Memory lane: Remembering the Compaq Portable

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.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
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: oldcomputers.net

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]

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