Memory lane: Remembering the Compaq Portable

Memory lane: Remembering the Compaq Portable

Summary: In 1983 three former Texas Instruments executives launched the first IBM PC compatible computer that was the beginning of the mobile PC industry. The Compaq Portable demonstrated that mobile computers were the wave of the future.

Compaq logo

On a recent drive down highway 249 in Houston I glanced to the left at the HP campus near Louetta Drive. As a native Houstonian who formerly lived near this campus, looking at this huge campus was routine for me. This was the first time I had driven past it in a while and I was taken back to see a big hole in the wooded area that rings the HP campus. That's because HP sold off part of the campus a few years ago and in 2011 two of the big office buildings that made up part of the facility were demolished, leaving a blank space where big buildings used to dominate the landscape.

This set me on a course down memory lane as the HP campus was originally the headquarters for Compaq. HP bought Compaq in 2002 and took over what was a state-of-the-art campus when Compaq built it. Compaq has a fond place in the hearts of Houstonians as the company put Houston on the map as a high-technology city. There are Compaq employees still working at this campus today, now long-time HP workers.

Compaq was one of the fastest growing companies in the US due to the successful launch in 1983 of its first product, the Compaq Portable. This wasn't the first luggable computer produced (Kaypro, Osborne)  but it was the first IBM PC clone to hit the market and it was important for several reasons.

Compaq Portable
Image credit:

The all-in-one design of the Compaq Portable contained an entire PC in a luggable case. The 28 pound Portable was not very mobile but with the big keyboard latched to cover the 9-inch green screen it could be carried from one power outlet to another. There was no battery in this first portable computer so the definition of mobile was much narrower than it is today.

Compaq was Houston's Apple, and the city is still looking for its replacement.

The Compaq Portable single-handedly launched both the mobile computer and the PC clone industries. Prior to the appearance of Compaq, IBM was the only company able to produce PCs in the early years due to its proprietary BIOS and operating system. Microsoft introduced MS-DOS which gave Compaq an OS to license for its Portable but the BIOS was IBM intellectual property.

Compaq legally reverse-engineered IBM's BIOS and the Compaq Portable was the result. It cost over $3,000 when launched in 1983 and was 95 percent compatible with IBM's line of desktop PCs. The fact that Compaq sold 53,000 Compaq Portables the first year and set a revenue record for the first four years demonstrated the viability of the portable computer market and spurred the IBM PC clone industry.

Another innovation that made Compaq such a successful company in the fledgling PC business was its ability to produce new products faster than any other company. The industry product cycle time for new PCs was 12 - 18 months, and through innovative processes Compaq reduced that to 6 - 9 months. This allowed it to take advantage of Moore's Law and get products to market faster and thus better than the competition. Compaq also made a deal with Intel to get new processors before other companies.

The luggable PC line of Compaq evolved into the laptop that has come to dominate the PC industry today. HP bought Compaq in 2002 and as often happens in such mergers eventually integrated the latter into its own corporate culture.

Compaq is no more, but it lives fondly in the memories of Houstonians. The company played a major role in Houston business during its heyday, which didn't last nearly long enough. To this day some Houstonians driving down highway 249 call it the Compaq campus, even though the sign out front is an HP sign and has been for over a decade. Compaq was Houston's Apple, and the city is still looking for its replacement.

Silicon Valley can rest comfortably knowing it's the center of the tech universe, but Houstonians know that our city is the birthplace of mobile computing and where the PC industry got its real start. 

[Background source: Wikipedia]

Topics: Hewlett-Packard, Laptops, Mobility

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  • Nice article James, thanks!

    Yeap indeed... and Compaq also brought the legendary TC1XXX Tablet PC.
    • I still have 2

      Compaq Portable Plus machines that sported an internal 10MB drive instead of one of the floppy bays. I used one for at least 2 years. The best innovation for Compaq was a display and adapter that could seamlessly switch between character based data using an EEPROM to store the data for each character displayed making the text displays use only 8 bit data for 25 rows by 80 columns to a CGA graphics mode giving 320x240 pixels in 2 colors (green and black) or 160 x 120 pixels in four colors (shades of green). As I recall, another was that the Compaq motherboard could switch between the 4.77MHz clock (standard for IBM models) and 6 MHz clock for "enhanced" processing speed. Also, don't forget to replace that Intel 8088 chip with an NEC V20 chip for even more blindingly fast speed. :-)

      Of course you had to add a memory board to supplement the 256 kB RAM to the 640 kB limit for DOS. You also needed an internal modem (Hayes of course) so you could dial into local or long distance BBS servers to exchange code and tips. That was what we didn't know to call "social networking" at the time.

      Somehow the days of Lotus 123, SideKick and Framework II seem romantic but after you pull one of these out (they still work) and try it, you quickly remember how slow and clunky they actually were. At the time, we gladly paid up to $4k for one of these (base model, peripheral boards and 384k of RAM).
  • From The Beginning, "IBM-Compatible" Actually Meant "Microsoft-Compatible"

    From the early days, it was Microsoft, not IBM, that defined what "compatible" meant. You know what the first commonly-accepted de-facto measure of "IBM compatibility" was?

    The ability to run Microsoft Flight Simulator.
    • To a large degree it still is,

      being compatible with Microsoft is what basically forced me to break down and purchase
      a WinXP system a number of years ago...sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
    • Lotus was the benchmark

      Flight Simulator was never the benchmark of IBM PC compatibility in my experience. Business people couldn't care less about FS, but they all loved Lotus 1-2-3, so that was the benchmark. The rumour was that Microsoft used to try to undermine Lotus compatibility, and when developing a new version of DOS their mantra was "DOS ain't done till Lotus won't run".
      • Re: Microsoft used to try to undermine Lotus compatibility

        Why would Microsoft want to undermine the single most important reason to buy an MS-DOS PC?
      • But Flight Simulator was the real standard

        Arguably, 1-2-3 was more important. But a machine that could run FS was almost certainly going to be able to run anything other DOS-based app. A lot of machines couldn't. Although I wouldn't put it past Microsoft to throw a monkey into the works where a competing product was concerned.
    • You're actually wrong. IBM Compatible meant just that

      that it was compatible to IBM in that any OS or program that ran on an IBM would run on it.

      You're "Microsoft Compatible" is just your anti-MS obsession getting the better of your thought process.
      William Farrel
  • Fondly remembered

    I remember writing a review of the is machine when it was launched. I carried it home and by the time I got there I thought my arm was falling off. I remember the publicity shot Compaq had which showed a young lady carrying one gaily along - if you looked closely you could see the veins standing out on the back her hand through exertion.

    One of the first "proper" computers I ever used and I thought it was brilliant. Tried very hard to blag one off Compaq but I had no chance while they sold like hot cakes.

    Ah, me.
  • Ouch

    Shoulder strap gave way while I was carrying one. It landed on my foot. It took months of physical therapy for it to stop hurting. After that, I decided to wait a few more years before I ventured into the portable arena again.
  • The Compap Portable

    I still have one of these Compa
  • The Compaq Portable

    I still have one of these in great shape.... As well as one of the Original Mac's in the Canvas Case they came in... I'm considering the idea of selling them...
  • Ah yes, the ol' Compaq Luggable

    We certainly did NOT refer to it as "portable". There was a certain software piece used by us systems engineers that would only run on this monster, for reasons that I no longer remember. A small hand truck made it easier to move this luggable from one place to another.
  • Mine was frequent hand baggage on the plane

    These things, despite having a CRT, were very rugged. An engineer working for me rolled his car off a French motorway at over 100mph. The Compaq fared better than he did. I had to reassemble the keyboard, reformat the hard disk to get it to map out the bad sectors caused by head crashes during the impact, reinstall the software and away it went. No choice because it was the only one in the office and we were in the middle of a roadshow tour.

    The engineer was not badly hurt, but visiting him in hospital was an amusing anecdote. When he came to, it was an ambulance from a religious organisation (ambulances were privately run in France) and the nurses were a bit like nuns, so his first thought was that he had died and gone to heaven.
    • Was the HD an option...I never saw one.

  • It was indeed heavy.

    28 pounds? Nah. It was at least 30 and fully loaded was probably closer to 35. I used to carry one down from my office to my car in the parking garage and had to stop at least once to let my shoulder recover.

    As I recall, it had no hard drive. I know the first PCs didn't because my first HD was a 10MB Corvus that was about 2'x1'x6" and sounded like a jet plane taking off. Some 5 or 6 PCs shared that drive. It cost over $5,000. The first actual PC-compatible notebook had no hard drive and did not have a back-lit screen, making it insanely hard to view. (Can't remember the name.)

    For those who didn't catch the mention of "green screen" in the article - color monitors at that time were so low res that they were hard to read. The green screen had higher res and clear text, but of course no color.
    • CRT colour resolution

      I remember making the choice of a monochrome (amber screen actually) rather than a colour screen simply because of the better resolution.
      At work (Durham University, UK) I had the use of a high resolution colour screen (CRT) which had to be set up periodically to ensure the red, green and blue images were accurately aligned with one another. This was achieved by pulling out a drawer in the base of the monitor and adjusting tiny potentiometers on the circuit board contained in the drawer. The pots were positioned on the circuit board to correspond with the areas of the screen that they controlled. It made setting up relatively easy. Then there were non-linear distortions of the image such as pin cushion distortion which had to be tweaked out. Happy days! ;)
      Thinking of the 'good old days' reminds me - I must get some more needles for my wind-up gramophone!
    • Correct

      I had a 25 MB seagate that ran over $5K.
  • Ah, yes...I remember it well

    I used one of these back in the day. They were used for data capture during vehicle testing.
  • rumor was...

    I sold these things and had a lot of fun doing it (remember ComputerLand?), rumor had it that the Texas connection is because the engineers worked at Texas Instruments and floated the idea by TI (remember the TI 99?) who took a pass on it, and the founders jumped ship to start their own company. Any truth to that? Good point that the Compaq was the compatible camel's nose under IBMs tent, after that the x86/MS-DOS (remember CP/M?) compatible market was busted wide open. Osborne's portable was quite viable...whatever happened to Adam anyway?