Inside the Collection

The communising of the mobile computer devise

Photograph of disposed Mobile telephones installation
Disposed Mobile telephones

‘The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall’.  Che Guevara

Computing devices are now so ensconced in our lives that the notion of being deprived of one of these devices is seen as a removal of liberty. The loss or theft of a personal computing device is now much more of a dispossession than simply that of property: an annex of an individuals’ personality is seen to be lost.

This liberty to clutch a personal computing device as freely as a pen, particularly in the workplace, is a quite recent phenomenon. When mobile telephones were, in the very recent past, designed for nothing more than audio communication, text messaging, and possibly some rudimentary gaming, these devices were viewed as something that could only guiltily be used in an emergency in the workplace – unless they were being used for work. The rapid development of mobile telephones into powerful computing devises has seen their ubiquitousness grow into wholesale acceptance. It’s interesting to look back at how computer technology, now homogenised into a small number of appliances, and their professional/personal use blurred, were not-so-long-ago often viewed as nuisances in the workplace when these technologies were separate elements, and compatibility was not so plug-and-play.

In the first few decades after the Second World War the computer was quite a rare commodity in the workplace. With the exception of universities and government research facilities, a computer was as anomalous as a bidet in the company bathroom. Some larger organisations though had the requirement and financial solvency to justify a computer. Finance departments were of course often the first to acquire computers. These computers were fundamentally tabulating machines, and the human/computer interface was by no means an ergonomic task.

Computers began to filter down from finance areas to other departments, and by the 1970s, when some organisations had a mainframe or similar setup, communication between computers was a major step in analgising computer components. Devices such as the Texas Instruments Silent 700 were used to transmit information from a remote site – be it detached office or in the field – to another computer.

Photograph of Texas Instruments Silent 700
Texas Instruments Silent 700 with acoustic coupling modem, 1971

The expense of computers remained prohibitive through the 1970s and early 1980s, and the devices also remained specific in application, and standardisation was a battleground yet to be won by the then still armouring forces of Microsoft, Adobe, and Apple. Computers were nonetheless a good to be exploited, and just like a washing machine or lawnmower, getting one in as many homes as possible was a smart sales approach. The Apple I of course hammered the cleat of the everyman computer, and many kit computers followed. The ZX80, TRS80, and Commodore 64 all readied folk to the notion of a computer as a pervasive home appliance.

Photograph of Commodore 64 home computer
Commodore 64 home computer

Though at home many people were becoming conversant with computers, the workplace commonly could not accommodate all employees with computer power. Indeed, in the Powerhouse Museum’s curatorial section, a workplace computer was not seen until 1990, and then it was only one 186, and little to no training was given. There was always a line-up to use the device, of which there were only two functions: word-processing, and accessing the new ARGUS collection database. The typing pool were also expected to familiarise themselves with VDU screen in place of the foolscap, as the future was most certainly green.

In less tertiary industries, where computers were simply dumb terminals used for logging and data retrieval, too much time spent interfacing was often seen as shirking actual work. Contemporarily, swanning around away from a desktop, or a handheld work computer is now seen as shirking.

In the pre-dawn of the World Wide Web, computers were an accepted work tool, and households were shifting asunder the old leather desk pad to make room for an IMB compatible or a Macintosh. Microsoft was also all but waiting for a series of formal surrenders and clearly establishing a sorely needed standardisation of software. Still though, there was the work computer, and the home computer, and anyone expected to work out of the office on a computing device expected to have that device supplied to them. Emailing work home was, once email was domestically established in the mid 1990s, still the stuff of the senior executive set. For most of us, the home computer was for gaming, further education assignments and the domicile budget.

Of course the internet changed computer usage in the same way the Sex Pistols changed music and fashion: irrevocably and for the better. Accesses to information was now communised; and demand for computing devices which sanctioned access increased extraordinarily. Modems became an integral internal component of computers, and elevated computing power in the home became omnipresent.

Sex Pistols "God save the Queen' t shirt
Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen’ t shirt, 1977

With fixed, or desk top computers now bridged by the internet and compatibility, the computer was a part of the fabric of life. But when we were away from our workstations or the home computer, something was bereft; or so many of us felt. Mobile computing was certainly nothing new by the turn of the twenty-first century. Computing device manufacturers had been wrestling with the poser of computer power and portability since the 1970s, and had designed many decent products. The Osborne I, the Panasonic Exec-Partner FT-70 F1, the TRS-80 model 100, the Compaq Portable III computer and the Australian Dulmont Magnum laptop are just a small example of this facilitation of the desire to take computing with us wherever we may roam. The biggest issue though was price. This technology crammed into the smallest possible plastic case didn’t come cheap. Certainly a university student lugging one of these devices would have been atypical; let alone a high school student. The longing for affordable, powerful, portable computers was growing though, and the industry did respond.

Photograph of Dulmont Magnum laptop computer
Australian designed and made Dulmont Magnum laptop computer, 1985

Folk on the hop now had mobile computers, mobile telephones and, quite suddenly, MP3 players. Of course, the combination of these was logical. The iPhone, developed by Apple’s confidential ‘Purple Project’ in response to the mobile telephone and Blackberry success, and the smart phone, which were both small computer devices with powerful operating systems, were marketed in the same way that mobile telephones had been – punters could contract to pay off the device and the access to wireless networks. This communised the technology.

The way we now used mobile computer devices resurrected an excellent, but hitherto commercially unsuccessful technology: the tablet computer. The first device to have any success on the market at all was the Apple Newton or Message Pad. It was manufactured and marketed from 1993 to 1998. It featured handwriting recognition and other software including word processing and spreadsheet programs. The Palm Corporation, initially a division of US Robotics, began producing Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) in 1996. These were more victorious in the market place, but were quite limited in their computing power. Preceding both of these devises was the little known NCR System 3125 computer tablet from 1991. This device is quite analogous to today’s tablets, and was actually a powerful and versatile computer, utilising the operating systems and software available at the time. The tablet concept just did not catch on. As with the iPhone, Apple, zealous to launch new products into a hungry market, vaunted a technology which the mass public were ready for. And in the case of the tablet, much like the iPod, the concept was already in place. The smart phone had softened the masses to the usage of a tablet device.

We now have a technological phenomenon where devices which were once the tenure of the elite – think of the iconic image of the 1980s yuppie avariciously barking into a block of a mobile telephone – have now become so trite that a public commuter without a mobile device is the anomaly. Mobile computing devices are not just the spoils of the West either: developing nations, particularly South East Asian, have embraced the technology with unbridled zest. Although it’s highly doubtful that the confluence of technologies and mass marketing which has resulted in the levelling of class distinction in access to information and communication was to liberate the masses, the success of these companies is due not to a high-end niche clientele, but the proletariat.

Written by Damien McDonald, assistant curator, science & industry

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