With all the talk – and people, that’s all it is right now – of an Apple tablet computer it’s timely that we have just passed the anniversary of Apple’s very first portable computer, the apparently aptly named Macintosh Portable.

Of course, one could say that the Apple II was portable, although not with its bulky display. How about the original Macintosh, Mac Plus, Mac SE or SE/30? Each of these Mac oldies featured a handle and screen – although you’d have to stick the keyboard under your arm and shove the blocky mouse in your pocket.

The Mac Portable, on the other hand, had a screen, keyboard and handle all in one package, so it gets the accolade of being the first, er, Mac portable. It also had a battery in it so you didn’t need to be a metre away from a wall socket.

I say “on the other hand” advisedly, as Mac Portable owners really did require another hand to pick this laptop up. It weighed in at a hefty 7.2kg. That’s over five times the weight of Apple’s MacBook Air. The Mac Portable was the MacBook Dumbbell.

It was also the size of a briefcase, measuring 10.3cm high, 39cm wide and 38cm deep. Unlike the MacBook Air it wouldn’t slip into an internal envelope. It wouldn’t even fit inside the world’s largest Jiffy Bag. You could pile five Airs on top of each other and still have room to plonk the internal envelope on top before scaling the height of the Portable.

The MacBook Air doesn’t get any bigger than 1.9cm high, 32.5cm wide and 22.7cm deep. While the Air is a bit pricey, starting at £1,149 ($1,499) the Mac Portable’s price tag was as hefty as the box it was attached to. It cost $6,500 (equivalent to over $11,000 in today’s terms).

For that money you got a 16MHz Motorola processor, 1MB of RAM (maximum 8MB) and a 640 x 400 black-and-white screen. The Air’s 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip is a hundred times more powerful in terms of raw numbers.

Now consider an Apple computer that’s truly portable, has its own keyboard and runs a processor 40 times as fast as the Mac Portable. You can fit it in your pocket and it measures just 11.5cm high, 6.2cm wide and 1.2cm deep. The iPhone 3GS will likely be Apple’s smallest ever computer, unless you’re going to try to convince me that the iPod shuffle is a PC, too. Or Apple releases an iPhone nano. Or the rumoured Mac Tablet is more a Mac Matchbox.

The Mac Portable was “portable” in the same way your desk or washing machine is portable if you put your back behind it. Or the way that a box full of books initially appears portable until the day you actually move house. The battery alone weighed 1.2kg – the same as ten and a half iPhones.

Not just fat and funny
It’s easy to mock the Mac Portable. Indeed it may be impossible not to. But it was quite impressive in its own way. Instead of a mouse it had a built-in trackball that could be removed and located on either side of the keyboard. Trying doing that to a MacBook Air.

It also offered the first optional internal modem in a Macintosh and an ‘instant on’ low-power sleep mode. It was the first to ship with Mac OS pre-installed on its hard drive. It was the only 68K Mac to boast stereo audio output. Its modular ‘snap together’ design made it a snip to upgrade and customise. Memory, modem and special-purpose circuit boards could be inserted in seconds without special tools, simply by opening the large panel that covered the back of the computer. Again, try doing that to a MacBook Air.

It was the first Mac whose display settings could be completely controlled by software, and the first with a self-contained display to include a built-in monitor output – a feature lacking even in the first generation of PowerBooks.

Amazingly the Mac Portable struggled on for over two years, discontinued only moments before the world’s last chiropractor retired a multi-millionaire.

Apple replaced it with something much closer to what we accept as a laptop today. The PowerBook 100 was designed and manufactured by Sony in collaboration with Apple’s internal design team. Unlike the Mac Portable it was a phenomenal success, generating over $1 billion for Apple in its first year. Apple’s head of industrial design at the time Robert Brunner said he designed the PowerBook “so it would be as easy to use and carry as a regular book”. The Mac Portable was more a regular bookcase.

The TV ad for the PowerBook 100 featured 7’2” Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sitting uncomfortably in a small airline seat yet typing away on his little PowerBook. The ad caption read: “At least his hands are comfortable.”

There was little that was comfortable about the Mac Portable, and the name change to PowerBook assigned it to the dark tower of Apple’s product archive.

In the technology world 20 years is a very long time. Comparing the Mac Portable to the MacBook Air and iPhone it seems like another era altogether. Like the Lisa and the first Macintosh before it, this funny fat thing is set apart from Apple’s slicker laptops like some demented cousin in the asylum – remembered only with a cold shudder of shame.

The designers of Apple’s Mac Tablet – if and when it arrives – would do well to remember that first is not always best.