebook.
Toshiba turned that into reality, beginning with 1985's T1100 laptop. "Our plan was for a clamshell-type transportable PC with an LCD and IBM compatibility," reflected Toshiba's project lead Atsutoshi Nishida in 2005. "Back then, transportable computers were becoming popular but they were very, very, very big."
Running an Intel processor and 'IBM-compatible' operating system with 256Kb of memory, a 640x200 pixel LCD screen (capable of displaying 25 lines of 80 characters) and a single 3.5-inch floppy disk drive: all packed into a 30cm footprint, albeit 6.6cm high and weighing 4.1kg.
Toshiba's upper management baulked at the practical appeal of the product as well as its stratospheric US$2,100 price tag, which is equivalent to $6,800 today.
Yet the T1100 quickly found favour with professionals and executives, hitting its sales target of 10,000 in the first year. "That is not many today but back then it was a very large quantity," Nishida says.
Nishida cleverly worked with major software companies to make sure the T1100 could run the key apps of the day, beginning with making them available on the relatively new 3.5-inch 720Kb floppy disks at a time when the desktop-focussed industry had standardised on 5.25-inch disks.
This suite included the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, Ashton-Tate's dBase II database package and Microsoft Flight Simulator, at the time among the world's most popular PC games.
Toshiba quickly became one of the world's leading laptop brands, investing heavily in R&D as it steadily refined the notebook into several skews ranging from slim, light 'ultra-thin' models aimed at executives to productivity-minded fleet workhorses and value-oriented consumer models.
However, Toshiba eventually fell victim to the market it had created – a market crowded by more and more brands and models, with the technology and then the laptops themselves becoming commoditised to the point where there was little room for differentiation and less for profit margins.